LAND O'LAKES — As they continue to revamp the county's animal control efforts, Pasco officials sought advice this week from an organization lauded by animal advocates: Manatee County.
Manatee declared itself a "no-kill community" a little more than a year ago. A handful of county officials toured Pasco's shelter on Thursday to share their experiences and offer tips.
Pasco recently set an ambitious goal to find permanent homes for 90 percent of the animals that come through the shelter's doors. The only animals put to sleep would be the severely injured, elderly or aggressive.
Some of the tips are relatively simple. Tweak shelter hours to accommodate people getting off work. Generate more revenue by creating a cat license in addition to the current requirement for dog owners. Promote specials and off-site adoption events to generate publicity.
Other ideas will take more work, such as a trap-neuter-release program that will decrease the population of feral cats over the long term. But the Manatee officials said their most important suggestion is cementing relationships with rescue groups and volunteers.
"Reach out to the community," said Nicki Bentley, a shelter supervisor and volunteer coordinator for Manatee Animal Services. "Let them know what you need because I know you have bleeding hearts that will help."
The visitors said Pasco's state-of-the-art adoption center, which opened in early 2011, could be a major asset to promote the county's animal control efforts.
"That's beautiful. Like, oh my god," said Luke Berglund, a contract veterinarian for Manatee. "People will love volunteering there."
He suggested using the adoption center as much as possible, including as an intake center. The current intake center, known as "Building C" would hold overflow animals, sick animals that must be quarantined or aggressive animals. Such a move would place more animals in cleaner conditions and put a better face on Animal Services.
"If you show you care and you act like you care, even if you're the county, people will come," Berglund said. "We became the frou-frou operation in the county."
Bentley also explained Manatee's "pit crew" public education program. The county invites volunteers with American Kennel Club certifications to train pit bulls during weekly meetings. Once the dogs are more socialized, the county showcases them in the shelter to help change people's preconceptions of the breed.
"We kind of want to change that because unfortunately that's what shelters are full of, pit bulls," she said.
Pasco officials are hosting a community meeting tonight for those interested in creating a foster program to provide temporary homes for animals. That would be part a detailed business plan that will be released in the coming weeks.
Another idea that could reduce Pasco's shelter population: refusing animals from outside the county. Currently the Land O'Lakes shelter accepts dogs and cats from people in Hernando, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
"It's not fair to us. It's not fair to citizens," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who has been working with animal advocates and shelter employees for several weeks. "It's costing Pasco County taxpayers 'x' amount of dollars to take these animals."
Officials also commiserated with each other over public pressure from animal advocates.
"We're just pulling out of the damage stage that you guys went through," said Pasco Animal Services manager John Malley, referring to months of heated emails from critics that prompted the "Save 90 percent" plan and upgrades to Building C. He added that some critics continue to call for his firing.
Kristopher Weiskopf, Manatee's animal services division chief, said he faced months of similar pressure.
"Prove them wrong," he said. "That's what you've got to do. There's proof now that you can say, 'Listen, it's not what you think.' "
Pasco recently resumed euthanizing sick, elderly and aggressive animals after a nearly month-long moratorium. That included 25 dogs that were put down Monday after being deemed too aggressive to be adopted. Some animal advocates criticized the decision and circulated an illustration of 25 headstones along with the animal identification numbers.
Malley defended the move and said the moratorium increased the number of aggressive dogs in the shelter.
"These evaluations of the 25 dogs that went down, I did every single one of them," Malley said. "When you stop euthanasia for almost a month, you will have that buildup."
Berglund said Manatee's shelter went through a similar situation this summer. The number of animals in the shelter steadily increased. Staffers couldn't keep up the pace on cleaning cages. The risk of disease went up.
"We had too many animals," he said. "What good is it to get to 90 percent when you're hoarding animals in unsanitary conditions?"
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.