BROOKSVILLE — Last April, a group of volunteers at Hernando County Animal Services made headlines when they revealed an ugly truth about animal shelters: Sometimes, good animals are euthanized.
The volunteers ignited an outcry when animal lovers heard the story of Zeus, a young dog euthanized just 12 minutes after he had been surrendered to the shelter.
Since then, the group of volunteers, which has organized as the Animal Rescue Friends Network Inc., or ARF'N, has helped find homes for dozens of animals.
Instances of euthanasia have plummeted at the shelter.
But the group's privileges as a rescue organization were taken away recently.
Last month, the group failed to provide to Animal Services written proof that two dogs it rescued and placed into a foster home were sterilized and received proper veterinary care for mange.
The incident and several others have led to a flurry of Facebook postings, blasting ARF'N for failing to follow rules and accusing the rescue of adopting out sick and vicious animals and abandoning dozens of cats.
In an exchange posted on the Facebook page of ARF'N vice president Krisztina Kallai, Kallai writes that she doesn't care about the criticism of her group by Mandy Maiwald Celt, the girlfriend of veterinarian Raul Figarola, the interim shelter manager and owner of ASAP Animal Clinic.
"Let it go,'' Kallai writes.
Celt responds: "I'll let it go when it stops. I don't think I'm smarter. I just do the RIGHT thing for the animals and if that means putting an end to the irresponsible acts of you and your group of 'friends' then that is (when) I will let it go.''
ARF'N's board responded to the recent criticism on Friday, sending a package of paperwork meant to disprove the allegations, along with cease-and-desist letters, to several people who had the postings on their Facebook pages. The letters demand that the recipients take down critical postings or face future action.
Cheryl Fagundo, ARF'N president, said the group considered the allegations nothing more than a nuisance for a while.
"The straw that broke the camel's back'' was postings on the ASAP Animal Clinic, the Humane Society of the Nature Coast and other pages "making libelous statements and swearing them to be true, also informing people to NOT go to the Hernando County Animal Control Friends Page to help the animals.
"That was crossing the line,'' Fagundo said. "Now the animals have a potential of dying because of ignorance and arrogance.''
The latest uproar comes just as operations are about to change at Animal Services. This week, new employees approved for the shelter in the aftermath of the Zeus incident, several studies and an audit will begin work.
Donna Black, the new animal advocate and rescue and volunteer coordinator, begins on Tuesday. The first day for Lisa Centonze, the new managing veterinarian, is Thursday. A new veterinary technician also has been selected and is expected to start soon.
Pulling together the embattled operation is going to be no small task. Just ask Figarola, who has spent two months as the interim manager.
He called the job "an experience I don't ever want to repeat.''
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On Nov. 13, Fagundo pulled a pit bull and a bloodhound puppy from the shelter, handing them over for foster care to Jennifer Buchanan, who happened to be the previous owner of the dogs.
Fagundo explained that the dogs needed to be sterilized and treated for mange as soon as possible, and she set up an appointment. Buchanan never made that or any other appointments Fagundo arranged. Ultimately, Buchanan gave the dogs away, and ARF'N filed a report of stolen animals.
The incident was investigated, but a sheriff's deputy was unable to reach the person to whom Buchanan gave the dogs.
Without proof that the animals had been vetted, ARF'N was suspended.
ARF'N is also blasted on a Facebook page called Looking for Miracle, a page that includes the ARF'N logo and an allegation that the group refused to provide proper medical care for, then adopted out, a sick calico kitten named Mira. The site offered a $100 reward for the location of the kitten.
Fagundo's records paint a different picture.
Melissa Nedley took in the kitten, taking it to her vet twice, the records show. When Mira didn't improve, Nedley returned it to ARF'N. Fagundo said the cat went to a local vet the next day. He concluded that the cat didn't have any of the illnesses previously suggested, changed its antibiotics, and within two days it showed signs of improvement.
Twenty days later, Mira was adopted and has been healthy since. In a letter to Nedley, ARF'N offers to let her see the healthy kitten.
Fagundo said she didn't want to have to send the letters to Figarola, Celt, the Humane Society or Nedley.
"We just came to the point that we have to defend ourselves,'' she said. "We've done nothing wrong, and this is our proof.''
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In late August, Figarola wrote a letter praising the work done by Fagundo and her group, likening them to angels. By December, Fagundo was emailing Figarola, asking for details of the allegations he was making that ARF'N had adopted out vicious dogs.
With every dog he named, she said, she had records showing it had been adopted out not by ARF'N, but through Animal Services.
Figarola said Friday that ARF'N advertises dogs in desperate need of rescue, and then some turn out to be dangerous.
When he learned Friday of the cease-and-desist letters he and Celt would receive, he said the shelter volunteers have called him a killer and a murderer online and accused him of stealing dogs.
"I walked into this to try to build bridges between all of the rescues, trying to unite everybody,'' he said.
"Animal rescues don't work together," he concluded.
Mike Nickerson, who has been overseeing Animal Services for the county for the last few months, had a much brighter view of the situation.
Nickerson said he is continuing to work with Fagundo and her group to come up with the information needed to get it reinstated as a rescue.
He said he is optimistic because Animal Services is finally getting to the point where it can provide an acceptable level of service.
"Every position is full now, and they're about to take over,'' Nickerson said. "Dr. Centonze is very capable and very excited about getting her surgical suite set up.''
After that, all animals will be vetted and sterilized before being adopted, eliminating problems early in the process and ensuring that adopted animals don't contribute to the county's pet overpopulation problem.
"Things," he said, "are much better than they were.''