LAND O'LAKES — It doesn't take much for the dozens of dogs at Pasco County Animal Services to launch into an ear-splitting chorus of yelps and howls.
"They're just excited," shelter manager Mike Shumate explains as he strolls past rows of cages, pausing at one to scratch a lab-mix behind the ears. "They always get that way when they see someone."
Visitors mulling whether to adopt at the county shelter on Dog Patch Lane can be overwhelmed, which is why the facility includes three "bonding rooms" for quieter interactions.
The rooms are among several tools meant to boost adoptions after the county launched its "Save 90" program two years ago. Named for its aim to save 90 percent of impounded animals, the program is nearing that goal now with live transfers out of the shelter hovering at 85 percent this month.
"We're not there yet, but we're getting there," Shumate said.
Along with the bonding rooms and outdoor play area, Save 90 uses volunteers, foster families and rescue groups to tend to the animals and seek homes for the pets, including out of state.
Pasco commissioners voted in February 2013 to raise license fees to allow the shelter to hire more staff to feed the animals, clean cages and match pets with owners.
Also helping, a few months ago the shelter received a dog adoption vehicle called the Tail Wagon to bring to malls on weekends. Former County Commissioner Michael Cox helped outfit the wagon, a donated transit bus. Among other things, he welded a platform on the back to hold a generator to run lights and air conditioning.
Save 90 is modeled after a program in Manatee County and part of a push nationally to save strays. It started after activists visiting Pasco's shelter in 2012 were stunned by the sweltering, unclean cages at one building and the shelter's high euthanization rate.
More than 55 percent of animals brought to animal services ended up with a lethal injection. Activists say the kill rate soared to 85 percent some months.
One county report in October 2010 showed that of the 267 dogs impounded, 135 were euthanized, and of the 470 cats there, 455 were put down. The rate improved to 45 percent in 2012, but activists were still appalled.
"It was horrible," said Novette Gish, a volunteer for Cat Crusaders and St. Joseph Animal Rescue. "Any cat brought in, whether trapped or surrendered, was pretty much killed within 24 hours."
The group also complained that the county's new adoption center, known as building A, was under-utilized, which left more animals housed in the poorly ventilated building C.
The group turned its anger toward then-shelter manager John Malley and later county commissioners, writing letters, showing up at board meetings and picketing outside county offices and the shelter.
Malley resigned in April 2013. Shumate took over a few months later. Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who was swayed by the activists, led commissioners to adopt Save 90.
"We euthanize a very small number in comparison to what we used to," she said of today's 10 to 15 percent rate. "It's much better now. I'm very pleased."
Almost all the animals put down now are sick or injured. In instances involving large excitable dogs, the shelter sometimes turns to foster families.
But the biggest change under Save 90 has been the shelter's mindset toward strays. Where in the past the overall goal focused on population control, the aim now is to prepare animals for adoption.
For dogs, that includes getting them outside for walks to keep them from getting stir crazy. The shelter leans heavily on its 60 or so volunteers to walk the dogs between 10 minutes and a half hour each outside the kennel.
"We're there to help them and move them along to new families," said one volunteer, Diana Hessman, 67, of New Port Richey. "If you give a dog just 10 minutes of love and get them out of that kennel it can be very rewarding. We look at it that way."
Still, Save 90 has its challenges. Shumate said the hardest part is getting the animals moved out quickly. That's where volunteers and rescue groups come in. Currently, the shelter houses about 145 dogs and 50 cats.
"It's the happiest thing ever to see a family go off with a dog," said volunteer Monica Pollans, 65, of Land O'Lakes. "So many of the dogs become your favorite and you root for them. You root for them to get a good home."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.