Residents in Palm Beach County, Fla. who abandoned their pets during the chaos of Hurricane Irma could be prosecuted, according to the county’s animal control officers.

In the days before the powerful hurricane swept through the region, dozens of dogs and cats were left alone when their owners evacuated to safety. Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control said they received numerous calls from neighbours of residents who fled their homes without their pets.

“There are dogs chained to trees, chained to parked cars, so this is just really devastating for us,” animal control director Dianne Sauve told local station WPTV on Friday.

Rescuers with the organization were able to save 49 dogs and two cats before the weather conditions became too hazardous on Saturday, Sauve said.

In Palm Beach County, it’s illegal under any circumstance to leave a dog chained up or tethered without anyone physically present with it, the animal control director said.

According to the county’s Code of Ordinances, it’s a felony offence to keep a dog outside during “periods of extreme weather,” including hurricanes, tropical storms and tornadoes.

“This is absolutely felony animal cruelty. It’s deliberate. It’s intentional and we will prosecute people for this,” Sauve said. “There is no excuse for this.”

Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control has teamed up with Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg to prosecute offenders. 

“We take animal cruelty very seriously here in PBC,” Aronberg tweeted on Sunday.

Sauve said officials plan to use “every paper trail imaginable” to track down lawbreakers.

On Friday alone, the Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control’s pet-friendly shelter had already accepted 42 surrendered dogs to add to the more than a hundred animals already housed in the facility, Sauve said.

For those evacuees who handed their pets over to shelter workers ahead of the storm, Sauve told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that that means they have forfeited ownership of the animal.

“We are pretty clear when you surrender your animal you give up your rights," Sauve said.

Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control were imploring pet owners to take their animals along with them when they evacuated ahead of the hurricane.

“I know that there are always extenuating circumstances, but to just say, ‘I’m leaving. I don’t want to take my pet with me,’ it’s just an excuse that we’re not going to be very tolerant of,” Sauve said.

The shelter hopes the public will help them by adopting pets in the wake of the storm. Sauve said they’re also asking rescue organizations and private shelters to take in some of the animals as well.

Palm Beach County wasn’t the only authority warning evacuees not to abandon their pets before Hurricane Irma struck. In a tweet sent out Sunday, the Florida Department of Health urged residents not to leave their dogs tied up or chained when they leave in a tweet sent out on Sunday.

“Floodwaters are dangerous for people & pets,” the tweet said.

With files from WPTV and The Associated Press