BROOKSVILLE — In a narrow room in the Hernando County Animal Services office building, 20 metal cages hold the impounded cats.
If there is an overflow, the felines are kept in a garage, where there is no heat or air conditioning, until a final disposition is determined.
The core group of volunteers at the shelter says the county can do better. The volunteers don't believe there is enough space being set aside for cats, and they've proposed rearranging furnishings and space at the shelter to provide more indoor room.
When Richard Silvani, executive director for PetLuv Nonprofit Spay and Neuter Clinic, learned of the proposal, he immediately pledged $5,000 toward it.
Cats comprise a large percentage of the animals that are euthanized at the shelter, volunteers have said. They have been actively working with county public safety director Mike Nickerson to make changes to improve live outcomes at the shelter.
The volunteers have been at the center of a raging controversy at the shelter over Zeus, an 8-month-old pit bull mix that was euthanized 12 minutes after a family member of the owner surrendered the dog to the shelter April 13.
Since that incident, crowds have urged the County Commission to make changes, other animal advocates have conducted a town hall meeting to talk about related issues, euthanasia procedures have been temporarily changed and the county has been conducting an audit and investigation into a series of issues related to Animal Services.
In the meantime, the volunteers have continued to pepper county officials with ideas on how to improve the situation at the shelter.
"We believe the live-outcome percentage in Hernando County would be significantly higher if more cats could be kept a reasonable length of time and housed in an appealing area that is accessible to the public and to rescues,'' volunteer Laurie Boynton wrote to Nickerson last week.
"We will put extra effort into increasing live-outcome rates for cats and kittens if you can fix this housing problem, with our help.''
She described how to rearrange the shelter and how the volunteers, working with the county, could create an area where the cats could lounge, play and climb on scratching posts. The volunteers would gather needed supplies and donations and would help the county publicize the improvements.
"We urge you to enable us to take on this project before the county finds itself with dozens of healthy, adoptable cats and kittens in a garage that is too hot for humane housing,'' Boynton wrote. "Having any of them get sick or die in those conditions or having to kill them because the county made nowhere else for them to go would be a tragedy that can be avoided.''
The plea immediately brought supportive emails to the county from a number of other volunteers and animal advocates.
Similarly, those same advocates have joined Boynton and the other volunteers to push the shelter to shift its hours of operation to Tuesday through Saturday, rather than the traditional Monday through Friday, so people wanting to adopt a pet could do so on the weekend.
Nickerson's response to each suggestion has been the same.
He called the switch to Saturday hours and the expansion of the cat space at the shelter "long-term projects" and noted that each "would need to be addressed within the ongoing audit or (if not addressed), following the implementation of the audit recommendations.''
The audit findings are expected in the next three weeks.
That answer wasn't good enough for some who support the volunteers' efforts.
"I do not understand how an audit will answer the question of the need for an expanded cat adoption area courtesy of a generous donor when cats are currently housed in a garage. Surely you can begin improvements without jeopardizing the future,'' Helana Cichon wrote to county commissioners in an email.
In an email to Nickerson on Monday, Boynton expressed frustration over his response, saying she didn't see any need to delay moving forward with changes that are clearly needed in order to save more animals.
"The Zeus killing should be a catalyst for change,'' she wrote, "not an excuse to keep it from happening.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.