NEW PORT RICHEY — Sharon Cushman recently visited Pasco County's animal shelter to rescue a baby Jack Russell terrier.
"She was covered in her own fecal matter and infested with fleas," said Cushman, a volunteer with Florida Doggie Paws Rescue. "I then looked around and noticed all the dogs were in the same condition."
Cushman was joined by more than 30 activists clad in matching purple shirts who crowded into the County Commission meeting Tuesday, decrying conditions at the Land O'Lakes shelter and asking for more cooperation from Animal Services staffers.
Their concerns aren't focused on the county's $3 million state-of-the-art adoption center that opened last year. The activists were referring to the intake building, known as Building C, where strays are first processed and some dangerous dogs are held.
Officials acknowledge that building is old and needs attention. It has no air-conditioning and no insulation. Fans and open rafters provide ventilation.
"We just want to help with the living conditions," said Jennifer Kanaust, who also works with Doggie Paws Rescue. "We're willing to clean, willing to feed, to talk, to assist in finding homes."
Pasco's Animal Services director John Malley welcomes their help. "If you want to volunteer, I want you there," he said.
After the meeting, Malley spent more than 30 minutes holding court with the activists, explaining the department's policies and correcting what he called misconceptions.
For example, one person asked why only half of the cages are used in the new adoption center. Malley said that is a nationally accepted practice to reduce the chance of a disease outbreak. Four years ago, the department had to completely depopulate the shelter after an outbreak.
Also, someone said the county has a 15 percent live release rate, meaning 85 percent of the animals are euthanized. Malley said that's just not true.
A few years ago, the county's live release rate was 19 percent. Now about 55 percent of the animals leave the shelter alive. That includes about 84 percent of the dogs, and about a third of the cats.
Until a few years ago, Building C was the adoption center, and intakes were taken to a maintenance shed built in the 1940s.
"Things have come a long way in Animals Services," said former County Commissioner Michael Cox, who founded Friends of Animal Services along with his wife, Abbey. "I think you can go just a little bit further."
Cox said $150,000 in leftover money from the construction of the new adoption center could go toward "correcting that C building and getting it to a livable condition for the animals."
"It can be done in a quicker and easier fashion than what is constantly being talked about," he said.
Dan Johnson, the assistant county administrator who oversees Animal Services, "strongly disagrees" with that comment.
The building would need extensive renovations, including adding insulation, Johnson said. One problem is that employees hose down the kennels to clean them. Closing the rafters could create a mold problem. The county received a $50,000 estimate to just design the renovations.
"It has to be designed and constructed properly or it is going to be an unhealthy building," he said.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.