TAMPA - Hillsborough County officials sought to calm fears Wednesday that the deadly parvovirus is running rampant in the county animal shelter by asserting the opposite: the number of parvo cases is actually down.
County Administrator Mike Merrill confirmed in an afternoon press conference that 18 dogs at the shelter contracted parvo in July, but that's less than the 26 cases in July 2012. Merrill and Animal Services Director Ian Hallett said more animals contract parvo in July than any month.
The number of parvo cases at the shelter is also down during the past 12 months compared to the same period a year earlier.
Merrill said he called the press conference to counter media reports that suggested parvo was out of control at the shelter and that infected animals were being adopted out.
"It's important to assure the public that it's OK to adopt a dog or cat from the animal shelter," Merrill said. "I need your help in getting this message out because it's critical to reducing euthanasia and increasing the number of healthy animals that can be adopted by our shelter."
Merrill reaffirmed his support for Hallett but announced some changes at the shelter. He temporarily assigned Code Enforcement Director Dexter Barge to oversee Animal Services animal control officers, who investigate animal cruelty and pick up dangerous animals. The shift will allow Hallett to concentrate on improving shelter conditions and continuing to promote adoptions.
The county administrator also is bringing in a communications professor from the University of South Florida to talk to employees one-on-one to hear any concerns. And two more veterinarians from the University of Florida will come down later this month to audit conditions at the shelter.
Merrill said the shelter houses an average of 500 animals on any given day and such conditions are conducive to disease. He said it isn't practical to test every animal for parvo because testing isn't reliable until animals display symptoms, usually bloody diarrhea and vomiting.
At least two dogs recently tested positive for parvo after being adopted out from the shelter. Merrill apologized to the owners.
"Let me assure you we are taking every measure to ensure you that our shelter population is safe, in good health, and adoptable," Merrill said.
Two weeks ago, the county commission appropriated $250,000 to hire extra workers after veterinarians and some animal rescue groups complained about crowding and unsanitary conditions at the shelter on Falkenburg Road. Critics said the problems were an outgrowth of Hallett's efforts to reduce euthanasia, thus filling the shelter with more animals than it can house safely.
Now, with the reports of multiple parvo cases, distrust has grown among the county's animal rescue community. Amy Howland, director of the Dogma Pet Rescue in Brandon, said she and members of other rescue organizations, are wary of taking dogs out of the shelter.
Howland said Hallet and other Animal Services officials have not communicated enough with staff or the community and haven't followed protocol that could have stopped the spread of parvo once shelter staff knew some animals were infected.
Howland said two key employees, including the new volunteer coordinator, just found out Tuesday that animals were coming down with parvo.
As for protocols, Howland cited the recent death of a husky named Venus who was kept in the shelter overnight after testing positive for parvo. The dog was dead in the morning. Hallett said the dog exhibited symptoms of parvo while waiting for an potential adoption and then tested positive. The test results came back at 7 p.m., past the time when controlled substances used to euthanize animals must be locked per federal law. Hallett said Venus was wagging her tail and all indications were the dog would live until it could be euthanized in the morning.
Howland said Venus should have been shipped to an emergency veterinary hospital or veterinarian that could have safely euthanized her so the dog wouldn't have suffered.
The dissension over the parvo outbreak is the latest in a series of controversies revolving around Animal Services. Merrill forced out the previous director who was popular with many department employees and volunteers.
Merrill confirmed that an unknown employee or volunteer at the shelter switched tagging bands on cats, a move that County Commissioner Kevin Beckner labeled "sabotage." Merrill said he has had video cameras installed in the shelter to stop any other disruptions.
Earlier this year, Hallett proposed a controversial plan for increasing adoptions and reducing euthanasia called "Be the Way Home. One of the strategies to reduce the number of cats killed at the shelter was to allow citizens to trap stray cats, bring them in to be neutered and then to release them back into their former neighborhoods.
Though the program was opposed by many veterinarians, county commissioners approved it.
In early June, a veterinarian from the University of Florida spent a couple of weeks studying conditions at the animal shelter and reported inadequate veterinary services there, causing a logjam of animals who had not been spayed or neutered and couldn't be adopted.