LAND O'LAKES — John Malley jokes that he's not a perfect fit to lead Pasco's Animal Services department. He's allergic to cats.
Seconds after sharing this news, he picks up a kitten for a quick snuggle.
Behind that soft side is a former military policeman whose father and three brothers are all cops. His experience in an Army canine unit gave him a deep appreciation for animals, and during several years in the corporate world, he yearned to work with them again.
"You can either count your money or you can go home with a sense of satisfaction," he said. "When you work to save an animal's life, that's what invigorates you."
Working in Animal Services is considered one of the toughest jobs in county government. Employees face a stress known as "compassion fatigue." About half of the dogs and cats that come in must be put down.
"(Employees) have to deal with animals on a daily basis that are put to sleep, which is not easy," said Dr. Diana Joyner-Mattox, a Dade City veterinarian. "A lot of them are healthy, beautiful animals that just don't have a home."
Malley said he and his staff try to dwell on the happy moments, like when a dog finds a home or an owner is reunited with a lost pet.
"That's how we get through the day," he said. "We force ourselves to focus on the positive outcomes."
Those happy stories motivate him to improve shelter's bottom-line numbers. Two years ago, about one in five animals left the shelter alive. These days, nearly two-thirds of dogs find a home and fewer cats are being put down as well.
Malley, 46, is a Rhode Island native who graduated from the University of South Florida. After the service, he took a job with Capitol One in Tampa, then joined the nonprofit job placement group Career Central in 2000. He moved to the Suncoast SPCA a few years later and joined the Animal Services department in 2007.
He took over as director six months ago, and is earning plaudits from many in the animal welfare community for his agency's efforts to curb overpopulation and to boost the number of adoptions. He suggested a county ordinance to crack down on unscrupulous puppy mills and has plans for a new low-cost spay and neuter program for poor pet owners.
Several of the changes began during the tenure of former director Denise Hilton, who worked 36 years at the department and retired in May. She began early work on the animal welfare ordinance and also oversaw the planning and building of a new adoption center in Land O'Lakes.
"She was a tough act to follow," said Dan Johnson, the assistant county administrator who oversees Animal Services.
The new adoption center has more room for animals, a larger hospital area and several areas where people can visit with the dog or cat they are considering adopting. A hospital-like air conditioning system provides a constant stream of fresh air.
There's even a "feline freedom" room, where cats romp in a paradise of pillows and steps that lead to a perch near the ceiling. They can spend a day or two there as a treat or to help with socialization.
"That has really lifted everybody's mood over there," said Dr. Robert Hase, a veterinarian with Bayonet Point Animal Clinic.
That's the nice part.
The old adoption center serves as the place where dogs and cats are first dropped off. Its cages include aggressive dogs or those with behavioral problems. The paint on the floors is peeling, the rafters are exposed and the kennels are old and grungy.
"It wasn't very inviting," said former county Commissioner Michael Cox, who along with his wife started a nonprofit that raises money for the department. "When you're going out to get a new member of your family, it ought to be a pleasurable experience."
Observers see the changes as modernizing a department created in 1972 when Pasco was a small rural county. The department now embraces putting microchips in animals with owner information.
The county has partnerships with about 70 rescue groups that took more than 200 dogs last month for adoption programs. About 40 animals found homes in February, before the program began.
"I think it's changing, it really is," Commissioner Pat Mulieri said. "Animal control was always the stepchild on the block."
Malley acknowledges there has been a "culture change" at the department. He holds weekly meetings to tackle staff concerns and monthly meetings to solicit ideas from employees. Each idea gets a fair shake, and workers get specific feedback about its progress.
He pointed to one idea to offer cheap spay and neuter services to people with low income. The idea came from New Hampshire, where it was so successful at reducing overpopulation that it was adopted statewide.
Under the proposal, an outside firm would work with vet clinics across the county to provide the services. Animal control officers and a community liaison would refer people to the company if they might qualify. The five-year plan would cost $500,000, paid from a reserve of licensing fees.
Rosemary Lyons, the department's staffer who trains volunteers and visits community groups, said she hopes the program will start reducing the number of strays that come to the shelter after about three years.
"You want to reduce the number you take in," she said. "What you do take in, you want to get them back out alive."
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.