TAMPA — A group of animal welfare advocates is rallying support for Hillsborough County's shelter after reports highlighted concerns about dogs and cats there getting sick.
The coalition, which includes nonprofits such as the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, Cat Crusaders and the Animal Coalition of Tampa, says the county shelter should be getting credit for increasing adoptions — which the groups have pushed for. Instead, they say other welfare advocates concerned about changes in shelter management are scaring away potential pet adopters.
"There's been so much negativity about what's going on at the shelter," said John Marinello, an advisory committee member of the Alliance to Save 90, one of the groups rallying to the shelter's defense. "What we're feeling is that the community at large doesn't understand that the changes that are being made are being made to save animals."
The shelter has received media attention in recent weeks for the number of animals there developing illnesses, including some cases of life-threatening parvovirus. People who have adopted animals from there have reported instances of their new pets getting sick, amassing large veterinarian bills and, in some cases, dying.
Animal services officials have acknowledged an uptick in illness, but say it corresponds with a spike in the population at the shelter and longer hold times implemented to try to find homes for more dogs and cats.
A statement issued by the group supporting the changes at the shelter highlights the increase in adoptions and notes past years when there were spates of illness and when as many as 80 percent of animals entering the shelter were euthanized.
It singles out a citizen advisory committee and Hillsborough County's Veterinary Medical Society for questioning, since each has been raising concerns about illness at the shelter.
Michael Haworth, a veterinarian and chairman of the Animal Advisory Committee, said it has been years since the shelter has had 80 percent kill rates and said his group has advocated for changes that have led to improvements. The save rate has approached 40 percent in the most recent two years, though the shelter has accepted fewer animals as well.
In the most recent couple of years, more than half of the dogs turned into the shelter have found new homes, but adoption rates for cats are still around 20 percent.
"To me, I wouldn't call that failure," Haworth said. "I would call that progressive improvement. And they've been doing a better job with less money."
Christy Layton, president of the county's veterinary medical society, pointed to the same statistics, noting continued improvement since 2005.
"The veterinary community as a whole has always supported county animal services," Layton said. "For them to say it has not is ridiculous."
Marinello said it is everyone's hope to save more animals. But continuing to raise questions about the health of potential pets at the shelter isn't helping.
"Yes, there have been problems," he said. "Yes, there will be issues that will come up. But you have a county and shelter that's trying its best to improve the save rate, which was abysmal."