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County speeds up hiring at crowded Hillsborough animal shelter

Hillsborough animal shelter volunteers Brian Franklin, left, Nina Bentkowski and Troy Wright listen to County Administrator Mike Merrill update what’s being done to resolve problems at the shelter during a County Commission meeting on Wednesday.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Hillsborough animal shelter volunteers Brian Franklin, left, Nina Bentkowski and Troy Wright listen to County Administrator Mike Merrill update what’s being done to resolve problems at the shelter during a County Commission meeting on Wednesday.

TAMPA — Animal welfare advocates crammed into Hillsborough County Commission chambers Wednesday to complain about crowding, filth and sickness at the county's animal shelter.

They told commissioners that dogs and cats are arriving healthy and leaving sick, animals are left to wallow in their own excrement and overworked employees there are afraid for their jobs. Many blamed the county's second-year animal services director and demanded commissioners treat their concerns with urgency.

"What has taken place is wrong," said Lisa Walker, who serves on the county's animal services advisory board. "It needs to be corrected and it needs to be corrected quickly."

Commissioners took steps in that direction, the biggest being to hire more shelter workers.

They fast-tracked spending of $250,000 by dipping into reserves to speed up the hiring of six new employees for a department that has been hard-hit by budget cuts in recent years. They will be rank-and-file workers tasked with overseeing the intake of dogs and cats and their care once they are checked in.

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said he believes some of the complaints are driven by the board's decision to pursue practices that result in fewer animals being euthanized each year. He pushed the idea, backed by advocates of a national movement to all but end the killing of animals at public shelters.

The result is that more animals are being housed at the shelter for longer periods of time, which can increase their chances for adoption but also promote the spread of disease if the population is not managed properly.

As part of his motion Wednesday, Hagan asked the board to reaffirm its belief in that philosophy. Commissioners also lengthened the time for poor people to collect vouchers that help pay for their pets' sterilization.

That said, Hagan acknowledged that the number and breadth of the complaints is unacceptable. "There is a sense of urgency," he said. "This commissioner is not willing to accept the current state of affairs."

While acknowledging they don't have authority to make hiring and firing decisions, some commissioners put Animal Services director Ian Hallett on notice they are expecting improvements.

The Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this month that two of the shelter's three veterinarians had quit in recent weeks citing some of the same concerns voiced Wednesday. They said too many animals were getting sick and that Hallett was ignoring their concerns that dangerous dogs were being made available for adoption.

Hallett has said their departures are part of the reason why animals are not getting vetted for illness and treated quickly enough.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said he has gotten directly involved in working to resolve problems at the shelter, both out of professional responsibility and personal concern. He brought in a professor from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, who validated some of the concerns about sick animals and problems with isolating them from other dogs and cats.

Merrill said he will continue to work with the college to develop ways to better manage the population. He is also working with University of South Florida communications professors, ones specializing in internal organizational communications, to evaluate concerns within the department and recommend ways to improve dialogue.

Hallett said the shelter will hire a handful of part-time laborers to assist with keeping kennels and cages clean and is talking to the Sheriff's Office to seek assistance from nonviolent offenders.

Merrill said that he, too, believes some of the concerns reflect resistance to change. Nevertheless, he said he is spending a considerable amount of his own time trying to understand what is going on at the shelter.

"None of us are happy with the kind of conditions we have heard about here," Merrill said.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

County speeds up hiring at crowded Hillsborough animal shelter 07/17/13 [Last modified: Thursday, July 18, 2013 12:40am]

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