TAMPA - A new Hillsborough County policy of saving most stray pets rather than euthanizing them has so crowded the county's animal shelter that many dogs and cats are contracting diseases and dying.
So the county commission Wednesday agreed to spend $250,000 in emergency funds to help convert an operation designed for putting animals to death into one that will keep them healthy until they can be adopted out.
"If someone from Animal Services came to my home and inspected my home and my dogs lived in the conditions that exists in this county, they would confiscate every one of my dogs and shut down my rescue," Bill Gray, who runs a small rescue service for boxers and American bulldogs in the Plant City area, told commissioners.
Commissioners voted 6-0 to draw the extra money for Animals Services from the county's reserves to hire more staff for the shelter.
"We need to ensure that Animal Services has all the resources they need to improve conditions," said Commission Chairman Ken Hagan. "It is clear to me that insufficient resources are behind the problem."
Last year, commissioners opted to change the county's policy to reduce a euthanasia rate of 70 percent or more of the animals it takes in and adopt out as many as possible, instead. Commissioners hired Riverview native Ian Hallett - then working in Austin, Texas - to develop the policy and run the shelter.
Hallett's approach has split Animal Services' supporters into two camps. Both filled the audience Wednesday - the pro-Hallett group in bright green t-shirts reading "Be The Way Home," the name of the new no-kill policy. The anti-Hallett group, many of them animal shelter volunteers, wore red T-shirts.
They did most of the talking.
"Two years ago I would send clients to Animal Services without hesitation to adopt an animal," said Christy Layton, president of the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Association. "Over the last year, it's become increasingly difficult for me to feel ethically comfortable sending a client to animal services to adopt."
Critics say the shelter holds multiple dogs in each kennel, some of which lack access to the outdoors. Animals end up sitting in their own waste, they said. Volunteers told commissioners morale at the shelter has dropped since Hallett took over.
County Administrator Mike Merrill noted the 25-year-old shelter on Falkenburg Road was built with euthanasia in mind, not long-term care. He said county staff will look at how to change the shelter to accommodate the larger animal population it now holds.
"We've always had a very well respected Animal Services operation," Merrill said. "But we can't forget that was a very different model than this one."
Merrill said the county has replaced two veterinarians who resigned last month. This week, the shelter is also getting volunteer help from veterinary technicians from the Army Veterinary Corps at MacDill Air Force Base and from Hillsborough Community College.
Hallett told commissioners the county has hired laborers to clean cages more often than once-a-day.
The county also contracted with the Humane Society and Animal Coalition of Tampa to clear a backlog of 120 animals that needed spaying and neutering before they could be adopted, he said. The last of those surgeries were completed last week, he said.
Merrill and Hagan stood by Hallett.
The county, with the public's help, finished crafting its new animal control policy just two months ago, Hagan said.
"The bottom line is there must be time for our plan to be implemented," he said. "The plan does need time to work."
But commissioners made it clear Hallett's management style needs to change.
"I would ask that you spend time to try to heal the differences that seem to exist within this very emotional, committed, compassionate community," Commissioner Mark Sharpe told Hallett. "You, sir, as the leader, really need to find a way to spend time with our volunteers and make them feel that they're wanted."
Hallett's critics applauded.