BROOKSVILLE — Kris Weiskopf, the chief of Manatee County Animal Services since 1998, knew about the "revolving door.''
That was all the shelter had been doing for years, he said, "bring them in, put them to sleep. Bring them in, put them to sleep,'' he said.
Weiskopf wanted a better outcome.
He read a book called Redemption, which outlined a formula of programs designed to lower shelter euthanasia rates so only sick and badly injured animals, and aggressive dogs would be destroyed.
But it wasn't until Weiskopf and others attended a conference a year ago and heard the author, Nathan Winograd, speak that they were inspired to make that formula work and push for the county to go no-kill.
This is a radical departure for public shelters, but it has now been implemented in Manatee and adopted in Broward County.
Hillsborough County officials are considering it and, in the wake of the controversial killing of an 8-month-old puppy at the Hernando County shelter last month, no-kill advocates are pushing the idea here.
In Manatee, the save rate at the facility has gone from 63 percent in October of 2011 to 79 percent currently — well on the way to a 90 percent save rate, which is the December goal.
The Broward County Commission passed a resolution for its shelter to become a no-kill facility just a month ago. Last week, days after the Hillsborough county administrator announced a shake-up in Hillsborough's animal services department, county commissioners ordered the administrator to come up with a plan to decrease the kill rate at the shelter.
Also last week, the No Kill Nation organization, which promotes conversion of shelters to no-kill facilities, offered to help Hernando County.
"This letter is not intended to put the county on the defensive or to create an adversarial environment at Hernando County Animal Services,'' wrote Bill LeFeuvre, director of program development for No Kill Nation Inc.
"No Kill Nation would like to work in partnership with the county to bring about much-needed reforms and help make Hernando County a beacon of compassion and care for animals in this state.''
That's a far cry from how the public perceives the county now.
The April 13 euthanasia of Zeus, just 12 minutes after the young pit bull mix was surrendered by family of the owner, created outrage among animal lovers and sent county officials scrambling for answers. An investigation and audit is ongoing and officials have been reluctant to say much until the findings are revealed.
But after dozens of emails from nearby animal lovers have been dumped on county officials, some say the no-kill idea may have some merit. Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said the county would be foolish to turn a blind eye to any way that can be found to engage the community and help the county provide needed services.
Weiskopf's message to Hernando County about switching to a no-kill approach was simple.
" 'Why wouldn't you?' Would you rather save an animal or kill an animal? The bottom line is that's the choice, kill them or save them.''
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The "no-kill equation'' is a series of programs, approaches and features that are needed in any community to create a no-kill shelter, according to the No Kill Advocacy Center in Oakland, Calif.
Some approaches include:
• There must be availability of affordable spay and neuter facilities to keep populations down and focus resources on saving animals.
• Partnerships with rescue groups and foster homes for pets are crucial to move animals out of limited shelter space.
• A comprehensive, convenient adoption program is needed that includes promoting the available animals and providing adoption incentives. Despite a common belief that there are more animals than willing adopters, the No Kill Nation literature states that the numbers prove that is not true.
• Another way to keep animals out of shelters is to work with owners who want to turn in their pets for behavior problems and other issues so that the pet can stay with their family. Shelters should also make sure that lost pets and families are reunited.
• A no-kill shelter must also have a detailed public relations program to increase adoptions and donations and coordinate with outside groups.
• Two other critical factors are a bank of volunteers who are key to providing services without the cost of paying personnel. A compassionate and passionate animal services director is also a must.
Since shelters are often the dumping ground for stray cats, the no-kill formula pushes communities into developing "trap, neuter, release'' programs, which take free-roaming felines, get them fixed and vaccinated and return them to the area they were found.
That aspect of the program can cause some controversy.
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In just 13 months, Tracie Stegner and her small group of Paw Warriors have trapped, neutered and released 368 stray cats in an area stretching from Centralia Road south to State Road 52 in Pasco County and from Bayport east to Ridge Manor. One week in March alone, she pulled 60 cats from the Ridge Manor area, then returned them fixed, vaccinated and with notched ears.
Stegner knows that technically what she does with the cats, releasing them, isn't legal and so she has done it under the radar. Last week she decided it was time to go public and let the county commissioners and community know that trap, neuter, release (TNR) is a solution to cat overpopulation that doesn't involve killing. "I believe there is a time and place for everything and now is the time and place to put this out there,'' she said.
Stegner said communities thank her for her work. They don't want to lose their community cats but they also don't want more breeding. Several Hernando County businesses maintain small cat colonies enjoyed by employees and customers alike, she said.
But opponents say feral cats are bad news. They can spread disease and they kill birds and other wild animals. One study in Wisconsin showed that stray cats killed between 20 and 150 million songbirds annually in Wisconsin alone.
Stegner gave an example of a local business with a picnic table and bird feeders out back. The feral cats there are fed by employees and enjoy watching the birds at the feeders just like the workers do, feeling no need to have a chase a meal when there is always kibble in a nearby bowl.
Brooksville resident Dave Cock said TNR is a horrible idea. An avid hunter and former curator at Busch Gardens, Cock said that in an area with feral cats, "the lizard, snake and bird populations plummet … there's nothing a cat won't eat when it's hungry.''
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Dukes said he wants to see the county's investigation into Animal Services and the Zeus incident conclude before the county moves on to a larger discussion. But he is interested in the no-kill concept. He just can't justify beefing up animal services with more resources to make it happen.
That's okay, Weiskopf said. He has not added to his budget or his staff either but he has seen results.
Manatee County is just one of 34 communities across the country which has made the no-kill shelter work. That blunts the critics who fall back on cliches that there are too many unwanted animals to place and that the community has created the problem, LeFeuvre said.
Sure, he said, "it takes hard work and community effort … But it's hard to say that it can't be done when it has been done.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.