BROOKSVILLE — The 63 dirty, hungry little Shih Tzus were running around on a dead-end road when Hernando County Animal Services workers found them.
It was late 2010, and eyes around the Tampa Bay area immediately focused on how Animal Services would handle the dogs, the media attention and the potential adopters.
Just a couple weeks later, the sad news broke: Many of the dogs had caught the deadly parvo virus. The outbreak killed 38 of the desirable little lap dogs, leaving an indelible black mark on the county shelter.
The tragedy prompted a study of Animal Services ordered by then-County Administrator David Hamilton. Among the recommendations, the study urged the county to partner with community animal rescue interests to improve the outcome for more of the animals at the county shelter.
At the time, three-quarters of all animals that arrived there were being euthanized.
Initial talks with the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, and later the PetLuv Nonprofit Spay and Neuter Clinic, resulted in a formal set of rules designed to adopt out more dogs and cats.
With the penning of a formal agreement between Animal Services and PetLuv in December of last year, an agreement that requires use of a group of volunteers to assist with and market the animals, the stage was set for another mishandled case that would again throw Hernando County Animal Services into an unwanted spotlight.
Zeus was an 8-month-old pit bull mix, surrendered to the shelter on the afternoon of April 13. In his short time in the front office, shelter volunteer Laurie Boynton took a quick picture of the black and white dog's face to post online.
While she was thinking about how adoptable Zeus would be, she didn't realize that the dog was at that very moment being taken to the euthanasia room.
The outrage, led by Boynton, has continued for the past two weeks.
Richard Silvani, executive director of PetLuv, has said that the "culture of killing'' at Animal Services must end. He describes a shelter where the volunteers try to fulfill the requirements of the agreement while some employees openly oppose and work against it.
Hernando County public safety director Mike Nickerson sees the conflict in a different way. The volunteers clearly care about animals, he said. And the workers do what they do because they believe they are helping animals, too.
It's just that the actions of both groups are at cross purposes, he said.
"We all just have to synchronize our watches,'' Nickerson said.
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To Nickerson, the numbers tell the story.
Involving volunteers, rescue groups, PetLuv and other outside veterinarians to help the staff improve "live outcomes'' at the shelter is working.
The 76 percent euthanasia rate from two years ago is now down to 55 percent. Postings on Craigslist, the Facebook page of the volunteers and on Petfinder are resulting in more matches between people and pets.
But the conflict between the volunteers and some members of the Animal Services staff was evident even before Zeus arrived at the shelter.
While Boynton said she and the other volunteers came on board simply to find more homes for the unwanted dogs and cats, what they saw on a day-to-day basis convinced them they had to do more. Over the last few months, the volunteers have witnessed what they consider cruel treatment and violations of the memo of agreement signed by PetLuv and Animal Services in December.
The volunteers and others familiar with the shelter have bombarded county officials with emails and calls regarding numerous Animal Services issues. They complain that new intakes are not always given vaccines, as the agreement requires. They say shelter workers house only one dog to a kennel, making the facility appear to be full when it's not, prompting more cases of euthanasia than necessary.
On Tuesday, during a County Commission meeting packed with animal lovers incensed by the Zeus incident, the volunteers made the situation more real. They showed pictures of animals that had landed at Animal Services but either were mistreated or never got a fair chance to be adopted.
One photograph showed five tiny kittens that had come to the facility three weeks ago. Three were immediately adopted; the other two, including one with a leg injury, were put on hold for two women wanting to adopt them. But before that could happen, commissioners were told, the kittens were euthanized.
"You cannot imagine how angry and disgusted I was when I found out those two kittens and an 8-month-old dog were killed,'' said volunteer Suzanne Whalen.
Boynton showed a picture of a small white dog named Snowy and explained that the old dog was brought into the shelter with a bleeding sore, yet received no medical treatment.
"This dog bled to death over the course of six days,'' she told the commission.
The next case was Scotch, a 14-year-old deaf and blind dog covered with fleas. Even though Boynton provided flea medication for the dog, over the next week the kennel workers never administered it.
When volunteers notified staffers of those cases and others, Boynton said, they claimed to not know about the dogs' conditions.
"They are liars to the public,'' she said. "They need to go.''
Sherry Toy took the criticism a step further, saying she believed the workers enjoy performing euthanasias, and she likened Animal Services to a Nazi death camp.
"Those shelter people don't give a damn about those animals,'' she said. "They're just collecting a paycheck.''
Silvani threatened to pull out of the agreement with the county if the county didn't clean house. He likened Animal Services manager Liana Teague to a tumor that needed to be removed.
"Liana is doing only what she needs to in order to survive,'' Silvani wrote to Nickerson in an email April 19. "She is ignorant of many aspects of what goes on in the shelter, and she can't control her staff.''
Silvani goes on to describe how several staff members have openly defied the agreement because they want to do things their own way.
"Euthanization is still done too readily and sometimes unnecessarily,'' he wrote. "Those in the business call it compassion fatigue. I call it jaded.''
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Retired animal services and code enforcement director Frank McDowell said during Tuesday's debate that there's another side to the story.
"PetLuv and Mr. Silvani don't run Hernando County,'' he told commissioners. "You do.''
McDowell blamed the volunteers for creating "a dangerous and hostile work environment.''
Budget cuts have tied the hands of the workers who remain at the shelter, he said, begging commissioners to stand up for "a fine group of employees'' rather than making a political decision.
For his comments, he got heckled.
Hours later, the Teamsters business agent who represents county workers sent an email to Cheryl Marsden, the county's administrative services director, after getting calls from Animal Services workers.
"What the heck is going on in that place?'' John Sholtes asked. "It appears the place has been overthrown by about five whack-job PETA type volunteers.''
Teague and her workers have been silent about the Zeus case in public. But a staff meeting called after Zeus was euthanized but before the case made it into the headlines gives insight into their thoughts about the volunteers and the agreement with PetLuv.
An April 23 interoffice memo describing the meeting listed numerous concerns voiced by the kennel staff. They included concerns that volunteers were violating a rule that "suggests volunteers not make careless comments about which animals will be euthanized or call the staff murderers.''
The memo states that from the workers' perspective, "euthanizing animals is hard enough without rude comments from the volunteers.''
The employees also said volunteers were in areas of the shelter where they shouldn't be, including quarantine areas and the euthanasia room.
And, they said, volunteers have ordered workers to move dogs around in the kennels, have put excessively long holds on some animals, causing overcrowding, and are pushing the doubling-up of dogs in the kennels.
When Zeus was euthanized, only eight of the 50 kennels had two dogs in them, volunteers reported.
Kennel workers argue that doubling up dogs causes safety issues at feeding time and can lead to the spread of disease.
The workers also maintain that they followed the rules in the case of Zeus and blame Boynton for the controversy.
"Some of the public outrage could have been avoided if the volunteer had conferred with staff before advertising the dog as adoptable,'' workers related during the staff meeting.
Boynton said the worker who took Zeus to the euthanasia room saw her taking the dog's picture and knew that such pictures were used to advertise dogs for adoption. Yet the worker said nothing.
Office workers at the staff meeting also complained about the volunteers needing customer service and courtesy training. And they noted that Nickerson has told them they must get along with the volunteers "or you can leave.''
"Even if this was said in jest, it is a morale killer,'' the memo states.
The memo, signed by employees, ends with a plea for support from county officials.
"Since the volunteer program started, the negativity, hatred and more recently, violent threats against employees, have risen to unprecedented levels. Some volunteers are doing a great job, while others are trying to tear down the organization and portray Animal Services in a negative way.
"The safety and working conditions of your dedicated, hard-working employees should be your first priority.''
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Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes closed the commission debate last week by promising to get to the bottom of what happened with Zeus and what is going on more generally at Animal Services.
Nickerson has taken over making euthanasia decisions. Peggy Caskey and the audit services staff of Clerk of the Court Karen Nicolai will head up an investigation. She has predicted that the inquiry will take about four weeks.
In the meantime, the workers at Animal Services continue to run the shelter side by side with the volunteers.
If money were not an object, Nickerson said, Animal Services would have a staff veterinarian, a surgical suite, an on-site dog behaviorist who could assess adoptability, and a volunteer coordinator.
"But we have to pay for everything,'' he said.
Fiscal reality has meant a drop in the department's overall budget to $743,000 this year, down from $1.3 million in fiscal year 2008. Not counting Teague, the manager, the number of Animal Services staffers during that period has dropped to 10, down from 17, and another position was downgraded.
Nickerson said he looks forward to the findings of the investigation, but is already sure of one key point.
"I don't have a crystal ball and I don't know what the audit findings will be," he said, "but in the end we've got to have a policy that leaves no room for argument and that (makes sure a case like) Zeus will never happen again.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.