BROOKSVILLE — The four Hernando County officers who respond to calls concerning abused, abandoned and neglected animals could soon have a new boss: Sheriff Al Nienhuis.
As the county continues to grapple with problems at Animal Services and a fire storm of public outrage, county officials reached out to Nienhuis to see if he could be part of the solution.
Nienhuis responded by offering to take the Animal Services officers under the umbrella of the Sheriff's Office. He has been talking with county officials, county commissioners and, on Thursday, Animal Services workers about the idea.
The offer already is raising questions among those in the animal welfare community who wonder if stripping away the officers will make conditions even more difficult for the small staff at the county's animal shelter.
Nienhuis said the idea of taking on some Animal Services functions wasn't a new concept.
"We are constantly brainstorming here at the Sheriff's Office about ways to do things better and more efficiently,'' he said.
Animal Services officers have been part of those discussions in the past.
"We deal with a lot of animal complaint issues,'' especially nights and on weekends, Nienhuis said. Some of those calls require dispatching a deputy to the scene of an incident to determine whether Animal Services needs to get involved.
"There is a duplication of services,'' and by dispatching Animal Services directly, deputy time could be saved in some instances, the sheriff said.
The officers would not be full deputies but instead would function like the public service technicians "who go out and handle the calls for service that don't call for a badge and a gun,'' Nienhuis said.
Hernando officials are studying how Citrus County handles its animal control officers, according to Mike Nickerson, Hernando's public safety director. The Citrus County Sheriff's Office took over animal officers in September 2009. They handle enforcement of local ordinances and state laws regarding animals, according to sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney.
"We've been very pleased with how it's working here,'' Tierney said.
One big plus, she said, is the ability to serve the public and respond to animal issues as they arise.
"We've been able to extend the hours that the (animal control officers) are on duty,'' she said.
Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy does not handle the Citrus animal shelter or code enforcement, and Nienhuis said he is also not interested in taking on the tasks of the animal care workers or the code enforcement officers currently working together at the Hernando shelter.
Animal Services has been under scrutiny since a young dog named Zeus was euthanized just 12 minutes after it was brought to the shelter in Brooksville by a relative of the owner in April. One of the volunteers at the shelter snapped a photograph of the dog so it could be posted online in hopes of finding someone to adopt it.
After finding an adopter, the volunteers learned the dog was dead. They then went public with a series of issues they had with the shelter and the shelter staff.
The audit services staff of the clerk of the circuit court is investigating the Zeus incident and related issues. Since that investigation began, a veterinarian and the Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida have given detailed reports regarding ongoing issues at the shelter, including the protocols used for euthanizing animals.
Laurie Boynton, the volunteer who first brought the Zeus story to light, said she was concerned about the sheriff's proposal because it would take from the shelter the two officers the volunteers believe show the most compassion to the animals there.
Those officers have been put in charge of making euthanasia decisions while the investigation continues so those responsible for the Zeus case are not involved.
Removing them "would be a disaster for the animals,'' Boynton said in an email to the Times.
Richard Silvani, executive director of PetLuv Nonprofit Spay and Neuter Clinic, also expressed concern about a shift in Animal Services personnel because the department already has been shuffled from one supervisor to another, which he says has had a negative effect on morale.
Taking the officers away from the shelter makes even less sense, Silvani said.
"The road officers need to interact closely with the office staff, and they also perform many functions in the kennel," including making decisions about and performing euthanasia, Silvani told the Times in an email. "The big question is what would the advantage be in splitting the staff that would be worth all the confusion and other challenges?"
Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, said she saw pros and cons to the idea.
"One positive would be if animal control officers, under the sheriff's department, could have more authority or immediate law enforcement backup'' when an incident involving animals occurs, she said.
"The negative I see is that Animal Services is already extremely short staffed,'' she said, and it's the officers who sometimes help the shelter care employees operate the facility. "You'd no longer have that backup if you need it,'' Schoch said.
Nienhuis acknowledged that the issue of taking staff from the shelter is one of many details that needs to be discussed further.
"Some of the questions are not fully answered yet,'' he said.
The proposal will be part of the 2012-13 Sheriff's Office budget that Nienhuis said he plans to present to the county today.
County commissioners said they wanted to hear more about the idea.
Commissioner Jim Adkins said he wants to know what it will ultimately cost the county.
Commissioner Dave Russell said he would like to explore whether the sheriff's proposal would streamline the Animal Services operation.
"We have outstanding personnel in the field right now,'' he said. "Any proposal should include those officers that we already have.''
Commissioner Jeff Stabins said he was encouraged by the sheriff's proposal.
"His deputies get called out to some of these calls anyway,'' he said. "He said it's going to save some money.''
But Stabins said he was unclear how that would work since both the sheriff's and Animal Services' expenses both come from the county's general fund.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.