TAMPA — Animal rights groups are using the death of a cat named Bella to showcase policies they claim are causing needless feline deaths at the Hillsborough County animal shelter.
Bella was euthanized July 26, 43 hours after she was surrendered to the animal shelter by her owner's daughter, according to animal rescue groups. The owner showed up to claim her pet three hours after Bella was killed.
“A woman contacted me on Facebook who was present in the building,” said animal rights activist Bill Posey. “The woman was very distraught. They said it was very bad.”
Bella's death has been memorialized on Facebook and more than 5,000 people from around the country have signed a petition demanding changes in Hillsborough County Animal Services policies. Foremost among the demands: institute a five-day hold before cats surrendered by their owners can be killed, the same hold period as for stray animals.
“I have seen owner-surrendered cats killed there in less than 24 hours, and these are not bad cats,” said Trisha Kirby, who visits the shelter frequently to take photos and write short biographies of cats to help get them rescued.
The Bella case points up the thousands of cats euthanized by Animal Services every year. It also is the latest headache for Animal Services director Ian Hallett, who was hired from Austin, Texas, to drive down euthanasia rates at the shelter.
During the past two months, Hallett has been under scrutiny for a parvovirus outbreak at the shelter and defections by members of the shelter's veterinary staff. The county commission responded to the spike in parvo cases by appropriating $250,000 for emergency hires at the shelter.
Most recently, a consultant hired by County Administrator Mike Merrill released a report criticizing the leadership at Animal Services for failing to communicate with employees and for a general sense of disorganization throughout the agency.
Hallett defended his policies Thursday, saying he had reduced the cat euthanasia rate this year to 68 percent from 80 percent last year. The shelter takes in about 10,000 cats a year and, Hallett said, the numbers on any given day must be kept down to prevent disease.
As for the five-day hold period on stray animals, Hallett said it is required by state law.
“But if the owner brings it to us there is not a legal requirement to hold the animals,” Hallett said. “At that time, the shelter makes the best possible decision given the available resources.”
That answer doesn't sit well with rescue group members who say they are frantically trying to save cats, which are not as adoptable as dogs. The shelter is on track to kill nearly 7,000 cats this year, and rescue groups can't keep up.
“Most of us who work behind the scenes have had 12 nervous breakdowns over the past five months,” said Cassandra Frey, an animal rescuer. “There seems to be no end in sight.”
The high kill rate could be reduced if it weren't for “obstructionist policies” at the shelter, the animal activists say. For instance, Hallett ended a practice of allowing rescue groups to put after-hours holds on individual animals scheduled to be killed the next day. Bella could have been saved by an email or phone message the night before she was euthanized because animal rescue groups were aware she was there.
In fact, members of two rescue groups were looking for Bella late on the afternoon the day before she was put down, but shelter employees said they couldn't find her in the cages. Time ran out and there was no after-hours option.
“The rescuers couldn't find her; she was gone,” Kirby said. “My opinion was she had already been moved to killing room.”
Hallett said he initiated the overnight holds on a pilot basis but it didn't work out.
“In one week, 80 cats were placed on hold without any subsequent plans to get them out of the shelter,” Hallett said. “That caused a bout of illness in the shelter.”
Other changes advocated by the groups include ending the two-cat limit on adoptions and never euthanizing an animal when there are empty cages.
Hallett said the two-cat limit is to prevent rescue groups from taking more animals than they can care for. Empty cages are recommended by veterinarians to maintain hygiene and prevent disease.
“A healthy shelter should always have empty cages because you need to have room to place new arrivals,” Hallett said, “and you need to maintain a population at a level that is consistent with the resources you have to care for those animals.”