TAMPA — Animal welfare groups rejoiced six months ago when Hillsborough County commissioners approved a program to trap, neuter and release feral cats back into their neighborhoods.
The practice, commonly referred to as TNR among animal welfare groups, is widely used around the country to reduce euthanasia rates at animal shelters.
But since the commission's May 1 vote, nothing has been done to put the program into practice. Meantime, more than 600 cats and kittens are being killed each month at the county animal shelter.
“I'm not patient person,” said Sherry Silk, director of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. “Come on; it's been six months and we haven't saved a single cat.”
The seeming lack of urgency is frustrating to animal welfare groups, especially considering Animal Services director Ian Hallett made TNR a centerpiece of his larger plan for reforming the department.
The plan even has a name: “Be the Way Home.”
It also included a marketing and public awareness component meant to boost animal shelter adoptions as a path to reducing euthanasia. Critics say those ambitious marketing plans have also fizzled.
“Marketing is about stirring up excitement and sizzle,” said Frank Hamilton, president of the non-profit Animal Coalition of Tampa. “The government doesn't do that very well.”
Hallett acknowledges that the TNR program, which he calls Community Cats, has been sidelined by other priorities. Among these were technology improvements that made it easier for low-income residents to get vouchers for spaying and neutering their pets. Thanks to the improvements, the number of people who obtained voucher-financed sterilizations for dogs and cats increased from 5,000 a year before Hallett's hiring to 7,000 in the past 12 months.
“The community disagrees which initiatives should come first,” Hallett said, “but that disagreement shouldn't be confused with lack of progress on 'Be the Way Home.'”
As for marketing and communications, Hallett said progress is being made.
A county call center employee now answers calls for Animal Services on weekends and can provide basic information on how animals are adopted and when the shelter is open. Previously, the only weekend calls the department would answer dealt with dangerous dogs or other emergencies.
Hallett said Animal Services created a Facebook page on Labor Day and is advertising in community and homeowner association newsletters. Also, the department has translated all its information and brochures into Spanish.
“There are a lot of changes happening,” Hallett said.
Still, Silk and other animal advocates say the lethargic roll-out of the TNR program reflects a larger disarray and disfunction at Animal Services. In recent months, Animal Services has reeled from one setback to another: disease outbreaks, animals mistakenly euthanized, and scathing reports by outside observers.
Jeanine Cohen, president of the Cat Crusaders rescue group, cites several incidents this year she says indicate a level of incompetence she never witnessed in years of pulling cats out of the shelter for adoption and fostering.
Since the summer, Cohen said, three cats with microchips registered to Cat Crusaders were held at the county shelter for five to 14 days before the group was contacted by Animal Services. One of the cats got sick while in the shelter and later died despite $4,000 Cat Crusaders spent on veterinarian bills.
“You're supposed to read the animal's chip on intake,” Cohen said. “We don't leave cats sitting for days at Animal Services because of the illnesses.”
In another incident, Cohen said, she reserved Animal Services' mobile van for an adoption event she was holding in front of the PetSmart store in New Tampa.
When the van didn't show up at the appointed time, Cohen said she called a supervisor at the animal shelter. No one answered. She then called Silk and learned the van was being used for a free shots clinic being held with the Humane Society.
“I was standing there in the rain with 10 cats in carriers waiting for the mobile unit,” she said.
County Commissioner Ken Hagan, one of the first political supporters of the Community Cats program, said the animal advocates' concerns are valid.
“I agree 100 percent,” Hagan said. “The good news is the county administrator is personally committed to turning this thing around. He's already made some changes and I believe further changes are in order.”
County Administrator Mike Merrill, while continuing to defend Hallett, has hired former Temple Terrace City Manager Kim Leinbach to help straighten out problems in the department. One of Leinbach's assignments is improving communications with rescue groups.
The string of miscues has reflected poorly on Hallett's leadership and dampened the excitement animal advocates felt when he was hired from his former job as second in command at the Austin, Texas, shelter.
Austin is famous in animal welfare circles for operating one of the first successful “no kill” shelters, meaning 90 percent of the animals that enter come out alive.
“Austin was one of the premier success stories,” said Silk, who sat on the search committee when the county went looking for a new Animal Services director. Hallett “was a great No. 2 guy. I don't know what the problem is unless No. 2 guys don't make good No. 1 guys.”
The advocates say they don't blame Hallett entirely for the department's disfunction.
The county hired him after a popular operations manager at the shelter was pushed out and longtime Animal Services employees and volunteers at the shelter were outraged. It didn't help when they were told Hallett had been hired to “fix” problems in the department.
“Some people decided they didn't care what happened and they wanted to make sure Ian didn't succeed,” said Connie Johnson, who volunteered at the shelter for years.
Johnson said she finally left because of the “toxic” atmosphere there.
Cohen, president of Cat Crusaders, said Hallett entered a “perfect storm” of dissension when he took the head job at Animal Services. In addition to the staff's loyalty to the former manager, there were divisions in the department and in the animal welfare community about whether Hillsborough's shelter should go no kill.
Veterinarians and some rescue groups thought attempting such a feat would lead to overcrowding and disease at the shelter, subjecting the animals to more suffering.
“Volunteers were complaining about things; employees from the old management system were sore and bitter,” Cohen said. “They were sabotaging the new management even if they didn't know they were.”
The advocates give Hallett credit for significantly lowering the shelter's euthanasia rate.
In his first 12 months on the job, the number of animals leaving the shelter alive increased by 2,000. Before that, the average annual increase in “live outcomes” was 500, Hallett said.
“He has done quite a lot at Animal Services and people don't give him credit it for it,” said Hamilton, the president of the Animal Coalition of Tampa. Hamilton said he was told by a volunteer that the animal shelter is looking cleaner than it has in the past.
“But we still have this feral cat issue,” Hamilton said. “It's disappointed me a lot.”
County commissioners will discuss the TNR program at their Wednesday meeting and will vote on setting a Dec. 18 public hearing on amendments to the county's animal ordinance that will allow the program to go forward.