Clinic operator fears Hernando Animal Services recommendations would reverse gains

BROOKSVILLE — If the county follows recommendations in the audit report of its Animal Services operation, recent dramatic improvements in the shelter's euthanasia rate could be reversed, Richard Silvani warned on Thursday.

Among the recommendations in the report, which was released Tuesday, is to make changes in the shelter's controversial volunteer program.

Silvani, executive director of the PetLuv Nonprofit Spay and Neuter Clinic, said in a prepared statement that, while most of the audit was objective, "I detected a bias against the core volunteers'' at the shelter.

It is those volunteers, he said, and the temporary move to have public safety director Mike Nickerson oversee euthanasias that has resulted in the improved euthanasia numbers.

Nickerson on Wednesday released second quarter statistics showing that, from April through June, there was a 72.8 percent live outcome rate at the shelter. And the percentage is 81.8 if feral cats and animals euthanized for medical problems are not counted in the mix.

That compares to 30 percent live outcomes in fiscal year 2010-11 and 45 percent in the first six months of fiscal year 2011-12.

Those numbers mean that the shelter has "basically reversed the numbers, between euthanasia and live outcomes,'' Nickerson said in an email. He thanked the adopters, volunteers, rescue operations and Animal Services employees who made the improvement possible.

Silvani, who has been providing the shelter with medical services and vaccines over the past year, said taking away shelter decisions from county code enforcement and animal services manager Liana Teague, and euthanasia decisions from "two problem members of the kennel staff," has drastically reduced the killing at the shelter.

He wrote that "the volunteers worked tirelessly to market these animals, getting them into homes, fosters, and rescues. Gut the volunteer program as planned, and you can kiss these results — and thousands of animals — goodbye.

"And if they keep Liana and/or the two intransigent kennel workers in their jobs, the animals won't live long enough to be adopted out,'' Silvani wrote.

The audit was ordered after the quick euthanasia in April of an 8-month-old dog named Zeus, brought to light by volunteer Laurie Boynton. The story of Zeus, and other reports of neglect, ignited a public outcry.

The audit could not confirm neglect or cruelty at the shelter, except in the case of a feral kitten accidentally left in a truck for a day and a half. But many of the audit findings, including poor recordkeeping and lax protocols, meant there was no paper trail of what happened to animals at the facility.

Peggy Caskey, audit services director for the clerk of circuit court, noted that her job was to objectively make recommendations and that any bias in the report was a reflection of the witnesses' opinions.

Silvani's statement points out that the audit, along with the findings of two other extensive studies of the shelter last year, show "sufficient shortcomings ... to remove the manager and reassign two problem kennel personnel.''

"The (County Commission) did the responsible thing in commissioning this audit,'' Silvani wrote. "What they do next will determine whether there will be permanent progress in correcting the dysfunction in Animal Services or if the audit will be a colossal waste of time and money and represent a slap in the face for the concerned citizens whose voices caused it to be commissioned.''

Silvani said he had two major objections to the findings.

One proposed way to address the shortage of staff at the facility is to cut the maximum number of animals at the shelter from 76 to 48.

"That's wonderful for the staff, because they would have to clean up after fewer animals,'' he wrote. "But it also means they would be killing 37 percent more animals.''

His other big concern was that he thinks the audit recommendations would "gut the lay volunteer program."

The audit suggests slowing down the volunteer application process and requiring volunteers to go through the same detailed background check as a county employee.

Silvani said that keeping volunteers out of the shelter would allow the staff to go back to its pattern of killing animals.'

In the audit response, county officials propose not expanding the volunteer program until there is funding to hire a staff rescue, adoption and volunteer coordinator. That makes no sense since the county can't afford to properly staff the shelter now, Silvani said. Increasing the size of the staff is as easy as bringing in more volunteers, he said.

Volunteer Cheryl Fagundo said the volunteers are disappointed in the audit results and plan to bring their thoughts to the County Commission on Tuesday.

"If you like us as volunteers or you don't like us as volunteers, I think our numbers speak for themselves,'' she said. "We're almost at a no-kill rate'' with live outcomes.

"If we just had (the staff) working with us," she said, "how awesome would that be.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Clinic operator fears Hernando Animal Services recommendations would reverse gains 08/09/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 9, 2012 9:00pm]

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