BROOKSVILLE — Like many others, Lori Usher watched what she called "the tidal wave of negativity'' that washed over Hernando County Animal Services after the euthanization of 8-month-old Zeus just 12 minutes after the dog was surrendered to the shelter in April.
And with 16 years of experience as a shelter worker in Pinellas County and a stint as a volunteer coordinator with military programs, Usher figured she might be in a unique position to help, especially when she heard the shelter needed a volunteer coordinator.
"I at the time made the assumption it was a volunteer problem and that you just had your fair share of (what I call) PETA-minded volunteers,'' Usher wrote in a lengthy email to county commissioners this week.
She noted that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has numbers and gets things done, but that some of its members are "radical and refuse to accept the reality of the overpopulation problem.''
Even as an audit team was scrutinizing every aspect of the shelter operation, Usher went to work. Within just a few days, she had seen enough to change her opinion about where the problem was.
"I have never felt more unwanted, judged, spied upon, just plain ignored, ever,'' she wrote. "I walked in the door thinking you have a volunteer problem. I walked out knowing you have a serious staff/operations problem.''
One employee, Usher said, made it clear that she expected Usher to get volunteers to do her job for her and, "until that happens, I could expect no cooperation from her.''
Another scooted her off a computer she was using to post information about adoptable kittens. When she came back minutes later, she found the employee had changed the password and shut out her access.
Usher concluded: "There was no feeling that any of your employees even worked at the same place. It was like everyone has their own agendas and operates completely separate from the shelter.''
Since the Zeus incident, workers in Animal Services have had limited opportunity to respond to the many accusations lodged against them, silenced because of the ongoing audit. Officials expect the audit to be released in July.
In a staff meeting days after the euthanasia of Zeus on April 13, employees vented about the harassment they said they were suffering from the volunteers. The business agent for the Teamsters union, which represents the county's employees, also voiced concern that workers were being mistreated by the volunteers.
In her email, Usher urges commissioners to clean house at the shelter and consider privatizing the facility, an idea that has been raised by Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes.
"Animal control needs to be wiped completely clean and start again with employees that want to be there as a service to the county, citizens and animals, not for a paycheck,'' Usher wrote.
Laurie Boynton, the volunteer who first raised a flag over Zeus, said she was not surprised by what Usher experienced.
"That's what we've found all along,'' Boynton said.
Another of the shelter volunteers said Usher rubbed her the wrong way and was pushy, but still could relate to her feeling that she wasn't welcome helping out at the shelter.
"They're very resistant to change,'' said volunteer Susanne Whelan. "It's not an atmosphere for people who really want to help. They don't want help. They just want to do things the way they want to do them, and animals are being killed.''
Said another volunteer, Cheryl Fagundo: "I'm very happy to hear that someone outside of our group has seen the same things we've seen.''
Fagundo said she too started out as a volunteer, just trying to advertise animals and promote adoptions. But the more the volunteers saw how animals were treated at the shelter, she said, the more the mission expanded.
"It has turned into a crusade to stop the abuse and cruelty,'' Fagundo said.
Usher's stint as volunteer coordinator was at least temporarily suspended last week after Mike Nickerson, the county's public safety director, told her she had been accused of having "negative interaction with the staff.'' The two are scheduled to meet next week.
"I want to hear her side,'' Nickerson said Friday.
Usher said her only interaction with staffers was asking questions about policies and procedures.
"I feel I need this information to effectively train new volunteers to the operations of Animal Services,'' Usher wrote.
She told commissioners that the Animal Services staff doesn't want the transparency that government operations must expect.
"When anyone asks questions and gets conflicting answers or half-truths," she wrote, "they immediately wonder what you're trying to cover up.
"That's how animal control is operating.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.