LAND O'LAKES — It's a bit of a hike, but there's plenty of room.
For the past month, New Port Richey's volunteer-run animal protection unit has been using a facility in Land O'Lakes to house the animals it takes into custody. The facility has about 60 kennels with indoor and outdoor runs, several quarantine rooms and some grassy fields where the animals are walked and run.
The kennels on U.S. 41, a few miles south of State Road 52, are a haul from New Port Richey, but program leader Sharon McReynolds said the facility has been a blessing.
"The distance is not ideal, but it's been wonderful for us," said McReynolds, who arranged for the city to rent the facility from veterinarian Joseph Brooks. This week there are 25 dogs, 15 puppies and a cat at the facility.
The spacious grounds have offered a fresh start for the New Port Richey program, which was temporarily shut down last month amid a slew of controversies.
New Port Richey decided last year to stop using Pasco County Animal Services, and instead launch a volunteer-run program to handle animal complaints. At first, the program borrowed kennels next to the SPCA headquarters in New Port Richey. But the SPCA called on the city in March to vacate those kennels after a parvo outbreak killed 10 dogs from the SPCA shelter.
SPCA executive director Jennie Briguglio believed the outbreak originated at the kennels on loan to the city. The city-run kennel had been placed under quarantine after losing two dogs to parvovirus, but McReynolds never told the neighboring SPCA.
That revelation came on the heels of concerns raised by former New Port Richey police Chief James Steffens in emails to interim City Manager Susan Dillinger over volunteers' handling of the unit's operations. Among other things, he described how McReynolds authorized $1,400 in medical care for a pit bull that Steffens said should be euthanized, and noted that McReynolds refused to put down a couple of other sickly dogs that ex-volunteer Beth Robbins believed were needlessly suffering.
McReynolds said Monday those accusations led to the unit being "shut down" and the city did an extensive investigation, which found no wrongdoing by the program.
"Believe me, the city did their due diligence," McReynolds said as she showed the new kennels to the Times and interim police Chief Kim Bogart.
Temporarily shutting down the program and moving to Land O'Lakes took its toll on the unit, though. McReynolds said several rescues were skeptical about continuing to work with the program, but have come back once they saw the positive revival of operations. The longer drive to the Land O'Lakes kennel also reduced the number of volunteers from 30 to about 12, McReynolds said.
"Most of the volunteers we lost have assured me they will come back once we return to New Port Richey," McReynolds said.
The controversy over the program also led to some operational changes on the city side. Initially, the unit was under the auspices of the Police Department. Now, McReynolds said, she works directly with Dillinger on any issues that come up. The Police Department is still working with the unit on logistical issues, such as animal calls involving possible criminal activity. And the unit's only animal protection officer, Jeff McReynolds, who happens to be Sharon's husband, has an office and vehicle at the Police Department, from where he responds to calls for service.
Bogart said some issues remain, including getting the animal facility back in the city, but said he was pleased with what he saw at the temporary Land O'Lakes site.
"I feel like we are buying time to make some rational and informed decisions," Bogart said.
The city is working on building its own kennels at its old public works building in an industrial park off Congress Street, a project Bogart said needs to be on the fast track. Bogart said there also needs to be discussions on the volunteer unit's plans to seek nonprofit status.
McReynolds said that is her goal, but she hopes that she will still have the backing of the city and police should that occur and the unit becomes its own entity.