TAMPA — The higher-ups at Hillsborough County's animal shelter still have work to do in better managing the pet population, not to mention the employees who care for the dogs and cats who wind up there.
That's the upshot of two separate reports from independent experts engaged by the county to recommend ways to cut down on illness among animals at the shelter, speed up adoptions and lessen strife among employees.
Both reports, issued late last month, commended the county for seeking ways to lower the number of animals that are euthanized at the shelter each year. Better management of the animal population and communication of expectations by the head of the shelter to rank-and-file employees should help further the goal, they say.
County Administrator Mike Merrill said Animal Services director Ian Hallett is working to implement many of the recommendations in the reports. Hallett held a staff meeting last week to start the work of better communicating with his employees.
Merrill expressed confidence in Hallett's ability to make the shelter a healthier place for potential pets and one that is more welcoming to feedback and suggestions from employees.
"He knows what needs to be done," Merrill said. "It's really up to him now. I think he can do it."
"It has been a challenging transition," said Hallett, who took over as animal services director a little more than a year ago. "I know that I have the skills to meet the Board of County Commissioners' goal of saving more animals."
Hillsborough County Animal Services has been the focus of months of criticism from cat and dog welfare advocates who have protested the departure of several respected longtime employees and outbreaks of illness. They have gathered stories of people who have adopted animals from the shelter only to amass hefty veterinary bills treating their pets for respiratory disease or parvovirus — or worse, watch them die.
Two of the shelter's three veterinarians, including one hired by Hallett, resigned as animal sickness at the shelter spread, publicly airing concerns about management as they left. Several longtime volunteers complained that their efforts to help were ignored, and some private vets who advise the shelter complained that shelter management was not using best practices to keep animals healthy.
Merrill has attributed part of the strife to a change in leadership at the shelter.
zHallett was hired to implement efforts to sharply reduce the number of animals killed each year, a goal of county commissioners. And, according to shelter records, the number of animals getting adopted is up even as the shelter population has risen in the past year.
A team from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine visited the shelter last month and made a number of recommendations aimed at further improving the numbers. The recommendations range from speeding up the time it takes to make an animal turned into the shelter available for adoption to more quickly turning them over to rescue groups that assist in finding homes. The group's report also suggests a more intensive and organized system of keeping track of animals through their stay at the shelter.
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Hallett said plans are under way to renovate part of the shelter to create more room for its veterinarians and rearrange kennel and cage space to help prevent the spread of disease.
In a separate analysis, former University of South Florida business professor Linda Andrews-Crotwell documented a tense atmosphere at the animal shelter after meeting with employees and volunteers. She said many employees who have been with the agency feel their input isn't welcome, say there is little direct communication about expectations and fear losing their jobs.
"The bottom line is that management is not perceived as trusting most long-term employees and conversely many employees do not trust management," Andrews-Crotwell wrote. "Without trust between management and employees, an organization cannot be its best."
Hallett said he is working to be more visible around the shelter and said last week's two-hour staff meeting included a healthy dialogue he hopes sets a new tone going forward.
"I felt at that meeting staff began to open up and give honest feedback to me," he said. "That was a good start."
Many animal welfare activists are still expressing skepticism, and Merrill's patience may wear thin at some point if the department continues to draw criticism. He has had to personally get involved in shelter decisions in recent weeks, as have two of his top deputies. He also has spun off a part of the department that investigates animal cruelty cases to his code enforcement office so that Hallett can focus on the shelter. And while the veterinary analysis by UF was free, the workplace management study cost $18,000.
"I think it's great that they've engaged outside entities to review the shelter," said Michael Haworth, a veterinarian and chairman of the county's Animal Advisory Committee. "I hope they will take their recommendations to heart and run with them for the betterment of the animals and the people who work with them."
Bill Varian can be reached at or (813) 226-3387.