LARGO — For decades, SPCA Tampa Bay has nurtured its image as a sanctuary for sick, homeless and unwanted animals.
Fueled with more than $3 million in annual contributions, the nonprofit shelter says it takes all castoffs, whether cats or cockatiels, and does its best to find them new homes. Owners are assured: "Every effort will be made to place your animal into a new home."
In July, at least a dozen people wrote that the reason they brought their pets to the facility in Largo was because it was a "no-kill" shelter.
The brutal reality is otherwise. Animals taken in by SPCA Tampa Bay stand about a 50-50 chance of leaving alive.
Healthy puppies, especially if pure-bred, stand the best chance of adoption. But it's a quick trip to the euthanization room, then the crematory out back, for:
• Hundreds of kittens under 2 months old.
• Any cat that doesn't use a litter box or dogs that aren't house-trained.
• Dogs that jump fences or have mange.
Beth Lockwood, who, after nearly three decades as executive director, is SPCA Tampa Bay to many donors, said she has never claimed her shelter is "no-kill." The popular term is a broadly interpreted concept that accepts euthanization of only the most aggressive or sickest animals.
"We've never denied we euthanize animals," Lockwood said. "We're honest with people when they come in with admissions."
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When Dave Bauza's sister moved north this summer and left him with her two 11-year-old cats, he searched weeks for a shelter. Some were full, and he rejected the county animal services option, for fear it would mean certain death.
Late last month, he drove Phantom and Lula, siblings his sister had owned since they were kittens, from his apartment in Tampa over to the Largo shelter. (The Largo shelter is not affiliated with SPCA Suncoast in New Port Richey.)
Bauza was confident that the cats, who seemed healthy and had never caused problems in his apartment, would find a good home or at least live out their years in the shelter's farm-like surroundings. He requested that, if possible, the pair be placed together with the same family.
Within days, both were euthanized, Phantom for unspecified medical issues, Lula for failing to use her litter box.
Bauza feels misled. "I went there because the SPCA Tampa Bay is 'no-kill,' " he said. "The people there didn't tell me any different. If they're euthanizing animals, they should inform people . . . Then I could have made a more educated choice."
Lockwood said every person surrendering an animal signs a form that makes it clear the pet will be evaluated medically and behaviorally before being put up for adoption.
"We tell them we cannot guarantee placement of their pets," she said.
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Jodi Chemes, an accountant, is on the board of Florida Voices for Animals, a group that's trying to compile statistics from all area shelters.
On June 30, she e-mailed the SPCA's annual giving officer, Donna Stiteler, and asked: Can you tell me how many animals are taken in by the SPCA vs. how many are adopted and how many are put to sleep?
"As for SPCA Tampa Bay, we don't track these numbers," Stiteler wrote back, adding that the shelter treats "all kinds of medical conditions and only euthanizes an animal if it has an untreatable medical condition or if the animals is dangerous to adopt (aggressive and bites)."
In a later e-mail, Stiteler said the numbers were available in the shelter's annual report. Chemes pointed out that intake and adoption figures are prominently displayed in the report, but euthanasia statistics are not. Her query was passed along to Connie Brooks, the SPCA's longtime director of operations.
Brooks assured Chemes that the facility did keep animal intake and euthanasia statistics according to a widely accepted reporting standard known as the Asilomar Accords. "It's in our annual report," Brooks wrote on July 8. "What exactly are you looking for?"
Six weeks and a total of 17 e-mails later, Chemes still doesn't have an answer. "It's not an issue that if you euthanize this many animals you're evil,'' she said. "But you need to be honest so donors and the general public can help you improve if that's what they deem is necessary."
When a reporter asked for the numbers, Brooks pulled together a report using Asilomar standards. Of 11,381 dogs and cats admitted to the Largo shelter for the year ending June 30, Brooks said there were 5,304 adoptions and just a single euthanasia, of a "treatable'' animal. She did not include some 4,500 animals deemed "unhealthy and untreatable'' that were euthanized.
The conclusion? SPCA Tampa Bay had an "annual live release rate" of 99.98 percent.
"I couldn't believe it myself, but that's what it said," Brooks said.
Five days later, Brooks and Lockwood backpedaled. They said they had not accurately completed the Asilomar form; now they estimate the annual live release rate was closer to 50 percent.
Jeff Fox, the president of the SPCA's 16-member board of directors, said the board gets tallies of all adoptions and euthanasias at the monthly meeting. But he was unable to estimate the shelter's euthanasia rate and expressed surprise when told that underage kittens are regularly euthanized. In July, 44 percent of the 269 kittens put to sleep were euthanized for age.
"We are presented with the numbers, but Beth doesn't get into the specifics of euthanasias unless we ask for it," said Fox, who has been on the board for about 10 years.
Lockwood said she relies on the board primarily to raise money. "The monthly report is e-mailed to board members before the meeting. I can't help if they don't read it."
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Paula Hays retired after 17 years as executive director of the Boley Center for Behavioral Health in Pinellas County; the agency's administration building, dedicated in 2001, is named after her.
She began volunteering at the SPCA. Every Friday, Hays, 73, would take photos of adoptable cats for the shelter's Web site, and spend the weekend adding sparkle to the eyes, highlights to the fur, trying to make them look good.
Early this year, she and other volunteers noticed a shortage of adoptable animals. "There were only about 12 cats up for adoption in 70 cages," Hays said. "And I later found out that over in the dog area, there were as few as four dogs up for adoption at one time."
She started keeping closer track of the cats she photographed whose photos never made it to the Web site or to the adopted list. In one three-week period, she took photos of 18 cats; 11 were unaccounted for. When Hays pressed for answers, she was directed to sign a confidentiality agreement.
"I was told it meant I couldn't talk to anybody, including other volunteers, about what happens to any of the cats," said Hays, who didn't know of any other volunteers asked to sign such a form. "I thought it was ridiculous, so I tore it up and walked away."
Hays, who has taught a course at Eckerd College for several years on the role of nonprofit boards, said she's angered by the SPCA board's lack of oversight. She knows the problem from the inside: For six months she was both a volunteer and board member.
"I left the board when SPCA staff told me I wasn't to share information about day-to-day activities at the shelter with them," she said. "The board has the responsibility to oversee the operations as well as the money. And they have not been fulfilling their responsibility."
Fox, who has heard this complaint from other former board members, defended their role. "We're not there on a management level, but we are involved," he said, adding that the board intends to open a confidential hotline for volunteers and employees and reconfirm the shelter's euthanasia policy.
This week, Lockwood tracked down the fate of Hays' missing cats. She said six were adopted, two euthanized and three were unaccounted for. Missing animals are not unheard of; a total of 370 were "administratively missing'' in December and January, a problem Lockwood blamed on paperwork errors by a former employee.
Hays had bequeathed $10,000 to the SPCA Tampa Bay, but she says she plans to take the agency out of her will. She volunteers now for Save Our Strays.
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Maddie's Fund, a charitable organization in Alameda, Calif., is using peer pressure and cash to encourage shelters nationwide to put their adoption and euthanasia rates online in standardized formats. Rich Avanzino, Maddie's Fund president, said about 15 percent of the nation's shelters have agreed to publish their figures, which will be posted by year's end.
"There's been a lot of fear that if the public understands what the performance is at their local facilities, they'll be angry, critical or donations will drop off," said Avanzino, who ran San Francisco's SPCA for 23 years, bringing its euthanasia rates down to the lowest of any city in the nation.
Rather than focus on euthanasia rates at individual shelters, Maddie's Fund tries to get all groups in a community to work together, so the challenge of unwanted animals is shared.
Among recipients of its grants is Hillsborough County, which expects to receive $25,000.
In 2003, Hillsborough Animal Services had the highest euthanization numbers in the state, about 33,000. By working with the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and promoting adoptions, the community's euthanasia numbers have dropped by about 12,000.
Lockwood said she's willing to put the SPCA's statistics on its Web site as soon as they are calculated. But with her eye on retirement in five years, her priority is raising $5 million to build new kennels on the property. That makes her wary of bad publicity, especially about a sensitive issue like euthanasia.
Her supporters applaud her dedication and ability to process more than 15,000 animals a year, including gerbils, goats and iguanas.
"I've volunteered in shelters in Virginia and elsewhere in Pinellas, and the SPCA is by far the best run and most humane I've ever seen," said Karen Rizzo. "I've been amazed how much time and effort they put into rehabbing dogs."
Karla Karcher has volunteered in the SPCA's cat adoption area for about 18 months. "I can't tell you how impressed I am," Karcher said. "It runs based on donations and it's probably the cleanest place I've seen. The people seem to be so very caring."
Lockwood dismisses complaints about the high euthanization rate as chatter from "toxic" individuals. "We've had people threaten our lives," she said of the strong emotions stirred by the euthanization debate. "But I've never had a problem being direct."
Avanzino of Maddie's Fund says transparency is the only option.
"How can the public help if they don't understand you have a need?" he said. "And not only won't they help, but due to the secret nature of your operations, they'll assume the worst. That's counterproductive. The real suffering happens to our family members with four legs."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)892-2996.