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Hernando animal shelter volunteers' claims echoed in 2011 report, though a year before Zeus' euthanization

BROOKSVILLE — In one kennel, an assessment team found a Chihuahua that couldn't raise its head because it had been hit by a car. But the small dog had been given no pain medication.

In another cage was a mixed-breed mother dog and her puppy. The puppy had a severe eye injury, and the mother had discharge from her eyes and was squinting, a sign of pain. But there was no request for veterinary care or input.

Two tabby cats brought to the facility were surrendered by their owner. Both were friendly, attractive and already neutered and spayed, but were never put up for adoption. The male was euthanized 22 days later.

The same owner also surrendered a blue-eyed cat; it was put in the adoption area and got a home within days.

"If the other two cats had been placed in an area viewable by the public, would they have been adopted?'' the assessment team asked.

The cases sound like the litany of sad tales a group of volunteers at Hernando County Animal Services has been telling to anyone who will listen in recent weeks. But these cases have nothing to do with Zeus, the pit bull mix euthanized just 12 minutes after he was surrendered in April.

These cases were among the findings of a weeklong assessment of the county's animal shelter done at the end of June 2011. They were part of a 98-page PowerPoint presentation shown to Animal Services officials after the study.

The findings and recommendations mirror the current complaints, which have sparked an audit and investigation. The older report also lists pages of recommendations on how to increase the number of live outcomes at the shelter.

Yet little has been done, and the volunteers and their supporters, who found the study in a public records search, say they are shocked that the county hasn't acted sooner to improve conditions at the shelter.

And the July 1 report, by the University of Florida Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program, wasn't the first with similar findings and recommendations.

After an incident in late 2010 when dozens of abandoned Shih Tzu dogs died at the shelter following an outbreak of the parvo virus, Richard Silvani, executive director of the PetLuv Nonprofit Spay and Neuter Clinic in Brooksville, commissioned a study of the shelter.

That 22-page report by veterinarian Cherie Buisson and Jennifer Clement also urged procedures to reduce the number of euthanizations and to improve treatment of animals.

The discovery of the UF study prompted an email exchange Friday between Laurie Boynton, one of the core group of volunteers at Animal Services, and Silvani, who expressed frustration with Liana Teague, the Animal Services manager.

"There is incident after incident, study after study, recommendation after recommendation . . . and Liana does nothing,'' Silvani wrote. "And without the rest of us beating our heads against the wall and meeting resistance for trying to help, no additional animals would have been saved even now.''

• • •

While the quick euthanasia of Zeus was the spark that got the public to listen to the volunteers, it was just one example of many issues they said they have seen in the months they have been working at the shelter.

Many small actions and omissions by the shelter staff have led to euthanizing more animals than the volunteers believe is necessary. The treatment of the shelter animals has also been a problem for the volunteers.

They have complained that, even though Silvani offers free vaccines for all of the animals, until the Zeus incident, they were often not given.

"A check of my email records shows we have been donating vaccines since March of 2011!'' Silvani wrote to Boynton. "And they're still giving them hit-or-miss, sometimes having an animal there for weeks without vaccination.''

The volunteers have also voiced concerns about animals unnecessarily held for days or weeks in "quarantine" when they could instead be placed with rescue groups or put in the adoption room for public viewing.

Wrong or incomplete documentation in records is another problem, according to the volunteers. And in some cases, workers have delayed for days checking animals for microchips that can quickly reunite animals with their owners.

The study done last summer found all of those same issues. It was conducted at the request of the shelter by five veterinarians working as part of a shelter assessment team for Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program.

The shelter requested the study because of the "recent infectious disease challenges,'' including the incident with the Shih Tzus. The purpose was to "assess and suggest pathways for (Animal Services) to move toward the goal of becoming a model shelter, improve animal welfare (and) increase lifesaving capacity.''

The mission of the UF-based Maddie's program, according to its website, is "to enhance the health and welfare of homeless animals through education, innovation, and advancement of the lifesaving goals of sheltering programs.''

The report details statistics about the Hernando shelter, including a euthanasia rate at the time of 60 percent to 70 percent of dogs and 90 percent to 95 percent of cats. It also quotes liberally from standards for care set forth by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, some of which the assessment team found the shelter wasn't always following.

On the case study of the chihuahua hit by the car, the assessment team dropped in this quote from the book of standards: "Early pain management is essential. Failure to provide treatment for pain is unacceptable."

The lack of attention is frustrating to the volunteers.

"I just can't fathom how all the same things that we have been complaining about were documented by 5 people from UF a year ago, and no real changes were made to stop them from continuing ever since,'' Boynton wrote to Silvani "Same staff. Same problems."

• • •

Silvani had not previously seen the 98-page report done by the UF group.

"It's disgusting,'' he wrote after he viewed it.

"You get a team of professionals including 5 veterinarians (instead of Rick Silvani or "5 whack-job PETA types!") doing an in-depth review and detailing what needs to be done, and management fails to act on any of it! How can Liana still have a job?!!''

Boynton wrote that she believes public safety director Mike Nickerson is equally to blame.

"He knows her incompetence and to not make staff changes or do close oversight after this (Maddie's) report just leaves him in charge of ongoing cruelty that he KNOWS about,'' she wrote. "That alone is discouraging.''

The study Silvani commissioned in March 2011 also tracked how the shelter fared, comparing it to the standards document. It highlights the need to vaccinate animals as they arrive at the shelter, suggests ways to make the animals more comfortable, urges a detailed assessment of each animal to identify those that are most adoptable and suggests detailed record keeping on each animal.

The report does note that the shelter was extremely clean and cautions against drawing conclusions about the attitudes of people who have the grim task of euthanizing animals.

Animal Services employees have defended themselves and accused the volunteers — who were brought into the shelter in response to a recommendation in the UF report — of violating policies with their attacks. They also noted in a staff meeting that the job they do is not an easy one and that volunteers shouldn't be calling what they do murder.

The Teamsters union has also taken a hard stand to protect the workers from attack by the volunteers.

Teamsters business agent John Sholtes recently met with the county to talk about making sure that the employees were not forced to work in a hostile environment and has threatened legal action if that can't be done.

"It seems that certain, and certainly not all, animal shelter volunteers are nothing more than animal rights extremists and fanatics who are less interested in caring for animals, and more interested in "facebooking" their perceived conspiracy theories and false claims of animal abuse to the public while demonstrating and perpetuating hostility toward our members,'' Sholtes wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

Nickerson did not respond to emailed questions about the county's actions after the previous reports on the shelter. On Friday, he said that the issues raised "fall squarely under the audit'' and that county officials cannot talk about them while the audit is ongoing.

"The county is interested in making changes to all of this,'' he said, but the audit means that things must remain as they are until the findings are released.

That could happen in early June.

"At this point," Nickerson said, "it's out of my hands.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando animal shelter volunteers' claims echoed in 2011 report, though a year before Zeus' euthanization 05/12/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 12, 2012 12:58pm]

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