Animal welfare groups are feuding over recent changes in the leadership and philosophy at Hillsborough County's Animal Services Department.
The row has split county animal activists into two groups: veterinarians and small animal rescue groups on one side and the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and other anti-euthanasia groups on the other.
The vets and rescue groups say county officials conspired secretly with the Humane Society to overturn the leadership at Animal Services without telling other members of the animal welfare community. The goal of the conspiracy was to turn the county animal shelter into a "no-kill" facility, they said.
"It sounds like the plan was laid out before anybody was told anything about it — Animal Services, the community or the taxpayers," said Amy Howland, director of Dogma Pet Rescue.
Those allegations seemed to gain credence Friday when the county announced that Ian Hallett will be the new director of animal services. Hallett, a Riverview native and graduate of Hillsborough High School, is now the deputy chief of animal services in Austin, Texas. Austin became a "no kill" shelter in 2010 and now boasts a 90 percent save rate, meaning only 10 percent of the animals impounded are killed.
"While that may seem like an unattainable goal, I have firsthand knowledge of the process and bring the valuable knowledge to Hillsborough County including many lessons learned," Hallett wrote in a letter to Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill.
Officials with the county and the Humane Society agree that they aim to dramatically reduce euthanasia at the animal shelter, but they deny they conspired to replace the department's leadership with Humane Society members.
However, an April 19 email from Human Society executive director Sherry Silk shows the group was aware of the coming changes at Animal Services, including the retirement of Dennis McCullough, the popular operations manager. McCullough opposed county officials' plans to involve the Humane Society in the animal shelter's day-to-day operations, a first step toward making the shelter "no kill."
"Dennis has now resigned and it is time for (the Humane Society) to step up and make significant changes to the operations of Hillsborough County Animal Shelter so that less animals will be euthanized," Silk said in the email to her board members.
Silk said the county asked the Humane Society in 2011 to help increase dog and cat adoptions at the animal shelter. She insists she had been good friends with McCullough and Bill Armstrong, the former director of animal services.
"They were not excited about the county asking us to help in the future with adoptions," Silk said. "When that happened I think there was a change in the relationship. I feel badly about that."
McCullough and Armstrong could not be reached for comment.
Days before McCullough retired, the buzz among animal activists was that he was on his way out. The rumors were confirmed after McCullough got a visit from Merrill and Deputy County Administrator Sharon Subadan.
At about the same time, a YouTube video began circulating of a speech county commission Chairman Ken Hagan had made less than a week earlier to Save90, a no-kill animal group. Hagan told the audience that leadership changes were coming at Animal Services, changes that Save90 members would like.
The confluence of Hagan's speech and McCullough's retirement fueled the conspiracy theories and ignited a firestorm among rescue groups and veterinarians. Although Merrill said McCullough's retirement was voluntary, his supporters said he was forced out.
"Anybody knows Dennis was so excited about everything that was going on," said Kelly Wilson, director of Lost Angels Animal Rescue. "He was not ready (to retire) at that time. He was ready to implement the changes that were coming up."
In a Tribune editorial board meeting Friday, Merrill said he started talking to the Humane Society about partnering on improvements last year at the suggestion of Armstrong. Merrill said he told commissioners and Animal Services employees about his plans.
Merrill said he continues to have faith in the Humane Society to help with policy changes at the animal shelter. However, he said he wants Hallett to investigate complaints that the group cherry-picks the best animals from Animal Services to put up for adoption at the Humane Society shelter.
"In a partnership, one party doesn't get the cream of the crop and the other gets everything else," Merrill said. "That accusation has been levied frequently."
Silk said the Humane Society does take some older dogs and dogs infected with heartworms from Animal Services. She conceded that she doesn't want too many of those dogs in her shelter because it reduces the number of adoptions.
One of the main issues of contention between the two groups is the practice of trapping feral cats, spaying or neutering them, and then releasing them back into the neighborhoods. The Humane Society and Save90 both advocate the practice as a way to lower the population of feral cats, which some estimate at 200,000 in Hillsborough County.
Veterinarians oppose the practice, saying cats that are released will never be vaccinated again and will spread diseases. Some rescue group operators also oppose it, saying it subjects cats to suffering from untreated diseases, lack of food and violence from bigger animals. They are better off being euthanized.
"The feral cat situation is not good for the cat, it's not good for the community and it simply appeases people who abhor euthanasia," said Anne Castens, administrator of the nonprofit Animal Protection League. "Euthanasia, done humanely, is not the worst thing in the world."
Merrill said before Animal Services adopts a trap, neuter and release policy, both sides may have to sit down together at a table with a trained mediation facilitator to hash out their differences on the issue.