TAMPA — Hillsborough County's top official took to television Wednesday to assure the public that it's safe to adopt dogs and cats from the animal shelter.
County Administrator Mike Merrill, in a news conference broadcast live on the county's television station, acknowledged that there have been cases of animals at the shelter contracting potentially deadly parvovirus. But he said the number of incidents does not meet accepted definitions of an outbreak.
In fact, Merrill said the number of animals identified as carrying parvo is actually down 45 percent compared with last year despite an uptick in animals at the shelter. In both years, July was the most active month, with the number of confirmed cases of the gastrointestinal virus shrinking from 26 last year with 18 this year.
"We are taking every measure to ensure our shelter population is safe, in good health and adoptable," Merrill said. "Our residents and shelter partners should feel confident that the Hillsborough County Animal Shelter remains a great and affordable place to adopt their next family member."
Merrill also announced that Animal Services field operations, the employees who conduct cruelty investigations and respond to animal attacks, will at least temporarily be farmed out to code enforcement. That step is being taken so management at Animal Services can focus on shelter operations.
Merrill said he had been considering such a move because animal patrol and code enforcement officers' duties have some similarities. Recent attention to shelter illnesses expedited the move, he said.
Animal welfare advocates and some volunteers at the shelter have been in revolt in recent months, claiming management of the agency has been in disarray under director Ian Hallett, who has been on the job for a little more than a year. They have pointed to a recent spike in illnesses among shelter animals.
Hallett has pointed out that the shelter has adopted out more animals and killed fewer thanks to steps taken at the behest of county commissioners seeking to reduce the number of animals being euthanized.
Reports of animals dying of parvo or getting adopted with the illness have reignited scrutiny, prompting the close attention of Merrill and two of his top deputies.
Merrill said he regretted that a small number of residents adopted parvo-stricken animals that either died or required medical attention. He recounted his own experience three years ago when he adopted a basenji mix that later needed heartworm treatment.
Hallett said none of the animals that developed parvo exhibited signs of the disease — lethargy, vomiting, bloody diarrhea — at the time of their adoption. The shelter does not routinely screen for the disease because tests are not always definitive.
"They left before the onset of symptoms," Hallett said.