The Hillsborough County agency that shelters unwanted animals and investigates animal cruelty cases was rocked this week by rumors of a wholesale leadership changes and the departure of a popular manager.
Dennis McCullough, operations director at county Animal Services, retired Thursday afternoon after a meeting with County Administrator Mike Merrill and Deputy Administrator Sharon Subadan. Merrill said the retirement was voluntary but McCullough's friends and supporters were not so sure.
McCullough's supporters say he helped the department weather dramatic budget cuts and staff reductions during the past four years while maintaining a high level of service delivery.
A former New York City police officer, Marine veteran of the Vietnam war and U.S. Secret Service counter-sniper, McCullough was known for his Big Apple accent and good-hearted wise-cracking.
"The guy has got integrity, professionalism and loyalty to the mission beyond any human I ever met," said Bill Armstrong, a former Animal Services director who retired last year. "If there was somebody on the planet you wanted to trust your family with in a dire situation, Dennis McCullough is the guy."
McCullough, who had been with the county for more than a dozen years, could not be reached for comment.
His fate was even more unsettling to his friends and supporters because of a suspicion that county commission Chairman Ken Hagan engineered the firing to further the goals of "no kill," anti-euthanasia proponents.
Though Animal Services has reduced euthanasia numbers at the county animal shelter from 30,000 annually in the mid-2000s to less than 14,000, no-kill advocates think the numbers should be much lower.
On Saturday, Hagan addressed the group Save90, a name meaning the members believe a no-kill rate of 90 percent is possible at animal shelters. Hagan told the group he agrees with that philosophy and will ask fellow commission members to adopt a no kill policy at the county animal shelter.
Hagan went on to tell the group that the county was in the process of hiring a new director of Animal Services, a process that will take about two months. However, Hagan told the audience they wouldn't have to wait that long for changes at the agency because they were occurring "immediately."
"In the interim, staff has created a transition plan that involves some additional changes in leadership at Animal Services and in operations," Hagan told the crowd to applause. "I am confident you will be pleased with these changes."
In an interview Thursday, Hagan denied he was talking about McCullough or anybody else specifically when he announced the upcoming housecleaning at Animal Services. He said the changes were Merrill and Subadan's idea.
"It's preposterous to say I have anything to do with any administrative changes," Hagan said. "I'm in my 10th year on the board and I have never been involved or asked for anyone to be removed from any department."
But McCullough supporters say Hagan's speech, which was posted on YouTube, showed he not only was aware of the imminent leadership changes at the agency but wholeheartedly supported them.
"I was not aware (Hagan) could hire and fire people, but that seems to be what he was talking about Saturday," said Mike Haworth, a veterinarian and member of the county's Animal Advisory Committee.
Others question what Merrill was trying to accomplish if he did force McCullough out. Animal advocates have generally praised the agency for cutting euthanasia rates and aggressively investigating dog fighting, puppy mills and other cases of cruelty, abuse and neglect. In recent years, the agency vigorously promoted animal adoptions and spay and neutering programs.
"The people running Animal Services are doing a very good job," said Arthur Simon, a local veterinarian. "And they have not been included in this transition and the hiring of a new director."
Merrill said a four-person transition group will run the agency until a new director is hired. Team members will be Jack Carlisle, director of the county government services administration; Dexter Barge, director of Code Enforcement; and two unpaid members of the Humane Society.
Merrill said he will meet with all Animal Services employees today and the Animal Advisory Committee next week to explain his plans for the transition.