Computer security stymies volunteers' efforts to find homes for dogs at county shelter

Volunteers say computer security stymies efforts to find homes for dogs at Hillsborough's facility.
In addition to animals that come directly to the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center, the shelter takes the overflow from the private, nonprofit Humane Society shelters in Tampa. ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times
In addition to animals that come directly to the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center, the shelter takes the overflow from the private, nonprofit Humane Society shelters in Tampa.ANDRES LEIVA | Times
Published July 24 2016
Updated July 24 2016

HILLSBOROUGH — Pickle, a 1-year-old, brown pit bull terrier, faces euthanasia after spending a month in an animal shelter with little hope of adoption.

It seems that Pickle didn't make the inventory list sent out each night to rescue groups in the area from the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center.

The reason: Volunteers no longer have access to the computer system that keeps track of animals at the county shelter, so they can't contribute to the inventory.

"It truly is costing lives," said Jess Yingset, a shelter volunteer and an administrator of a Facebook group called Rescue Me Tampa.

For four years, the group has been working to find homes for strays until the moment they're put down. But for the past three months, since new county computer software was installed, members have as little as eight hours notice of when that will happen.

Day after day, dogs are missing from the list. Even when they are included, Yingset said, information that will help adopt them out is often lacking — medical records, behavior characteristics and history, for example.

The new software is called Chameleon. The county used it once before and allowed volunteers access. Now, only county employees are allowed in, and their boss acknowledges they need more training and time to do a better job of inventorying.

Euthanasia is a daily reality at the shelter. In addition to animals that come there directly, the shelter takes the overflow from the private, nonprofit Humane Society shelters in Tampa.

The shelter's 270 dog kennels and 252 cat cages are often at capacity, especially in summer: Families go on vacation and abandon their pets at the shelter, dogs end up as strays because of fireworks and cute Christmas puppies grow up.

"You've got more animals coming in and less people coming in," said Scott Trebatoski, director of the Pet Resource Center.

But Trebatoski said granting volunteers access to the Chameleon software was a mistake.

"That should have never had happened," he said. "That is not public record."

Trebatoski said animal records contain sensitive information such as ongoing investigations of animal cruelty and medical records. He said the center has had issues with volunteers changing adoption information.

But the former general manager of the shelter, Pam Perry, said the system worked well when volunteers were given access to Chameleon and its temporary successor, Pet Point.

Perry, 53, worked at the center 13 years and served as manager from 2006 to 2015.

"I don't really see why they're being restricted to the data," she said. "I trusted the volunteers. They're not there to hurt the process."

The system allowed for restricting information to a read-only format so volunteers could only look at it, not change it, she said.

"We had more trouble with customer-service representatives at the front giving information out," she said. "There was more concern for that than the volunteers."

Yingset, with Rescue Me Tampa, noted that granting volunteers access to the software is provided for in the county animal services plan called "Be the Care," passed in 2013 by the County Commission.

According to the plan, "The ability to access the database via the internet will allow greater accessibility to real-time information for both staff and volunteers, which will result in better customer service."

But in a report he submitted in May, Trebatoski said the new software cannot be tailored to restrict access to certain information. An auditor echoed those concerns in the report, raising red flags about allowing complete access even to animal services' paid staff of 90.

Trebatoski said more can be done in the area of technology and staff training to make the animal inventory more useful.

"We're still testing and looking to see if there is a read-only option," Trebatoski said. "If somewhere down the road a better product comes out, we'll look at it."

Meantime, rescuers are growing frustrated with the lack of information about animals in the shelter, especially people who rely on the posts about at-risk dogs from Rescue Me Tampa.

"They tend to post dogs that do get overlooked," said Amy Howland, founder of Dogma Pet Rescue.

Howland said she has rescued about 20 dogs from the shelter because she saw them posted on the Rescue Me Tampa Facebook site.

"We've saved more dogs because of them," she said. "Those dogs have gotten adopted and have made families complete."

But the nightly inventory reports she now receives are incomplete, she said, so she's making occasional trips to the shelter to collect information for herself.

Yingset holds out hope that she'll get more timely information from Pet Resource Center.

Meantime, she'll keep posting what she can get whenever she can get it.

"Above all else, we love the animals," she said. "Let's give every dog a chance."

Contact Ariana Figueroa at [email protected] or (813) 226-3350. Follow @ArianaLFigueroa.