Hernando County Animal Services starts over

BROOKSVILLE — As the door between the kennels and the lobby opened, the brown dog bounded in, tugging mightily on her leash, jumping enthusiastically on anyone nearby.

Cooped up in a dog run at Hernando County Animal Services since Jan. 2, Duchess had finally found a home.

Anke Matthiessen of Brooksville had been eyeing the 2-year-old German shepherd and Lab mix since she began to volunteer at the shelter last month. Two weeks ago, she bathed the dog for an adoption event, hoping someone would want her, but no one did.

Last week, Matthiessen decided to take her home.

Shelter officials worry about dogs like Duchess because they have been caged so long that they begin to develop behavioral problems, including frantic behavior, constant barking, licking the walls and self-mutilation. That can frighten away potential adopters.

Several days ago, the shelter's new managing veterinarian, Lisa Centonze, wrote a plea to area rescue organizations to make the long-term dogs a priority. Duchess was on that list.

Donna Black, the shelter's new animal advocate, volunteer and rescue coordinator, was in the lobby when Duchess was brought to Matthiessen. Black grinned and teared up at the news.

Black knows Matthiessen has both the property and the training skills that the high-energy dog needed.

Centonze couldn't contain her joy either.

"This just made my day,'' she said.

This, she said, is why the shelter workers do what they do.

"Yeah,'' Black said, brushing wet dog kisses off her face, "I may come to work tomorrow.''

• • •

In this same lobby 10 months ago, it was a very different scene.

Just 12 minutes after a young black and white mixed breed named Zeus walked through the door as a surrender dog, he was euthanized.

The uproar that followed — along with investigations and an audit done of the facility's practices — created a movement for change at Animal Services, change that centered on appropriate staffing and consistent operating procedures.

The hiring of Centonze, the first staff veterinarian for the shelter, and Black, along with a new veterinary technician who started earlier this month, were the keys to making some positive changes at the shelter.

Centonze, 46, worked for nearly five years as a veterinarian at Hillsborough County Animal Services before taking the Hernando job.

She grew up with cats, beginning with a black cat named Inky, and thought about becoming a veterinarian. But as she progressed through school, she found other interests.

She went to Sweden for a time as an exchange student, earned her bachelor's degree in history from Princeton, then went into the Peace Corps for a year in the West African country of Togo.

"It was a life-changing experience,'' she said.

Back in the States, she tried social work, then met Vince Centonze, the man who would become her husband. He was in the Air Force, and the two moved to Japan for a few years.

As they talked about their interests, she learned that he also had wanted to be a vet. Centonze convinced him to take retirement from the military and enter veterinary school. The two landed in the same class at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, graduating in 2003.

He has been director of the Hillsborough Community College veterinary technology program in Plant City since 2007.

He has already volunteered to help with surgeries at the Hernando shelter on Fridays, and she is working to gain the necessary approvals to have Hernando shelter animals that need certain medical procedures transferred to the community college to give students practical animal care experience.

Centonze's office reflects her outlook. There are pet pictures on the wall, including one of her beloved special-needs dog, Lilly, and a big "Cat Lover'' mug in her hand. On her lap is a not-yet-named calico kitten healing from surgery to mend a broken leg. The young cat is living in her office and going home with her on weekends.

She had to go to extraordinary lengths to save the injured cat, finding a specialist to do the $2,000 surgery for whatever she could raise through a donation jar at the recent adoption event.

As the cat's purr became loud enough to hear across the room, Black noted that it was obvious why the veterinarian wanted so badly to save the friendly feline.

"This vet is just so compassionate,'' she said.

• • •

Centonze knew what she was walking into when she took the job at Animal Services. She said she has been thrilled to see how positive staff members are.

"The staff has been wonderful, warm, accommodating, open to new ideas, open to change, open to positive change,'' she said. "I'm looking forward to this becoming my second family.''

She knew the workers had been through a lot and that the public didn't always understand what they faced.

"I have a lot of respect for people who work here. They have a hard job, both physically and emotionally,'' she said, noting they don't get paid much and haven't had a raise in five years. "Then to have the negative things said about them in the press, it's demoralizing.''

Now, she said, it's time to move forward. Both Centonze and Black are working hard to get all of the disparate rescue groups and volunteers to work together, despite past divisions and infighting.

"You have to set your ego aside when it comes to animals,'' Centonze said. "If you can get all of the stakeholders to set their egos aside for the good of the animals, that's something.

"I'm cautiously optimistic.''

Centonze has also been pleased with the support from the community. The shelter was given anesthesiology equipment by local veterinarian Gerald Johnson and cages for surgical recovery by veterinarian Karen Taylor Sorensen.

"I've really been touched by the outpouring of support,'' Centonze said. "They really want animals to get the care they need.''

The donations will help create an animal treatment and surgical area that will be set up in what was the code enforcement room. Centonze hopes to see that completed by early April.

Then, for the first time, the shelter will be able to spay and neuter animals in-house so adopters can pick out their pets and take them right home.

Another change planned is the construction of a cat visitation room in the front lobby where cats and kittens will be visible in a glassed-in enclosure. Currently, people wanting to a adopt a cat must view them in cages — not an ideal situation, Centonze said.

"My goal is to increase cat adoptions because cats sometimes get the short end of the stick,'' she said.

The room will be sponsored by the PetLuv Nonprofit Spay and Neuter Clinic, a longtime sponsor of improvements at the shelter, medical care for shelter animals and a vaccination provider.

The shelter's recent adoption event was successful, with people adopting dogs and cats at the event and afterward, Black said. More will be planned. She is also working to find a way to do mobile pet adoptions at events and locations around Hernando County.

The message to the community: People looking for a lost pet or who want to get a new one need to visit the shelter.

"We have adoptable animals right here, so come visit the shelter,'' Black said.

"Come here first,'' Centonze said. "You'll save a life.''

Other improvements planned are opening the shelter on Saturdays, expanding cat cages that are too small, joining forces with groomers and kennels to provide services for the shelter and improving the Animal Services website.

In her short time at the shelter, Centonze says she has seen both sides of the business. She had to do an animal necropsy during her first week in a cruelty investigation. She has had to order euthanasias. But she has also seen heartwarming cases of adoption and reuniting pets with their owners.

"I have the best job in the world, but sometimes it's the worst job in the world,'' said Centonze, who said she believes being a shelter vet has always been her true calling.

"You really get to help the animals that need you the most,'' she said, "because they don't have anyone else.''

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

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To learn more

The Hernando County Animal Services website:

hernandocounty.us/animal

Want to help?

For those interested in volunteering, such as walking dogs, taking pictures of the animals or any other task at the shelter, call (352) 540-6286.

Hernando County Animal Services starts over 02/23/13 [Last modified: Saturday, February 23, 2013 12:48pm]

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