By Kristina Webb
Acreage resident Gail Bass never expected what she saw from her window about five months ago.
The creature perched on her bird feeder looked like a squirrel, but it was covered in tumors.
“It was strange because I noticed the one and it kept getting worse,” Bass said.
The tumors covering the squirrel varied in size, and the number of tumors increased over the next three months. Then, Bass said, the cold snap came and she hasn’t seen the squirrels since.
The Acreage, a pastoral community in western Palm Beach County, is the focus of a state investigation into whether or not a pediatric cancer cluster exists in the area.
Bass wonders if there is something making animals in The Acreage sick.
Dr. Vanessa Rolfe, a veterinarian with the Bird and Exotic Hospital in Greenacres, said the tumors on the squirrel were most likely caused by myxomatosis — a disease usually seen in rabbits and very rare in the United States — or one of several bacterial or fungal infections.
“Chances are not great that is a non-infectious neoplastic condition, but certainly possible,” Rolfe said.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), neoplasia is “the uncontrolled, abnormal growth of cells or tissues in the body,” and the resulting growths may be either benign or malignant.
Bass’ two Chesapeake Bay Retrievers both had cancer by the time they were 2 years old, and both died after suffering from autoimmune disorders for several years — one from thyroid problems, the other from Cushing’s disease.
“They were always in the pond [on my property] swimming and drinking,” Bass said, adding that the dogs did not come from the same litter.
The AVMA reports cancer is the cause of death in nearly 50 percent of pets over 10 years old, with cats having fewer cancers than dogs.
Susan Coffman saw the signs of a potential cancer cluster years ago.
Coffman, vice president of Doberman Rescue Concern (DRC) in West Palm Beach, lives near the intersection of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road and Okeechobee Boulevard in The Acreage.
In her home, Coffman keeps urns of all the dogs who have passed away under her care.
“This is Eli,” she said. “Eli had head cancer.”
Coffman noticed a large number of dogs with cancer coming out of The Acreage when she began working with DRC in 1985. She said “warning sirens” began to go off in her head when she attempted to adopt several dogs from Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control (ACC).
“They were euthanizing any dog that came from The Acreage and had a tumor,” Coffman said.
Coffman said she does understand the need for such action.
“They did not want to house and spend money on animals that are not adoptable,” Coffman said.
ACC officials could not be reached for comment on their euthanization policy.
Before long, Coffman began to notice other signs of a problem in The Acreage.
According to the Doberman Pinscher Club of America, cardiomyopathy — weakened heart muscle — is the number one killer of Dobermans nationwide.
However, Coffman has kept records for almost 15 years that show cancer as the number one cause of death among Dobermans in The Acreage.
“Cancer has always been a problem out here,” Coffman said.
Several of her dogs have passed away, and one is currently undergoing treatment to remove a malignant tumor.
Coffman said she has also noticed an increase in autoimmune problems in Acreage dogs.
“I have tried to tell people about this for so long, but they seemed resistant,” Coffman said. “You can look at it as dead Dobermans, or you can look at it as a warning.”
According to state investigators, there are many potential causes for the cancer cluster, including pesticide run-off from farms and orange groves.
The area is also surrounded by several industrial sites, including Pratt and Whitney to the north and the Palm Beach Aggregates to the west.
A lawsuit filed and then dismissed in federal court last month accused government contractor Pratt and Whitney of causing the cancer cluster in The Acreage.
According to a Palm Beach Post article from 1999, the Pratt site on the Beeline Highway just north of J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area has been the focus of federal environmental clean-up efforts since the 1980s.
Corbett and the Pratt property are directly north of the affected area in The Acreage.
Lake Worth resident Brandon Zapf goes hunting and fishing at Corbett a few times a month.
According to Zapf, he was hunting at Corbett about a year ago when he encountered a “strange” deer.
“I shot the deer, and between the skin and the meat there was green slime,” Zapf said. “I started to dress the deer, and ended up just leaving it there.”
Zapf said he has also run across deer with growths.
A spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission could not comment on sightings of abnormal animals at Corbett because, she said, none has been reported to her.