BROOKSVILLE — Laurie Boynton had a sense of Zeus after playing with the young, bouncy black-and-white dog for just a few minutes last Friday at Hernando County Animal Services.
One of the two women giving him up called him a "love bug'' and spoke about how he was housebroken, loved kids and was great with other dogs.
"How many dogs like that do you think HCAS gets?'' Boynton, a volunteer at the Animal Services shelter, wrote later in an email to the county's public safety director, Mike Nickerson. "Of all the dogs in the kennel on Friday, there is no doubt in my mind that Zeus was the most adoptable. ... As soon as I got home, I posted him on the Web.''
By the next day, someone already had stepped forward to adopt the mixed-breed dog.
But Zeus was already dead. He had been euthanized less than an hour after he was handed over to Animal Services.
When the adopter showed up at the shelter Monday morning, no one would explain why Zeus could not be found.
The incident led to outrage and a flurry of emails to Hernando officials from Boynton and others who have worked to reduce the number of euthanized animals at the county facility.
Nickerson immediately apologized, opened an investigation and vowed to meet with those who have been partnering with the county to increase "live outcomes'' for the county's stray and abandoned animals.
A meeting with the executive director of PetLuv, Rick Silvani, is slated for next week. The volunteers have expressed a concern that the county violated its agreement with PetLuv, a nonprofit clinic that assists the county with sterilization and vaccination services. Among other things, the agreement requires animals to be kept for a minimum of seven days unless the shelter is overcrowded.
Nickerson is also trying to set up a meeting with the Friends of Animal Control. In the meantime, a temporary policy has been established that, when the shelter has to put animals to sleep, staffers confer with the volunteers whose job it is to find permanent homes or other rescue groups to take them.
The volunteers also questioned whether Zeus, turned in by relatives of the owner, should have been considered an "owner surrender,'' and Nickerson has turned that issue over to the county attorney's office for a ruling.
"The bell cannot be un-rung for Zeus,'' Nickerson wrote in an email response to Boynton. But he indicated he wants to meet and talk about the issue "so we can improve and modify the policy and PetLuv agreement to prevent a repeat of this unfortunate outcome."
Boynton blasted Animal Services and its manager, Liana Teague, in her email. She said the department is "only adding stupidity to sadism'' in its excuses for why Zeus was put to sleep so quickly after his arrival.
In an emailed response, Teague explained that "at the time Zeus came in we had zero pens and we were just beginning euthanasia for the afternoon.''
Zeus was reluctant to walk on a leash and was evaluated by two staff members at the shelter "who felt that he was fearful and less adoptable than the other dogs at the shelter."
By the end of euthanasia that day, and after doubling dogs up in cages, nine pens were left empty, Teague wrote.
The Animal Services policy is to leave 15 pens open at the end of the week so officers picking up strays or dogs that bite someone over the weekend have a place to put them when the office is closed, Nickerson said.
Boynton disputes Teague's version of events, saying that when Zeus was brought in, there were 10 available pens.
"No killing was necessary on Friday,'' she wrote.
On Thursday, Boynton said Zeus was fearful, but that was because of the treatment he had received at the hands of an Animal Services employee. As Boynton was taking his picture, she said, a kennel worker grabbed Zeus by the leash.
"She dragged him off the woman's lap and literally dragged him out the door. I looked in that dog's face and he was just terrified,'' Boynton said.
"To even try to justify Zeus' killing is despicable,'' she wrote to Nickerson. "Why does no one, especially you, have the sense and the common decency to say, "That was a wrong decision, a highly adoptable, innocent animal was killed and I will make sure starting today that it will never happen again.''
Nickerson said that is his goal. He credited the work of volunteers such as Boynton, rescue groups and PetLuv for helping Animal Services to adopt out a much higher percentage of animals that come to the shelter.
Two years ago, when Nickerson took on the oversight of Animal Services, 74 percent of the animals coming through the front door were put to sleep. For the first six months of the 2011-12 fiscal year, that is down to 55 percent, he said.
He credits the partners.
"It's tragic,'' Nickerson said. "The last thing I want is for them to lose any of their enthusiasm.''
But Boynton said Thursday that all four of the volunteers at the shelter have lost their enthusiasm. She said Nickerson needs to do more than just have meetings because the volunteers have been voicing concerns about the shelter's operations and the actions of some employees for months.
"He needs to do something because he's in charge,'' she said. "He's the boss.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.