The first stop on Dogpatch Lane is a shiny, state-of-the-art adoption center where families can pick a dog or cat to take home from Pasco Animal Services.
But the first stop for most animals is down the road, an older, shabby intake center without air-conditioning, a building some critics say is unfit for animals.
Sharon Smith of Wesley Chapel is part of a group of animal advocates who have lobbed criticisms at Animal Services for several months. She visited the intake center, known as "Building C," earlier this month for an adoption event.
"I saw the wall thermometer, it was 90 degrees in there," she said. "It was hot. It smelled terrible. … No one would want to have their beloved pet in such conditions. It is barbaric. I don't know what else to say."
Animal Services director John Malley said the critics have a "misguided passion" and are only a small part of the more than 100 rescue groups registered with Pasco County. But he acknowledged the intake building "looks horrible." He began a new policy when he took over as director in spring 2011 to allow the public to go into the building to look for a pet to adopt.
"Because there's so much traffic in that building, we have drawn some criticism for the conditions in the building," he said.
"Building C" was constructed in the 1980s and is showing its age. The paint on the concrete floor is peeling. The metal cages are worn. There are few windows, and open rafters make the place look like a warehouse.
And because there is no air-conditioning, a series of large fans are mounted high on one wall, pumping air outside. There are also several fans at ground level to circulate air. Malley said the building does get hot in the summer but said conditions are humane. "They are in a safe environment," he said. "If we didn't exist, they'd be out in the heat, in the wild, being uncared for."
Renovations to add air-conditioning could cost about $150,000. That includes $50,000 for engineering plans that will account for a hygienic environment where cages are sprayed down for cleaning. About $100,000 would go toward the actual improvements, including a new air conditioning system that does not recirculate the inside air.
There might be money available. County Administrator John Gallagher said commissioners could decide to use money remaining from the construction of the $3 million adoption center. There is about $150,000, he said.
"If the board was interested in doing this, they would just need to ask me to find a solution and bring back some options," he said, noting the first step would be to hire a company for the design work.
As an aesthetic improvement, Malley also plans to repaint the floors, though that will require placing some dogs in a temporary trailers for several days while the paint cures. Split into four sections, the painting could take 40 days once the trailers arrive.
On a tour Monday, the intake building had a sharp smell and many cages had piles of feces. Cages in the newer adoption center were also soiled, but that building has little odor because of a high-tech ventilation system. Malley said his staff cleans the cages daily, but had not yet attended to them after the animals ate that morning.
When critics of Animal Services visit, he said, "they see what animals do after they eat, and they photograph it, and it goes viral."
Smith said she and others have visited the intake building at different times of the day and often found soiled cages. She wants to see improvements to the building and more animals put in the new adoption center. She criticized a policy that animals are housed in every other cage. (Malley said national shelter guidelines limit how many animals he can put in the new building to reduce the chance of a disease outbreak.)
"Nobody expects it to be 100 percent safe," Smith said. "But they need to do more than what they're doing."
But not every rescue organization agrees. Lisa Knight, a staffer for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, was at the shelter Monday morning picking up 13 cats and a dog. She stops by two or three times a week and said county officials have improved relationships with outside groups.
"Pasco has streamlined the process in the past year or so," she said. "It's very simple, and it saves tons of lives."
She doesn't know many of the specific criticisms, but said she has "heard terrible myths."
"There are some rescue groups that believe every animal should and can be saved," she said. "Unfortunately in this society, that's just not possible. It's not realistic. Not yet."
There is little argument the shelter's euthanasia rate is getting better, though.
Malley provided nearly two years of monthly figures showing how many animals the shelter took in, found homes for, gave to rescue groups or euthanized. Starting in summer 2011, a few months after Malley took over as director, there has been improvement in nearly every category.
During the fiscal year that ended last September, the county euthanized four out of every five cats. This year's figure is down to about three of every five. Of the shelter's dogs, nearly 50 percent were euthanized last year. Now, it's 20 percent.
The biggest reason for the decline? Animals taken by rescue groups jumped dramatically starting in mid 2011. Pets adopted to individual homes also grew, but at a slower rate.
Long-term, Malley said programs that encourage owners to spay and neuter their pets will reduce animal overpopulation. He cited the new Spay Pasco low-cost program for needy families that could show results in about a year and a half.
"The problem won't go away until the animals stop coming through the door," he said.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.