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Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014
Steve Otto

Otto: Something is wrong at the animal shelter

Published:

Something is wrong at Hillsborough County Animal Services.

Unfortunately, that is hardly news, but after the county went to the trouble of issuing a series of denials this past week, you have to figure the problems may be more serious than we think.

Some of it sounds like politics and a question of control at a huge facility that deals with not just serious but highly sensitive issues.

The most obvious is sick and dying animals and a system that is just not working. I'll tell you up front, I don't know all the problems, only that this has been festering for too long and it is time for an independent investigation team to step in.

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On Wednesday, County Administrator Mike Merrill even held a news conference to deny rumors that the deadly parvo virus was running rampant inside the shelter. He claimed that not only was that false, but that the number of parvo cases were actually down.

But he then added that he was bringing in Code Enforcement Director Dexter Barge to oversee animal control officers and give Animal Services Director Ian Hallett more time to concentrate on "improving conditions."'' He's also bringing in a University of South Florida communications professor to "communicate'' with workers. And finally, he has two veterinarians from the University of Florida on their way in a few weeks to give their input.

None of that passes the smell test, and it makes it sound as if everything isn't quite as smooth as they would like you to think.

What really ought to set off a few alarms is that veterinarians close to the situation and animal activists are demanding that changes be made.

Among those I spoke with was Dr. Cristy Layton, a Brandon veterinarian who is president of the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society and chairwoman of the Animal Welfare Committee for the Florida Veterinary Medical Association.

"Overall," she said, "my feeling is that they try to put numbers ahead of the welfare of animals.

"The idea that the shelter adopted more than a year ago was as close to a no-kill policy as possible. It's a noble goal and one I think all of us would like to achieve.

"Unfortunately, in too many situations it has become no better than warehousing and an increase in the number of sick and dying animals. They operate on a shoestring budget and I'm afraid one major outbreak could put them under."

Dr. Michael Haworth has been on the Hillsborough County Animal Advisory Committee for years and serves as its chairman. "I believe there has been an elite group of individuals who for whatever reasons have been making poor decisions," he says. "If we are going to have a plan, we are going to need to bring in all elements of the community, from animal rescue groups to county commissioners to private citizens. I think an independent auditor brought in from somewhere would be a good idea."

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See what I mean? We are dealing with the lives ... and deaths ... of tens of thousands of animals in Hillsborough County. The issues surrounding the shelter have been festering for years, and those who operate it and even those who allegedly oversee its operation have treated the whole business like some kind of star chamber where only a few seem to know what's going on. That needs to change.

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