BROOKSVILLE — As a reward for their 4:30 a.m. arrival Tuesday at Hernando County Animal Services, Ernie and Cindy Randall had the honor of being first in line for their choice of 21 abandoned Shih Tzus up for adoption.
"We just want a dog that will be a blessing to our home," Ernie Randall said.
A few minutes later, the Randalls found their new pet, a puffy-faced 15-pound black-and-white male that they named Lucky. The couple are not strangers to the breed. Their first Shih Tzu, Bosco, lived to be 16 years old.
"They are such wonderful dogs," Cindy Randall said. "It's very easy to fall in love with one."
The 21 dogs are all that are left from the 64 found abandoned two months ago near Hilton and Holden drives east of Brooksville. Most of the others fell victim to parvo virus while at Animal Services.
The Shih Tzus discovered Nov. 18 arrived at the shelter in a state of extreme neglect. Nearly all had matted fur, overgrown toenails and reeked of feces and urine. Many had skin lesions or other serious medical conditions that had gone unchecked by their owners.
In all, the agency received more than 260 adoption applications. But the outbreak of parvo virus last month killed 36 of the dogs before they could be vaccinated for the disease. The outbreak put adoption plans on hold while shelter workers waited for the virus threat to subside.
"We needed to be certain that everyone was healthy enough before we sent them home with someone," said Liana Teague, Animal Services director.
By 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, 19 applicants waited as Animal Services employees readied the shelter for what would likely be a daylong process. Five families were admitted into the facility at a time to visit with the dogs and make their selections.
By the end of the day, 14 dogs were adopted, according to a news release. The next group of approved applicants, who were contacted by telephone, can adopt a dog Thursday starting at 9:30 a.m.
"It's first come, first served, and we wanted to do it in a way that would have minimal stress on the dogs," Teague said. "But we're happy. At least these little guys are going to go to great homes."
News of the discovery brought an outpouring of sympathy from dog lovers, including Jackie and Fred Rothfelder, who arrived early Tuesday to choose a dog.
"They are all so precious," Jackie Rothfelder said as she held a black and white Shih Tzu she had named Snickers. "It feels good to be able to give him some comfort. We're going to make him happy."
There also are six remaining dogs — a mother dog and five puppies — but those dogs have already been spoken for, Teague said. Another dog remains under a veterinarian's care, and its adoption status is unclear.
"But we also want people to know that we have lots of other dogs waiting for a good home as well," Teague said.
Although the investigation into the dumping of the dogs continues, Hernando County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Sgt. Donna Black said that leads have slacked off in recent weeks.
"We're at a standstill," Black said. "We're still collecting information, but it's tapered off considerably since the beginning."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.