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One dog's death reforms Hernando County Animal Services


They were quick decisions made in just a few minutes.

Laurie Boynton, a volunteer at Hernando County Animal Services, decided that the bouncy, young, black-and-white dog walking through the door as a surrendered pet was cute enough to be adopted quickly.

Animal Services workers, on the other hand, at the end of their shift on a Friday, decided the dog should be euthanized, so it wouldn't fill up another kennel as the weekend approached.

In those moments, Zeus, a pit bull mix, became the poster child for a troubled Animal Services department and the focus of a community conversation about how Hernando County treats its four-legged residents.

Zeus died 12 minutes after he walked in the door that mid-April afternoon, and the outcry from animal advocates lasted for months.

The upshot has been an animal euthanasia rate that has plummeted; a plan to beef up the depleted department staff, including the addition of a veterinarian, and new procedures recommended by experts.

Problems with the shelter operation were detailed in pages of reports, most notably one by the University of Florida and an internal audit conducted by the clerk of the circuit court.

As the county was discussing and digesting the findings, issues continued to arise, including another mistaken euthanasia, which prompted new county Administrator Len Sossamon to issue a warning to public safety director Mike Nickerson in September and place him solely in charge of fixing the broken department. That meant until the task is done, he will not perform his duties as Hernando County fire chief.

In the months since, the County Commission has approved a controversial ordinance and agreed to spend $245,000 to increase the shelter staff, including the veterinarian manager.

Nickerson acknowledged the challenges he and the county have faced over the past year, but also said that as the new procedures go into effect and staffers see they will soon have help, the outlook for 2013 is brighter.

"We're actually ending the year on a very positive note,'' he said.

As the year winds to a close, Nickerson said was completing interviews with the top two veterinarians under consideration to lead the shelter and with the top six candidates for the key job of animal advocate/volunteer and rescue coordinator. He hopes to fill those jobs next month.

Filling the open veterinary technician job has been more of a challenge. None of the applicants in the first round had the required euthanasia technician certification, but the job has been advertised again and the requirements tweaked to allow the person to get certified within three months.

The shelter will also soon start using jail trusties. Employees will supervise the inmates after they have received the proper training.

New operating procedures are mostly in place, except for the ones that require the services of a veterinarian. One of the major changes for the shelter will be that all animals adopted out will have already been spayed or neutered in-house. Currently, adopters pay a deposit that is returned after they have the animal spayed or neutered.

"That way the animal will be all good to go when you pick it up,'' Nickerson said.

It also ensures that the animal is sterilized and won't be producing litters of puppies or kittens that land at the shelter.

The new surgical suite will be where the code enforcement office had been at Animal Services.

Other improvements are also planned. During his time as interim manager at Animal Services, veterinarian Raul Figarola conducted a fundraiser where pets could have pictures taken with Santa, with proceeds going toward a fenced play area for dogs.

"He's definitely tried some different things," Nickerson said of Figarola. "I hope he stays involved" after the permanent employees are on board.

Another proposed change is to reopen the shelter on Saturdays, strictly for adoptions and retrieving lost pets. The shelter's Saturday hours ended in 2010 when budget cuts forced the county to reduce hours.

Nickerson is optimistic that all of the changes will result in a continuing improvement in the number of live outcomes for animals that land at the shelter.

"We're really looking forward to having the new staff,'' Nickerson said. "Internally, the morale has really picked up.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at or (352) 848-1434.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Hernando Times this week is publishing recaps of the Top 10 stories of 2012 in Hernando County, as identified by the Times staff. They appear in no particular order.

The Hernando Times this week is publishing recaps of the Top 10 stories of 2012 in Hernando County, as identified by the Times staff. They appear in no particular order.

One dog's death reforms Hernando County Animal Services 12/26/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 26, 2012 7:41pm]
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