By Susannah Bryan, Sun Sentinel
Six small puppies cluster together, whimpering on the side of a dirt road east of the Everglades.
They have no food. No shelter from the mid-day sun. And no mother.
Locals say they found her shot dead in a nearby field the night before.
A van pulls up.
Out steps Amy Roman, founder of 100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades Florida, and core team member Carol Daniello, rushing to the puppies with food and water.
Their mission: to rescue as many dogs as they can.
"We're taking home a litter of puppies today," says Roman, a former manicurist from Wilton Manors who has made rescue work a full-time job. She whisks the puppies to the back of the van, where a baby blanket and cool air-conditioning await. The pups will be put up for adoption after a vet gives them the all-clear.
Roman's nonprofit group has rescued more than 700 dogs and 40 cats since it was founded in September 2011, she estimates. But there are hundreds more in need.
"There's thousands to save," Roman says. "We rescue the ones we can. Once we capture them, they are putty in my hand. They are tired, they are hungry."
In Florida, abandoning a pet is a first-degree misdemeanor that can land you in jail up to one year and bring a fine up to $5,000.
Such crimes are rarely prosecuted because it's tough to track down the owners and not always a top priority for police, says Stephanie Scott, spokeswoman for SPCA International.
SPCA International officials became aware of Roman's work a year ago and have since awarded her $1,500 in grants.
"We have been really impressed with her work," Scott says. "It's a difficult job. It's dangerous and it takes a lot of effort."
Roman and her determined band of volunteers are tackling the problem, one dog at a time.
Every month, Roman's group treks south on Krome Avenue to the Redland area in southern Miami-Dade County in search of abandoned canines near fields and nurseries.
Roman is making her next rescue trip on Sunday with 168 volunteers.
"There's tons and tons of dogs on these nurseries," says Roman, whose three dogs include two from one of her rescues. "The mothers are found covered in snake bites. Puppies are orphaned. We may be driving around and then hit the mother lode where all the dogs are."
Some of the dogs run to greet them. Others run away, terrified. Some are injured, pregnant or orphaned. Most all are starving.
Roman's life as a rescuer began on Sept. 21, 2011, when a friend asked her to drive to the edge of the Everglades to help feed some hungry dogs that had been dumped by their owners.
"I found an emaciated pit bull with a rope around her neck," Roman says. "People saw her being thrown out of a car. We estimated there were 100 dogs. It's insane that this is in our own backyard."
On typical rescue trips, Roman and her caravan of volunteers return with as many as 40 dogs. The dogs are taken to animal hospitals in Broward and Palm Beach counties, where they get medical attention, food and TLC.
Until they can be fostered or adopted, the dogs stay in kennels at the three vet hospitals — CVA Imperial Point Animal Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Imperial Point Animal Hospital in Delray Beach and Summit Boulevard Animal Hospital in West Palm Beach.
Camp Canine, with locations in Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, also has taken in seven dogs and is providing free room and board until the dogs are adopted.
"That's the hard part — finding them homes," Roman says. Sometimes, it takes as long as a year.
"We find homes for every single one of them," Roman says.
On their most recent trip, Roman and Daniello rescue the six orphaned puppies, plus three black Lab pups and one Jack Russell mix they find standing alone in the middle of a busy road.
To lure the dog, Daniello uses treats until he finally lets her pick him up.
"I wasn't going to leave without you," she tells him.
After making the hourlong drive to Fort Lauderdale, they take the dogs into the animal hospital, where staff members quickly go to work.
Each dog is microchipped, bathed, fed and checked for fleas and worms. One of the Lab puppies is so dehydrated she needs IV fluids.
Next, Roman and her helpers come up with names for each dog, then post photos and videos of the puppies on the rescue group's Facebook page and website.
It doesn't take long for the calls to come in.
Louie Rivera, a detective with the Broward Sheriff's Office, adopts one of the pups after seeing videos of the rescue posted online.
"I just kept thinking about the poor mother getting shot," says Rivera, who already owns two dogs. "It broke my heart. I just want to adopt one and give it a good home."
Most of Roman's rescue dogs have no problems that would keep them from being adopted right away, says Dr. Summer Heyerly, who checked over each of the dogs rescued Wednesday.
"These dogs were born out in the wild, but they are still domesticated dogs," Heyerly says. "Those with issues will be sent to a behavioralist to do the work we can't."
Many of the dogs have found homes in South Florida. But some have been adopted by animal lovers from Chicago, Las Vegas and Arizona.
"My phone rings from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. with people asking me to take in a dog they find," Roman says.
Roman showed up just in time for the six puppies.
"They may not have made it," Heyerly says, rubbing the bony back of one puppy. "But they're here and in they're in good hands now."
Two days later, Roman gets a call about more dogs in need near the Everglades.
"Twelve puppies and two mommies," she says. "It never ends."