BROOKSVILLE — More than a dozen outraged animal lovers, many wearing T-shirts with the words "Never Again" emblazoned on the back, appeared before the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday, demanding answers.
But mostly, they were looking for justice for a scruffy, black-and-white, 8-month-old mixed-breed dog name Zeus, whose picture appeared on the front of the shirts.
Suzanne Whalen, a volunteer at the Hernando County Animal Services shelter in Brooksville, was among those who railed at the county employees who decided to euthanize Zeus shortly after he was brought in April 13 with the expectation he would be put up for adoption.
"I'm disgusted with them," Whalen shouted. "They enjoy killing animals."
During Tuesday's meeting, a little more than a week after Zeus' death, interim county administrator Ron Pianta declared that an independent audit would be launched to discover what occurred and hopefully prevent a similar incident in the future.
Pianta told county commissioners that a preliminary look into the incident convinced him that the department's policies and procedures regarding euthanasia need to reviewed.
"We want to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it," Pianta said. The system, he said, "can be improved."
Many of those who showed up in support of Zeus blamed inept department management and insufficiently trained staffers for the incident.
Animal Services volunteer Laurie Boynton, who met and photographed Zeus just moments before relatives of his owner surrendered him to the shelter, spoke emotionally of the pit bull mix that she felt would make a good adoption candidate.
When Boynton learned that Zeus had been euthanized after shelter staffers claimed the facility lacked weekend kennel space, she and other volunteers sent a flurry of emails to Hernando officials.
Boynton appeared before the commission with a poster montage of several animals she claimed had been euthanized unnecessarily.
"It is hell at the Hernando County shelter," she said.
Richard Silvani of the PetLuv Non-Profit Spay and Neuter Clinic condemned Animal Services director Liana Teague, who did not attend the meeting, and other staff members for perpetuating what he called a "culture of killing."
Silvani, whose clinic has an agreement with Animal Services to provide free medical services for animals in an effort to make them more adoptable, threatened to cancel the agreement if the county doesn't change the way it runs the shelter.
"We're at a crisis point," Silvani said. "We want to continue to help, but it has to be a two-way street."
Pianta said the investigation, which will be handled by the county's audit services staff, with support from human resources staffers, will look into policies and procedures regarding euthanasia, personnel training for kennel workers and Animal Services policies regarding owner surrender of animals.
The investigation also will consider whether any criminal activity took place in the handling of Zeus.
In the meantime, until the investigation is complete, all decisions regarding the need to euthanize animals will be made by the county's public safety director, Mike Nickerson. Animal Services employees involved in the Zeus incident will not be involved in euthanasia assessments.
In addressing the animal lovers, commission Chairman Wayne Dukes promised to find a way to prevent a similar incident from occurring.
"You don't expect the government to fail you, but we did," Dukes said. "This will not happen again."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]