Tag Archives: miami

Miami officers fired for ‘jokes’ about target practice in primarily black neighborhoods

Three police officers were fired for making comments on a group chat about using Miami’s primarily black neighborhoods for target practice.

Officers Kevin Bergnes, Miguel Valdes and Bruce Alcin were fired on Dec. 23, after an internal affairs investigation concluded that they violated department policies, said the Miami Herald, citing documents it obtained.

The remarks angered local civil rights activists keeping tabs on a department that is currently scrutinized by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of excessive force.

“It’s indicative of the casual conversations and comments that young and even more seasoned police officers are used to making without a lot of repercussions,” said Julia Dawson, an activist who has been part of law enforcement oversight panels in Miami.

The Miami police department confirmed that officers Bergnes, Valdes and Alcin were fired, but did not explain the reasons behind the dismissals.

In a statement, Chief Rodolfo Llanes said an internal affairs investigation found the officers’ actions “inconsistent with the mission and values of our department.”

Attorney Stephan Lopez, who represents the three officers, told The Associated Press that his clients were joking and that the comments were taken out of context. He said Alcin is African-American and Valdes has a black grandfather.

“They wanted to make an example out of this. But they made an example of the wrong people,” Lopez said. “These guys didn’t shoot anybody. They were clearly joking around. They are kids. You don’t terminate them the day before Christmas Eve.”

The incident happened June 30, when the three officers responded to other rookie colleagues’ questions about shooting ranges in a WhatsApp chat they often used to communicate, the paper said. According to documents obtained by the Herald, the officers-in-training shared department information on that thread.

It said the documents show Bergnes sarcastically suggested the friend looking for a shooting range try a Bank of America, adding “they’ll even give you some cash.” He then suggested Model City — the police district that includes Liberty City and handles the bulk of the city’s shootings — as another location.

Valdes suggested a particular intersection in the Overtown community, according to the paper. It added that Alcin followed up, saying Valdes “wouldn’t understand” until he’s worked there.

The next day, an officer warned them that their words were offensive even though she didn’t think they were racist. “Your words can come back to bite you,” she allegedly wrote.

A sergeant learned of the conversation and ordered one officer to apologize. He also wrote a memo to a lieutenant about the matter, according to the Herald. Internal affairs began an investigation and concluded on Dec. 19 that they broke social media, courtesy and responsibility rules, the paper said.

Lopez, the attorney, said it’s too early to say whether he will file a lawsuit for wrongful termination or negotiate to get their jobs back. The officers were still on probation after being sworn in earlier this year.

Javier Ortiz, president of the police union, said he didn’t agree with the “joking texts” but that it wasn’t enough for dismissal. He said the city manager would “rather focus on text messages than the senseless killings and violent crime.”

The incident came months after the city of Miami agreed to go under supervision of the U.S. Justice Department to reform its policing after a series of police shootings from 2008 to 2011. The agreement followed a report that questioned 33 police shootings, including seven black men and teenagers who were killed in a short time.

 

Zika found in South Beach, where spraying is not possible

South Beach has been identified as a second site of Zika transmission by mosquitoes on the U.S. mainland.

Containing it there will be difficult, because high-rise buildings and strong winds make it impractical to spray the neighborhood from the air, officials said.

Five cases of Zika have been connected to mosquitoes in Miami Beach, bringing the state’s caseload to 36 infections not related to travel outside the U.S., Florida’s governor and health department announced Friday.

The discovery prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to announce that it was expanding its travel warning for pregnant women to include an area in Miami Beach known for nightclubs, pedestrian thoroughfares and beaches.

Zika infection can cause severe brain-related birth defects, including a dangerously small head, if women are infected during pregnancy.

The virus’s apparent spread from a Miami neighborhood popular for day trips to the South Beach streets where many tourists sleep has rattled the tourism industry, even in the slower summer season.

Gov. Rick Scott has directed Florida’s health department to offer mosquito spraying and related services at no cost to Miami-Dade County’s hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions. More than 15.5 million people made overnight visits to Miami and nearby beaches in 2015, with an impact of $24.4 billion, according to figures from the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The CDC previously warned pregnant women to avoid the Wynwood arts district in Miami. In an Aug. 19 statement, the agency said pregnant women may also want to consider postponing nonessential travel throughout Miami-Dade County if they’re concerned about potential exposure to the mosquito-borne virus.

“We’re in the midst of mosquito season and expect more Zika infections in the days and months to come,” said CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden. “It is difficult to predict how long active transmission will continue.”

Aerial spraying and door-to-door operations on the ground have cut mosquito populations in Wynwood by up to 90 percent, but Zika may be continuing as mosquitoes breed, Frieden told reporters Friday.

“The mosquitoes are persistent and we won’t know for a couple of weeks whether these aggressive measures have worked,” Frieden said.

Aerial spraying isn’t practical over South Beach because of the height of its buildings and strong winds over the narrow island city, Frieden said. Officials will be limited to spraying for mosquitoes at ground level in the highly populated area.

“Miami Beach does have a series of characteristics that make it particularly challenging,” Frieden said.

Two of the people infected in Miami Beach are Miami-Dade County residents, and three are tourists, including one man and two women, Scott said. The tourists are residents of New York, Texas and Taiwan.

The new area of infection in South Beach is roughly 1.5 square miles between 8th and 28th streets, according to Florida’s Department of Health.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine said during a news conference Friday afternoon that the Zika reports certainly aren’t ideal for tourism, but he expects the long-term impact to be relatively minor. He said city workers are trying to get rid of standing water and foliage that might attract the virus-spreading insects, while the county begins a fumigation program to kill the bugs.

“Between our efforts and the county’s spraying efforts, the last thing I’d ever want to be on Miami Beach is a mosquito,” Levine said.

Three vacuum trucks purchased to help Miami Beach fight rising sea levels have been used since the beginning of the year to drain water in low-lying areas where mosquitoes could breed, said Roy Coley, the city’s infrastructure director.

The city also has been sending workers to fill potholes collecting water in alleys and fix leaky beach showers, in addition to applying pesticides to the area’s many construction sites and flood-prone residential streets, Coley said.

“Our call volume has increased significantly,” Coley said.

Officials at Art Basel Miami Beach and other upcoming events cautiously expressed confidence in the region’s mosquito control efforts. Organizers of the Americas Food and Beverage Show will add mosquito repellent to goody bags at the late September event at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

“We’re taking extra precautions,” said Yendi Alvarez, the show’s media coordinator. “This wasn’t even a thought last year. We put this in place once the news started getting crazy.”

Possible infections outside Wynwood and Miami Beach also are being investigated. The virus only causes mild, flu-like symptoms in most people, making it difficult to confirm local transmissions, the CDC said.

“For this reason, it is possible that other neighborhoods in Miami-Dade County have active Zika transmission that is not yet apparent,” the CDC’s statement said.

The U.S. Senate’s top Democrat issued a call for Congress to return from its weekslong summer break to deal with the virus, an unlikely scenario in light of the dysfunction that prevented lawmakers from agreeing on money to fight the mosquito-borne disease. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said that the American people cannot afford to wait any longer for action.

President Barack Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funds in February to develop a vaccine and control the mosquitoes that carry the virus. But lawmakers left Washington in mid-July for a seven-week recess without approving any of the money. Abortion politics played a central role in the impasse.

Republicans angered Democrats by adding a provision to a $1.1 billion take-it-or-leave-it measure that would have blocked Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving money.

Associated Press writers Tamara Lush in Tampa, Florida, and Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed to this report.

 

Fighting HIV, one dirty needle at a time

The doctor on a mission met the homeless heroin addict who lived under a tree last year at Jackson Health System’s special immunology clinic when both men were struggling to overcome the odds. Jose De Lemos, infected with HIV and hepatitis C from a shared needle, had gone without treatment for almost a year.

He’d dropped 80 pounds, suffered from night sweats and a rash on his leg and chest. Even walking hurt.

He was in no mood for conversation with a well-meaning doc.

But Hansel Tookes, a University of Miami doctor with a degree in public health and a calling to public service, isn’t the kind of doctor who is easily put off. He talked to De Lemos anyway. Sent him to dermatology, started him on meds for HIV and hepatitis C, worked to find him a bed in rehab, and talked — about his own uphill battle to create a syringe exchange program in South Florida, the kind of program that might have prevented De Lemos’ infection.

A public health advocate in Miami, where new HIV infection rates consistently top the state and national charts, Tookes had been struggling for years to get a bill passed in the Florida Legislature to create a program in Miami-Dade County to help end that terrible distinction.

In that time, he had gone from medical student to doctor. Testified before legislative committees over and over. And learned just how hard he would have to fight to get what he considered a very modest proposal to save lives and improve public health through a conservative, Republican-dominated Legislature.

For De Lemos, his doctor’s commitment to the cause — an unpopular one, at that — was a revelation: “I’m hard-headed. And he’s persistent. He’s like, ‘If you get clean, you can talk about this. You’ll be great . You can help me.’ I admire him because he went through a lot but he kept going.”

Tookes recalled a different moment with his patient: “He started crying because he said he didn’t know people cared.”

For the next eight months, as De Lemos kicked heroin, endured a skin condition that caused blisters across his entire torso and finally saw his sky-high viral count drop, Tookes started seeing hope, too. His proposal, which had been stalled for years, started gaining traction. The nationwide heroin epidemic had changed the dialogue about blood-borne diseases. De Lemos’ appointments with Tookes now usually included an update on the needle exchange bill in Tallahassee. Sometimes, when there was a big vote, Tookes played video recordings of the committee meetings on his phone for De Lemos to see.

“The reception in the ER isn’t great. I had to prop the door open,” Tookes said, with a laugh. “But we watched.”

In March, a full five years after Tookes published a study in a medical journal when he was still a student that documented the harsh reality of illicit needle use in Miami, Gov. Rick Scott signed the Miami-Dade Infectious Disease Elimination Act, making Miami-Dade’s program the first legal needle exchange in the American South.

The victory didn’t mean his fight was over. Legislators weren’t unanimous when they approved the bill, and the IDEA act reflects that: It creates a five-year test program, only in Miami-Dade and without any public financing. Tookes and UM, which will run the program, must raise all the money for the program privately, through grants and donations. Tookes — doctor, public health advocate and needle exchange crusader — must now also become a fundraiser.

He’s undaunted. His determination has carried him this far, and he is already envisioning the rest.

“When I flew back to Miami after the bill had passed, I looked at the city as we were landing at MIA and I thought, what we just did is going to change the health of tens of thousands of people,” Tookes said. “And that was an amazing feeling. And that’s an amazing truth. And that’s where we are.”

 

Advanced HIV cases

Tookes, a 35-year-old internist, took on the against-the-odds fight for a needle exchange because he felt he had to. Too many people were coming through the doors of Miami-Dade’s public health system like De Lemos, with advanced cases of HIV in an era when the virus that causes AIDS is generally treated as a disease you live with, not one that kills you. Injection drug overdoses were rising, too.

The doctor knew getting people into treatment earlier could make a huge difference in their lives and reduce infections of others. (“I’m trained to look for public health solutions,” he said.) A needle exchange was a step toward that goal. Florida had never allowed a needle exchange program before. But why couldn’t that change?

His grandmother, Gracie Wyche, had set the bar high in his family. She was a pioneering black nurse in Miami who started out in the then-segregated wards of Jackson Memorial and eventually became a head nurse, concentrating on a mysterious illness in the 1980s that later became known as AIDS. Tookes became even more interested in public service during his undergraduate work at Yale University and a stint as an investigator for Project Aware, an HIV testing/counseling clinical trial at UM. He got a public health degree at UM, and then his medical degree.

Now a third-year resident who does his research through UM’s division of infectious diseases at the Miller School of Medicine, Tookes said his grandmother’s work set him on this path. “She inspired me,” he said. “There’s just a long history of service on both sides of the family.”

The HIV numbers drove him, too. In 2014, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale region ranked No. 1 in the nation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the rate of new HIV infections in areas with more than 1 million people. That year, Miami-Dade County had 1,324 new HIV cases, the CDC said, while Broward had 836 cases. Statewide, in 2014, the Florida Department of Health said 110,000 people were diagnosed and living with HIV. People are still dying of the virus: In the United States, 6,955 people died from HIV and AIDS in 2013, according to the CDC.

Tookes saw the toll up close, in the examining room. A man in his 40s who had sex with men, no body fat and pneumocystis pneumonia, a disease often associated with AIDS _ who didn’t know he’d probably had HIV for years. An impoverished woman from Liberty City with a debilitating bacterial infection from a severely compromised immune system, who had never before been tested for HIV. Or a young man diagnosed with HIV a few months ago who revealed to Tookes during a clinic visit that he uses intravenous methamphetamine.

“Everything with this issue _ all of the advocacy that we did for this policy _ was to fix an issue that we were seeing in everyday clinical practice . I think as physicians, we had a duty to intervene,” Tookes said. “We knew there was something we could do for these people to help them from getting so sick, and so we decided to fight for it.”

He faced deep suspicion about the idea going back to the just-say-no 1980s. Although needle exchange programs have become increasingly common even in GOP-controlled states _ Indiana’s governor and now Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence changed his position last year after an outbreak of HIV and hepatitis C _ Florida remained a holdout. Some lawmakers continued to believe that giving addicts clean needles amounted to government-endorsed drug use.

Starting in 2012, Tookes — backed by a coalition including the Florida Medical Association, the Florida Hospital Association and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office — tried to make headway with lawmakers. When he hit the wall of opposition, he didn’t give up. He didn’t get disillusioned or cynical. He tried again. And again. In the legislative sessions of 2013, ‘14, ‘15.

Then 2016 came along. The heroin epidemic created a whole new conversation around the issue of injection-drug use.

State Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat, sponsored the syringe exchange bill — over and over — because of the high rates of HIV and hepatitis C in his district. He said he saw opposition flag after Florida shut down its “pill mills” starting in 2011, sending opioid users to the needle.

“The first thing people hear is that you’re trying to empower drug users to use drugs,” Braynon said. “But the narrative changed over time … What started to happen is that drug use picked up. First it was people in the ‘hood. But now it’s some of the wealthier people.”

And so the Legislature’s attitude changed. Injection drug use — and the blood-borne diseases that can go with it — were no longer just “a Miami problem,” Tookes said.

“In the context of a nationwide heroin epidemic and in the context of what I believe were many more constituents across the state going to see their senators and representatives and telling them that this was something that was ravaging their communities, we had a lot more of a sympathetic ear from the Legislature this year,” he said.

A needle exchange program won’t fix Miami-Dade’s problem with HIV and hepatitis C. But Tookes says it will help. And though a small percentage of HIV infections can be traced directly to needle use and the biggest risk factor is still sex, reducing the number of shared needles reduces the community’s risk overall. People who share needles don’t always tell their sexual partners that they are at risk.

A needle exchange also brings the hard-core, drug-injecting population into the public health system to be tested and treated. That reduces the risk to everyone else and cuts costs of treating their illnesses.

This is not just theory. In Washington, D.C., the number of new HIV infections dropped from an average of 19 a month to six a month after a needle exchange program was introduced in 2008, according to a study released last year by George Washington University’s public health school. The reduction in cases saved taxpayers an estimated $45.6 million, using CDC estimates that the average lifetime of care for AIDS patients costs about $380,000.

Miami-Dade stands to save money, too, if addicts stop reusing needles. A study co-authored last year by Tookes showed that the cost of treating patients who had bacterial infections as a result of dirty needles ran about $11.4 million a year at taxpayer-funded Jackson Memorial Hospital.

For Tookes, all of these public health arguments start with what he learned on the streets of Miami interviewing intravenous drug users when he was still a medical student at UM. The study he published in 2011 showed that drug users in Miami were 34 times more likely to dispose of their needles in public than drug users in San Francisco, which has had a needle exchange program since 1988.

Tookes still sees the bits and pieces of drug equipment in bushes and along streets, even in upscale places like Brickell Avenue, lined with highrise condos and financial companies from all over the world.

“I still have syringe radar,” he said. “I spot them everywhere.”

 

Street needles

A few miles away from the Jackson clinics where Tookes works, in the shadow of the Metrorail station in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, Carlos Franco is handing out his precious stash of clean needles to addicts once again.

Franco, 67, says he began his underground one-man operation more than two decades ago after he was horrified to see his girlfriend share needles with other drug users. He buys the sterile syringes, 100 to a box, at his own expense when he has the money, from the North American Syringe Exchange Network.

Franco is instantly recognizable to many in the neighborhood, where orange caps from syringes are sprinkled in vacant, overgrown lots and along sidewalks and under bushes.

“φOye!” yells one man, hailing Franco from a block away.

The operation is quick, Franco reaching into his backpack and handing over several packs of needles. The man, identified only as Flaco _ “Skinny,” in Spanish _ nods his thanks, looks both ways and disappears behind a metal gate next to a house across the street.

Around the corner, near the Interstate 95 overpass, Franco points out the improvised “cookers” that litter the shrubbery, bottoms of soda cans fashioned to heat up drugs. As he’s talking, a blond, thin guy in a T-shirt and jeans walks up poking a toe into the shrubbery.

Franco pulls the box from his backpack. “You need this?”

The man nods, his face now eager. Franco hands him a packet of syringes. Sean says he is 41, from New Jersey, a construction worker when he can find work. He is a heroin addict.

Sean has hepatitis C, something he shrugs off. “If you’re on the streets, it’s sort of required,” he says, with a short laugh that reveals a few missing teeth.

He walks away. A moment later, only half-hidden by a metal fence, he hunches over his arm.

“What really bothers me,” Franco says, “is when the numbers on the side of the syringe are worn off because it’s been used so much. That, and when they use a needle so dull it looks like a nail going into the skin _ it can’t get through.”

Franco knows his needle distribution is both illegal and dangerous, but he’s not sure if he’ll give it up when the official needle exchange program is running. He supports the idea of a legal program but worries about the people who might be too afraid to try it.

“I’ll wait and see,” he says. “A lot of people on the streets know me. I’m not sure if they will go to an official program. The cops might harass the program.”

‘People are still dying’

No one knows exactly why Miami-Dade’s HIV infection rate remains higher than other metropolitan areas, even as medicines are better than ever, statewide rates have declined and mother-to-child transmissions _ AIDS babies _ are rare.

Public health officials rattle off a variety of contributing factors: Thirty-five years into this epidemic, younger people think of HIV as a treatable, chronic disease. Drugs like Truvada, which can prevent HIV infection if taken as a precaution, have added to that perception. HIV is largely an urban disease. Immigration brings people to Florida from places without much access to healthcare or health education. Miami is an international party town, and the highest risk for HIV is unprotected sex, especially for men having sex with men. Testing and medication in South Florida can be difficult to find.

Also, HIV has fallen out of the headlines for the most part, added AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s advocacy and legislative affairs manager Jason King.

“People are still dying. But you don’t get the press coverage … So it’s not at the forefront of people’s minds.”

Stigma is part of the problem, too. If you can’t admit you have HIV, your sexual partners are probably at higher risk.

“It’s not a death sentence like before but the stigma still exists,” said King, who is HIV positive. “And then they have to be conscientious about disclosing it to their next partner and they fear rejection.”

That’s definitely true in Miami-Dade, said Dr. Cheryl Holder, a general internist who works at Jessie Trice Community Health Center and is an associate professor at Florida International University.

Holder says stigma, especially in the African-American community, is one of the toughest issues she combats when she sees patients with HIV.

“We’re seeing changes in communities, but it’s still labeled as wrong and there’s something wrong with you … I still have patients who hide their medicine.”

Walking out of the health center at the end of a day not long ago, she saw one of her patients, a young man in a hoodie, waiting for a ride from a family member. “If it weren’t for his diagnosis, I would have waited with him for his family. But as I walked by, he didn’t look at me and I didn’t look at him. And that’s when I know it’s stigma. He couldn’t just pull me over and say, this is my doctor. We need to normalize healthcare so I don’t have to walk past my patient and not meet his mom.”

 

Raising money

In some ways, Tookes’ work starts again now. Though Congress lifted a ban on federal funding for needle exchanges late last year, no federal money can be used on needles themselves. And Florida’s bill specifies that no public money can be used for the program.

That leaves Tookes, working with UM, raising it all — about $500,000 a year. And the pressure is on: Other counties in Florida are watching to see how well the program works.

“This pilot program is going to make a big dent in the infection rate in Miami. All eyes are on us. We have to make this a success.”

He has raised $100,000 from private donors locally — including Joy Fishman, the widow of the inventor of Narcan, the “save shot” for people who are overdosing — and another $100,000 from the MAC AIDS Fund.

Nancy Mahon, global executive director of the fund, said that syringe exchanges are key to fighting HIV/AIDS. “Needle exchange programs like this halt new infections, period. There is still work to do, but providing sterile syringes and supportive services to IV drug users is a solid step in order to begin saving lives.”

Miami-Dade’s health department is joining the effort.

“Definitely, we will be helping in any way we can,” administrator Lillian Rivera said. “We can’t buy the syringes, but we definitely will be providing wrap-around services. As the patients come in, we will be ensuring that they will be tested for HIV and hepatitis … All of the services that we have will be available to the patients that come through the door.”

The IDEA Exchange, which will be run through UM, comes too late to prevent De Lemos’ infections. But it’ll help others as the 35-year war on the epidemic continues _ as many as 2,000 in the first year, Tookes said. A project manager will start work in August, and other staff members are next. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is donating the HIV and hepatitis C test kits with the agreement that those identified with one of the diseases will be linked with medical care. Tookes is hoping that other groups will follow.

And De Lemos — at 53, homeless no longer — will do his part, inspired by the fight of his doctor to pass the law. His viral load is so low it’s considered undetectable, and he is looking at life with new eyes. Service is part of his personal plan now. “I really want to be a part of this needle exchange program. If he can do that, I can do anything.”

Tookes says he will measure success with each HIV test, each syringe handed out.

“This has been a long journey … It’s a very exciting time for Miami. We’re going to save a lot of lives. We’re going to save a lot of money. We’re going to give people a lot of clean needles. We’re going to provide HIV tests. We’re going to get people into treatment … We’re going to change the world.”

 

Published via the AP member exchange.

Decision looms over captive orca, fate of Lolita unclear

For years, animal activists have campaigned to free a killer whale that was captured from Puget Sound waters in 1970 and has been performing at Miami Seaquarium in Florida for over four decades.

They say the orca known as Lolita belongs to a small population of endangered killer whales and should receive the same federal protection as those wild animals.

A decision from the federal government is expected in early February. But far from ending debate, it’s likely to prompt a new round of battles over the fate of the whale, who was four or six years old when she was captured and later sent to the Miami facility.

Robert Rose, curator of the Miami Seaquarium, said he anticipates that the National Marine Fisheries Service will include Lolita in that endangered group.

“Regardless of what happens with the listing, she’s not going to be released,” Rose said in an interview in late January. “We’re not going to sell her. We’re not going to release her. Period. End of story.”

Lolita is a healthy, vibrant animal, has been well cared for by the Seaquarium for 45 years and would endure more harm if she’s released into the wild, Rose said. Thousands of visitors who would never see a killer whale in the wild are introduced to killer whales through Lolita, according to the Seaquarium.

Activists say, however, that she belongs in the wild, not a small pool, and should be returned to her home waters. She has become a rallying cry for these activists, who have led a decades-long campaign to get her freed.

The whale would have more freedom and the chance to bond with others in the tightly-knit pod of orcas that spend time in Washington state waters, activists said. Her probable mother is still alive, they say.

“She is suffering in that cramped confinement,” said Howard Garrett, director of the nonprofit Orca Network, based on Whidbey Island. “We would like to see her enjoy her life. We would like to see her be able to swim free in the waters where she grew up.”

The group wants Lolita released into a protected marine pen near the San Juan Islands north of Seattle, where she will be monitored and cared for until she can gradually reconnect with other wild orcas.

“That’s an experiment. That’s not a plan. They basically want to kill her,” the Seaquarium’s Rose said.

Rose pointed to the case of the killer whale Keiko, who starred in the 1993 film “Free Willy” and was later released into the wild.

“He didn’t have Hollywood movie ending,” Rose said. He died in Norway, presumably of pneumonia. 

Garrett said there’s minimal risk of harm to Lolita or other orcas if she’s returned to her home waters, he said.

When the Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, listed southern resident killer whales as endangered species in 2005, it excluded animals placed in captivity prior to the listing or their captive-born offspring.

In 2013, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation and others petitioned NOAA to extend federal protection to Lolita. NOAA last year proposed including Lolita in that endangered group.

An endangered designation will allow citizens to sue the Seaquarium for a violation of provisions of the Endangered Species Act against harming or harassing a protected animal, Garrett said.

But “what constitutes harm or harassment would really be the question,” said Dan Rohlf, a law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.

Jared Goodman, an attorney for PETA, said Lolita is kept under deplorable conditions — in a small tank that’s not shaded and without other whales for companions — that would violate provisions of the Endangered Species Act. He said NOAA also could rule that she should be retired or confiscated.

The Seaquarium points out that NOAA has said it believes releasing a captive animal into the wild has the potential to harm not only that captive animal and but others in the wild.  NOAA also said last year that it believed continued possession of captives and continued care of captive animals would not violate the federal law as long as the possession not likely to result in injury.

PETA’s Goodman countered: “She would have the opportunity to feel the ocean waves and currents and learn to forage again, instead of being fed dead fish in exchange for tricks.”

Tamiami Trail changed the course of Florida history

A century ago, Florida was a different place.

Mosquitoes and alligators ruled. Air conditioning was science fiction. Cars were scarce, and paved roads were the perks of city living.

One hundred years ago, a rivalry began that would shape the state, one that would drive tourism and traffic along the southwest coast of Florida where seaside towns like Naples and Venice grew and prospered, and away from the interior, where towns like Sparkman and Bermont withered and died.

The Tamiami Trail versus the Cross State Highway.

The battle is little-remembered but changed Florida forever.

“The ultimate selection of the Tamiami Trail route over the Cross State Highway would determine Southwest Florida’s economic, political and social landscape, not just its topography,” wrote Theresa Hamilton Proverbs, an architect and professor at the Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers in an academic paper titled “We Built That: The Lost Fight for Florida’s Cross State Highway.”

“To think of what would have been is speculation,” she said in an interview this week. “It would be great to try to create a future. I think it would have made a difference to the small towns (along the central spine of the state) that would have had access to a major highway. There would be more population and business and industry would be attracted there. There would have been an alternate ending had the Cross State Highway gone through.”

Hamilton Proverbs should know. She lives in LaBelle, in Hendry County, which would have been along the Cross State Highway had it materialized. LaBelle now has a population of about 4,500, but a number of towns at the time along the proposed Cross State Highway “no longer exist,” she said.

One hundred years ago, there wasn’t a single direct east-west paved road in the state, she said, only patchworks of dirt roads that connected the beaches along the Atlantic to main streets in interior towns to the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.

So in 1915, a group of Fort Myers area businessmen began working on a project to connect Tampa to Miami.

There were two possible routes; one from Tampa to Arcadia, which was a hub of the state at the time, then southeast directly to Miami. The other route meandered along the the scenic Gulf Coast to Naples, where it hooked to the east, cutting through the Everglades to the East Coast.

“The rivalry was where the highway was going to go,” Hamilton Proverbs said. “This was 1915. There were few paved roads anywhere.”

In many ways the direct route made more sense, cutting across the state through Arcadia, LaBelle and Immokalee, skirting the northern part of the Everglades, to Miami. But that route didn’t have the backing or the savvy of the moneyed businessmen around Fort Myers, eager to bring tourists and their money to the sparkling shores of Southwest Florida.

At that time, fewer than a million cars were toting people around the nation, but the driving future was clear and a lot hung in the balance.

“To all appearances, the long-forgotten competition between these two highways appears to have been a fight between local groups over a seemingly local issue,” Hamilton Proverbs wrote in her paper, published in the Journal of Planning History in October. “But this rivalry would have statewide implications.”

The battle between the backers of the two highways was fierce, she wrote. She quoted Lee County historian Karl Grismer: “The two groups fought openly and secretly, with every weapon at their command, waging no quarter warfare. The battling became venomous.”

Hamilton Proverbs details the political maneuverings of the time and the influx of private funding that eventually tipped the balance in favor of the current route.

Private investment was the key, she said, particularly the money and influence of one man: New York mogul Barron Collier, for whom Collier County is named.

“An understanding of the Tamiami Trail and its ultimate triumph over the rival Cross State Highway,” she wrote, “begins with the question of how a single individual, Barron Collier, was able to exert disproportionate influence over the selection of highway routes, county creation, and ultimately the future planning of the state.”

History records the Tamiami Trail as the accomplishment of dedicated pioneers and dedicated men, led by Collier, she said, but it was mostly the force of his will that pushed the project through. Collier, who made millions in advertising and real estate, lived in the Fort Myers area and contributed about $1 million to the project, a fortune at the time.

In exchange, he got the state Legislature to name the county after him. Collier County was incorporated while the trail was under construction.

“The residents of Southwest Florida needed state policy, powers and infrastructure for highways and subsequent economic growth, (and) the state of Florida was in need of private capital to pay for it,” Hamilton Proverbs wrote. “Barron Gift Collier’s influence over planning for The Trail and its victory over the Cross State Highway stands at the nexus of this issue.”

Importantly, Collier knew how to market the project.

“The Tamiami Trail became this romantic, idyllic highway for travelers to drive on, but it also represented conquering the Everglades and progress,” she wrote. “Development would concentrate on Florida’s coastal cities and tourism and real estate would direct the economy.”

Once the route was finalized, construction began. It helped when Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota and other coastal counties anted up to build the connecting roads. The largest hurdle was stretching a paved road through 90 miles of the formidable and wild Everglades.

“It was an extremely difficult feat of engineering to accomplish,” Hamilton Proverbs said. More than a few people died along the way.

In 1921, construction stalled and rumors flew that the lower section of the trail would never be finished, that the Everglades had, as many predicted, defeated progress.

A history of the Tamiami Trail posted on the National Park Service website tells the rest of story:

“By 1923, with vast sums expended, several workmen dead from drowning or dynamite explosions, and little progress made, south Florida residents seemed ready to give up,” the website said. “Then in the spring of 1923, a group of public-spirited citizens calling themselves ‘The Tamiami Trailblazers’ set out to rekindle the Tamiami fire.

“In a dramatic attempt to revive interest, a trail blazing expedition of ten cars filled with twenty-three white men and two Indian guides made a perilous three-week trip across the Everglades swampland. They proved that the route of the proposed Tamiami Trail was feasible, opened the way for land development, captured the imagination of the public with their exploit, and reaffirmed the need for ‘Florida’s Greatest Road Building Achievement.’ “

The following year the Florida State Road Department officially recognized the project, and the Legislature incorporated the Tamiami Trail as part of the state highway system and assumed responsibility for completing it.

Now the real work began. Surveyors and land clearers went to work, often in chest-deep water and muck, the National Park Service website said. Drillers and dynamite men dug and blasted their way through nearly 100 miles of hard rock under the muck.

“Ox carts were used to haul dynamite,” the website said. “When bogged down, men would shoulder the explosives and flounder through the water. Giant dredges followed, throwing up the loose rock to provide a base for the segment of road that took thirteen years and approximately $13 million to pave across ‘America’s Last Frontier.’ “

Besides the monumental task of building a road across a massive swamp, the builders did have to try to at least minimize the environmental impact of building a road that essentially created a dam on the River of Grass.

In “Everglades: The Ecosystem and Its Restoration” by Steve Davis and John C. Ogden, published in 1994, Ogden writes that the Tamiami Trail does not appear to have adversely affected the flow of water, though there is still debate over the issue.

“The presence of the road is clearly a departure from pre-existing conditions,” the book says. “On the other hand, designers realized that the flow could not be stopped, so numerous culverts and bridges were (and still are) installed.”

In 1928, the Tamiami Trail opened. To celebrate, backers led a motorcade from Tampa to Miami.

The trip took three days.

Eventually, the road would become U.S. 41, though street signs south of Sarasota still call the highway the Tamiami Trail. It’s now the second choice behind Interstate 75 and the high-speed Alligator Alley, which cuts through the Everglades parallel to the Tamiami Trail, a few miles to the north.

Still, for those interested in seeing a bit of the old Florida, Hamilton Proverbs, who has driven from city to city, recommends the Tamiami Trail.

“It is only a couple of hours from Miami and Naples, but in experience a world away,” she said. “It is a narrow dirt road, cut right through the Everglades, and if you allow yourself a little imagination you can picture conquistadors and Seminoles, pirates and pioneers and the crazy, determined people who built a highway through the muck and mosquitoes.”

Inaugural poet Richard Blanco returns to Miami in memoir

In Richard Blanco’s Miami, memories linger outside coffee windows and in Cuban grocery store aisles.

Barack Obama’s 2013 inaugural poet grew up here, gathering experiences and stories as the son of Cuban exiles that would lay the foundation for his written work and inspire his new memoir, “The Prince of Los Cocuyos.”

Since becoming both the first gay and Hispanic inaugural poet almost two years ago, Blanco has traveled the U.S., giving readings, writing poems and essays, and releasing two non-fiction books. He has become a literary spokesman of sorts, advocating for a more inclusive America and revealing his own struggles to come to terms with his identity as a gay man. He remains based in Maine, but like his parents before him who dreamed of Cuba, he dreams of another place.

He dreams of Miami.

“One of the things that fascinates me is how physical landscapes are intertwined with emotional landscapes,” he said. “Everything that happens in our lives happens in a place and Miami is certainly that place since I was 3 years old.”

“The Prince of Los Cocuyos” takes readers to Miami of the 1970s and `80s, where Blanco’s family was one of tens of thousands building new lives after fleeing Fidel Castro’s revolution. Loud and nostalgic, Blanco cringed at his parents’ salsa music and Thanksgiving carne puerco – roast pork. He wanted to be American – New Wave music, pumpkin pie, Thanksgiving turkey.

In a series of loosely intertwined stories, Blanco describes a childhood marked by loss, humor and hints of an exotic land called America. In “Losing the Farm,” he recounts his grandfather’s attempt to recreate the chicken coop he had in Cuba in the family’s suburban Westchester (or “Guescheste” as it is pronounced by many Cubans) backyard, much to the chagrin of Miami’s code enforcement police.

In “It Takes Un Pueblo,” he describes his weekends and summers working as a clerk in his great uncle’s small, family-run grocery store, El Cocuyito, or the little firefly. His sometimes abusive grandmother had insisted he take a job there, hoping working with Don Gustavo would “make him a man.”

In checkout counter conversations, the store’s patrons slowly reveal pieces of who they are to him: The daughter of a former general who once lived in Cuban mansions and now resides in a cramped apartment, where she makes dresses she’ll never be able to afford. The Havana street vendor who rebuilds the city he walked thousands of times with his wares in painted cardboard cuttings, the details of which he struggles to remember.

The book ends with Blanco at 17, a young man no longer ashamed of his family’s Thanksgiving roast pig.

“It’s a process of falling in love with your culture for the most part,” Blanco said.

Life has taken Blanco away from Miami in the years since. He went to Cuba with his mother, a visit that helped fill “a lot of the blanks” about his identity, but only the Cuban half, he said. He moved to Connecticut to teach creative writing, thinking, “Maybe I should try moving to America.” There, he thought he’d find the quintessential America that he’d grown up watching on TV. He didn’t.

He moved to Guatemala with his partner and then to Washington.

“All the while I missed Miami terribly, terribly, terribly,” he said.

When he returned, he found a changed Miami: David’s Cafe, a legendary Cuban restaurant off Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road, was renamed Abuela’s. Wolfie’s Jewish deli closed. El Cocuyito was sold. And those were just the cosmetic changes. His parents and grandparents’ generations were dying out. New waves of Cubans who grew up under the revolution were moving in. Venezuelans, Brazilians and other Latino immigrants were, too.

The Miami he describes in “The Prince of Los Cocuyos” is still there, but parts of it are gone.

“I realize now how my parents feel, my mother in particular, when she goes back to Cuba, this sense of ownership,” he said. “We all sort of are subject to change and we all lose things in our lives. We all have in some ways an immigrant exile experience.”

Miami-Dade judge rules against ban on gay marriage

A state trial court in Miami on July 25 struck down Florida’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples and ordered Miami-Dade County to allow same-sex couples to marry. However, the judge stayed the order pending appeal.

The case, one of several freedom to marry cases in Florida, was brought by the Equality Florida Institute and same-sex couples — Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello, Dr. Juan Carlos Rodriguez and David Price, Vanessa and Melanie Alenier, Todd and Jeff Delmay, Summer Greene and Pamela Faerber, and Don Price Johnston and Jorge Isaias Diaz.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys include the law firm Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, Elizabeth F. Schwartz, Mary B. Meeks, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Judge Sarah Zabel heard the oral argument in the case on July 1. The couples argued that Florida’s ban on marriage equality cannot stand in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June 2013 that the federal Defense of Marriage Act violates the federal constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process. Every court to consider the federal constitutional claims since last summer’s high court decision has ruled in favor of the freedom to marry, including courts in Utah, Ohio, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Zabel, in her decision on July 25, wrote, “Preventing couples from marrying solely on the basis of their sexual orientation serves no governmental interest. It serves only to hurt, to discriminate, to deprive same-sex couples and their families of equal dignity, to label and treat them as second-class citizens, and to deem them unworthy of participation in one of the fundamental institutions of our society.”

The decision from Miami-Dade comes two weeks after Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Luis Garcia issued a decision striking down Florida’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples and ordering Monroe County to allow same-sex couples to marry. That decision was appealed by Republican Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, which automatically stayed the decision.

Bondi has already indicated plans to appeal the Miami-Dade ruling.

NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter said after the ruling, “Today’s decision affirms the fundamental principles of equality and fairness and the common humanity of gay and lesbian people. As the court recognized, these families are part of Florida’s community, and equal protection requires that they be given the same legal protections and respect as other families in this state. The Court’s ruling is a victory not only for the courageous couples who brought this case, but for everyone who cares about freedom and fairness.”

Equality Florida Institute CEO Nadine Smith said, “Today’s ruling is a victory for thousands of couples who have been denied access to marriage. It is a victory for children who have longed for the day when their families would be respected equally under the law. And it is a victory for all Floridians who share the values of fairness and equality under the law. We applaud Judge Zabel for her decision. No matter the legal path ahead, we will continue to fight until the day we all have the right in Florida to marry the person we love.”

Marriage equality has become an issue in the race for governor in Florida.

Incumbent Republican Rick Scott says he supports the amendment, though he claims he opposes discrimination.

Charlie Crist, who is expected to be the Democratic nominee, opposes the amendment and wants to see it overturned. When he was governor, and a Republican, he supported the ban.

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Deal allows for Walmart, Chick-fil-A on rare forest land in Florida

Environmentalists are scratching their heads over a recent deal between the University of Miami and a Palm Beach County developer that will bring a Walmart store, restaurants and apartments to a section of rare forest.

The Miami Herald reports that last month the university sold some 88 acres of rockland, which is habitat to plants animals and insects found nowhere else. The developer agreed to set aside a 40-acre preserve.

The development includes a Walmart store, an LA Fitness Center, along with Chick-fil-A and Chili’s restaurants and 900 apartments.

In a statement, the university says it is committed to preserving the forests.

Federal officials told the Herald they’re closely watching the project, given the pending protection of the Bartram’s hairstreak butterfly, which need a host plant, the pineland cotton.

Bold push: Democrats in Florida call for shift in Cuba-US policy

When Charlie Crist went to Miami’s Little Havana recently, the Democratic candidate for governor stood before a crowd and said what few politicians have in decades of scrounging for votes in the Cuban-American neighborhood: End the trade embargo against Cuba.

“If you really care about people on the island, we need to get rid of the embargo and let freedom reign,” he said, shouting above a small band of protesters who responded with chants of “Shame on you!”

Crist’s supporters cheered louder.

It was a scene inconceivable just a few years ago, when politicians were careful about what they said on the issue, for fear of alienating Cuban-American voters, many of whom fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1960s.

But Democrats now sense an opening with newer Cuban arrivals and second-generation Cuban-Americans who favor resuming diplomatic relations with the communist island.

In a sign of just how much the climate has shifted, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, who backed trade limits when she ran for president in 2008, is now calling for the embargo to be lifted. She described it as “Castro’s best friend” and said it hampers “our broader agenda across Latin America.”

Her words mark the first time a leading presidential contender from either political party has suggested reversing the 52-year-old policy.

The efforts represent the largest challenge to Cuban-American orthodoxy in decades and could help reshape American foreign policy.

It also could alter the political landscape in the largest swing-voting state, where Republicans long have dominated the Cuban vote by taking a hard line on the embargo.

Crist’s campaign will be the first statewide test of whether the trade restrictions are still a live wire for politicians in Florida, home to 70 percent of the nation’s Cubans.

Crist is a former Republican governor who once said he would only visit Cuba “when it’s free.” Now that he’s a Democrat and trying to regain his old job, he has floated the idea of going to Havana “to learn from the people of Cuba and help find opportunities for Florida businesses.”

He argues that the embargo has failed because it has not toppled the Castro government but has hurt the Cuban people. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” he told reporters at the opening of a campaign office in Little Havana.

Florida Republicans are outraged, casting Crist’s position as a betrayal of the Cuban-American community.

“I’m going to stand with Cuban-Americans that believe in freedom, believe in democracy, believe in freedom of speech and oppose the oppression of Cuba,” said GOP Gov. Rick Scott. Crist, he added, will “be standing with Castro.”

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential GOP presidential candidate whose parents left Cuba in the 1950s, said the embargo is “the last tool we have remaining to ensure that democracy returns to Cuba one day.”

Lifting the embargo, he said, would “further entrench the regime in power by giving them more money to carry out their violent repression of people’s fundamental rights and dignity.”

Nationwide, the share of Cuban registered voters who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party has doubled in the past decade, from 22 percent to 44 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Less than half of Cuban voters now affiliate with the Republican Party, down from 64 percent over the same time period.

President Barack Obama won Florida twice, campaigning on easing travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans who want to visit their families on the island and allowing them to send more money to their relatives. In 2012, he captured nearly half the Cuban-American vote, a record for a Democrat.

The shift is driven in part by changing demographics.

Cuban-Americans, once the dominant bloc of Florida’s Hispanic vote, have seen their political clout diminished by a huge influx of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and people from Central and South America, who lean Democratic. In the 2012 election, 42 percent of Hispanic voters in the state were Cuban, an 11 percentage point drop from 2000, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

The exiles who arrived in the decade and a half following Cuba’s 1959 revolution have been dying off while their children and fresh waves of immigrants hold a different view of Cuba. More than one-third of the Cubans residing in Miami-Dade County arrived after 1995, with many supporting travel and trade policies that strengthen ties between the U.S. and Cuba, said Guillermo Grenier, a lead researcher for the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

Even some of South Florida’s most prominent Cuban-American business leaders, long among the most strident defenders of the embargo, are publicly talking about investing in Cuba.

“The politics are way behind public opinion on this one,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant and Crist adviser who managed Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008.

Overall, polls of the community have confirmed a tilt toward engagement, with the most recent survey by Florida International University finding Cuban-Americans in Miami split over the embargo, which was a near record, and 71 percent saying it had not worked either very well or at all.

“The embargo! It’s so screwed up!” said Caridad Novo, as she sipped espresso at a cafe in Doral, a Miami suburb.

The 52-year-old Cuban, who came to Florida during the 1980 Mariel boat crisis, said U.S. trade restrictions drive up the cost of sending goods to her family in Cuba. Shipping a 4-pound can of milk to her 3-year-old grandson in Havana costs $55, she said.

But some scholars and political operatives say Crist risks energizing Republicans in the conservative exile community while attracting little support from younger Cuban-Americans and newer arrivals, who tend to be less politically active.

The recent Florida International University poll found that less than one-third of those who have arrived since 1995 are U.S. citizens. Voter registration rates among newer arrivals lag their older counterparts by double digits.

“What is changing is opinions” on the embargo, Grenier said. “But for the opinions to become relevant to policymakers, they have to translate into more than just opinions. They have to be votes.”

Judge to hear Florida marriage equality case July 2

A lawsuit seeking the freedom to marry in Florida will be heard on July 2 in Miami.

Judge Sarah Zabel in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court will hear the case involving Equality Florida Institute and six same-sex couples. The state bars same-sex couples from marrying and refuses to recognize gay marriages from other states.

More than 70 lawsuits are pending in state and federal courts in more than 30 states and U.S. territories. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning the ban on same-sex marriage for federal purposes, there have been 19 consecutive victories for marriage equality. The most recent wins were in Oregon and Pennsylvania just this week.

Equality Florida Institute CEO Nadine Smith said, “Throughout the nation, courts have ruled that these harmful laws are outdated and out of step, and we believe that equality and justice will prevail in Florida, as well.”

The couples involved in the lawsuit are Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello, Dr. Juan Carlos Rodriguez and David Price, Vanessa and Melanie Alenier, Todd and Jeff Delmay, Summer Greene and Pamela Faerber and Don Price Johnston and Jorge Isaias Diaz.

The lawsuit was brought by the law firm Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, Elizabeth F. Schwartz, Mary B. Meeks and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.