LARGO — It was standing-room only at SPCA Tampa Bay Monday night as the animal shelter's directors heard from a crowd of more than 150 people reacting to recent publicity concerning the facility's euthanasia rate.
A story in the St. Petersburg Times Friday showed that, according to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' data, about half of the more than 10,000 dogs and cats admitted to the shelter annually are euthanized. People surrendering pets or injured strays, meanwhile, frequently did so under the misconception that it was a "no kill" shelter, which euthanized only the sickest or most dangerous animals.
Acknowledging that the volunteer board had entrusted daily operations to the shelter's management, board president Jeff Fox said, "I'm here to take my hits. I've learned more in the last two weeks (since first being interviewed for the story) than in the last 16 years on the board. We've made some mistakes, and we want to solve them."
Among the key issues: a poorly understood and little publicized policy that euthanizes kittens under 2 months old, cats that don't use litter boxes and dogs that climb 6-foot fences.
"We're not here to assign blame," said Fox, who asked the shelter's top managers to refrain from attending the meeting. "We're here to set a positive direction for the future."
For about two hours, audience members offered advice, peppered with criticism of both the SPCA and the newspaper.
Volunteer Maggie Stambaugh suggested showing off adoptable dogs in a local park, where they could be shown on a leash, rather than in a cramped kennel. Also proposed: better publicity about the SPCA's pet behavior classes so owners learn how to deal with a troublesome pet rather than giving it up.
The SPCA needs more foster families willing to care for under-age kittens and injured animals, several said. Others stressed the importance of low-cost options for spaying and neutering pets. Another idea: an emergency fund to help people to pay for their animal's medical bills.
Judy Baum, a vet tech, said she recently evaluated the SPCA's medical department.
"I felt the euthanasia policy was too subjective," she said. "We want to make sure no one ever questions someone's decision, so two people have to sign off on every case, with one of those being management."
Dr. Jim Lutz, a longtime board member and former SPCA vet, said the Pekingese with eye problems that appeared in the Times story illustrated the difficult decisions faced by the staff. Though Beth Lockwood, SPCA's executive director, told a reporter and photographer the dog would likely be saved "because small dogs are very adoptable," the Pekingese was euthanized shortly after the photo was taken.
"This dog had serious problems," Lutz said of the dog, which was blind. "We've adopted out blind pets, but we can't adopt them all. Don't criticize us. Help us."
Dr. Welch Agnew, a veterinarian with the Pinellas County Animal Services, praised the SPCA's work and said its euthanasia rate, 46 percent for the year ended June 30, was pretty good for a shelter that accepts all animals.
Asked about the SPCA's more than $3 million annual budget, Fox said 8 percent goes to management, 73 percent is for animal care and 19 percent goes to development and fundraising.
Dan Hester, a council member in Seminole as well as former board member and volunteer at the SPCA, said he was disappointed by the negative publicity but was going to increase his donation.
"Donors, don't give up on this organization," he said.
Jean Acree, meanwhile, just wanted to know what happened to Goldie. About 18 months ago, she gave the Lab-pit bull mix to the SPCA when it became too much for her to handle with a broken leg. In return, she began sending $20 a month to the shelter "for the love of Goldie."
"I did so with the understanding that dogs were not euthanized here or I never would have given him up," Acree said. "I'd just give anything to know if she's still alive."
Kris Hundley can be reached at email@example.com or (727)892-2996.