Mike Saunders' job as a computer programmer at the Manatee County School District keeps him indoors much of the day. But most lunch hours he can be spotted walking the streets of downtown Bradenton, a dog at his side. Often, it's a different pup each day.
Saunders is one of Manatee County's small army of volunteer dog walkers. In many ways, he is a foot soldier in this community's effort to end the need to kill former pets that end up in animal shelters because they have been abandoned, abused or neglected by their owners.
Saunders gets his lunch-hour companions from Manatee County Animal Services' downtown adoption center, the most visible element of this community's embrace of the no-kill shelter movement. His walks give the animals needed exercise while also advertising their availability for adoption. His bosses encourage Saunders' participation.
"I always took a walk on my lunch breaks anyway," Saunders said. "Now I'm walking with a target."
Last year, Manatee became the first county in Florida to adopt a no-kill goal for its animal shelters, a movement being pushed by some animal rights supporters around the nation. Alternatively called Save 90 for its recommended adoption rate, the idea is getting a serious look in Hillsborough and Pasco counties even as it garners controversy elsewhere.
Proponents say they realize that some sheltered animals may not be adoptable because they are too diseased or dangerous. But they say for too long shelter operators have not been aggressive enough in getting more animals adopted, opting instead to euthanize as the cheaper option.
They promote more aggressive marketing of animals, greater use of volunteers to offset shelter costs and more collaboration with rescue groups. They deem a shelter "no-kill" if it reaches a 90 percent "save rate."
"This is just the right thing to do," said Kris Weiskopf, chief of Manatee County animal services.
• • •
As recently as 2005, nearly 60 percent of animals brought into Manatee's shelter were euthanized. This September, 10 months after no-kill became policy, the county boasted an 84 percent save rate.
Weiskopf started working in animal services in 1990, rising to chief in 1998 after a stint in code enforcement. In the past few years, he has become a disciple of the no-kill movement, getting commissioners to embrace its tenets.
On a recent visit to Manatee's shelter operations, a few of them stood out:
• Manatee Animal Services aggressively recruits volunteers. Each day, retirees, students and government employees show up to walk or exercise dogs at the adoption center downtown or the main shelter in Palmetto.
"To be perfectly honest, it intimidated me a little bit at first," said Bonnie Sietman, a Manatee County purchasing employee who shows up at the adoption center daily. "I love animals and I was afraid it would break my heart."
Now she sees herself as an important ambassador for dog adoption. County employees who volunteer to walk dogs can earn wellness credits that lower their health insurance costs.
Weiskopf has volunteers who show up in droves once a month to wash shelter animals. They hold their own adoption events.
Unpaid trainers with the "Adopt-a-Bull" program arrive weekly to teach pitbull terriers — a breed with a bad reputation that makes up 70 percent of the shelter's dog population — basic skills such as sitting on command. Other volunteers agree to foster animals temporarily.
• The shelter staff markets their no-kill approach relentlessly. There are frequent adoption promotions, such as free cats in December. A website features photos of all animals up for adoption taken by volunteer professionals. They capture the animals at play or in full portrait, rather than in a cage.
Dog walkers are encouraged to write their impressions of each animal on a whiteboard displayed in the adoption room. They do, with comments like, "Happy boy!"
• The biggest change came before commissioners adopted no-kill as their mantra. The main shelter, off U.S. 41 in Palmetto, is tricky to find. Two years ago, the county opened an adoption center in a downtown Bradenton office space.
Now dogs and cats are on display in one of Manatee's prime districts, a place dedicated solely to the happy part of animal services: finding pets new homes.
"It used to be like, 'They're animal services. They kill,' " said Cheryl Thompson, an animal care specialist who works on a rotation at the adoption center. "This is more rewarding."
• Working with nonprofit groups, Manatee also enthusiastically supports a practice known as trap-neuter-vaccinate-release. It involves trapping stray or feral cats, getting them fixed and re-releasing them.
Cats make up the biggest share of animals killed at shelters. Trap-neuter-release is credited by advocates with sharply reducing their number.
• • •
The no-kill movement has its detractors. They say it drives up taxpayers' costs with longer hold times and increased medical treatment at shelters and sets unrealistic expectations.
Trapping and re-releasing cats has by far drawn the most skepticism from a Hillsborough County task force studying no-kill practices. Critics say it reintroduced feral cats to the wild, susceptible to disease, cars and cruel death.
"We can't do that with dogs," said Christy Layton, president of the county's Veterinary Medical Society. "Why should we do it with cats?"
Weiskopf notes the practice returns cats to their old environment but leaves them unable to reproduce. Why is killing them better?
"The problem is never going to go away," he said. "All we can do is reduce it."
He said his office budget has remained flat since implementing the no-kill policy. Savings come incrementally: Less propane for the animal incinerator. Donors help pay medical costs.
Other Hillsborough critics say both Manatee and Hillsborough have shown a reduction in the number of animals taken in by limiting drop-off hours.
Ian Hallett, hired by Hillsborough County in May to oversee animal services after helping run the no-kill shelter in Austin, Texas, said he recently expanded hours. He said intake has dropped because of the success of low or no-cost spay and neuter programs.
He is already taking steps to further encourage adoptions, including extending adoption hours. While he is thankful for volunteers, he wants to expand their ranks. And he's eager to hear the task force's recommendations.
Ken Hagan, the Hillsborough County Commission chairman who pushed a Save 90 target, said his main goal is reducing the number of animals killed each year. More than 13,000 dogs and cats were euthanized at Hillsborough's animal shelter last year, 66 percent of the animals there.
"I think we can get hung up on the term, no-kill," he said. "The goal is to maximize the save rate."
Times staff writers Lee Logan and Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Contact Bill Varian at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.