Pasco County's animal control officials are starting a new effort they hope will save more animals and repair relations with critics.
County commissioners last week gave their blessing for a "save 90 percent" plan endorsed by the no-kill movement of animal advocates. Staffers are working out details, but the goal is to find homes for nearly all animals that come through the county's doors. Some, because of age or sickness, must still be put down.
It's an ambitious goal that officials previously shied away from. They warn that they need buy-in from residents to make it work.
"We're going to really push on the public relations end to have the citizens involved more and more," said Animal Services manager John Malley. "We're definitely putting out an all-points bulletin that we need volunteers and we need them now."
The change comes after advocates lobbed criticism of Animals Services for several months. Commissioners received dozens and dozens of emails accusing the county of needlessly euthanizing animals and running an inhumane operation. They called on the county to fire Malley and other managers.
Now, both Malley and his critics say the relationship is being repaired.
"We're moving in a direction that we've all been striving for," said Kimberleigh Kernon of Port Richey, who founded Saving Grace Animal Rescue. "We're definitely excited about the changes that are going to be taking place."
Kernon credits Commissioner Pat Mulieri with championing their cause and working with county staffers.
"They are getting so excited, the animal groups," Mulieri said at a commission meeting Wednesday. "It's just the right thing to do."
Mulieri plans to stop by the animal shelter in Land O'Lakes for special events on Nov. 16 and 30 to recruit volunteers.
"She's not just a talker," Kernon said. "She's going to get out there, put her boots on and she's going to shovel poo."
A major complaint from some rescue groups is the conditions at the county's intake center, known as "Building C." Built in the 1980s, the building 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. There is no air conditioning.
Suzanne Salichs, who recently took over as assistant county administrator for public services, said one the first things she did was ask for renovations.
"That was a big point of contention in the emails, the condition of the building," Salichs said. "We addressed that immediately."
Using money left over from building Pasco's new adoption center, the county will soon repaint peeling floors, replace the ceiling and add central heat and air conditioning.
Other changes include increasing the county's official holding capacity from 120 to 150 animals. Advocates argue the intake building and adoption center have many more cages than that.
Malley said the limit is based on national guidelines limiting how many animals a shelter can care for with its staff and volunteers. With more volunteers, he said, the county can care for more animals.
Said Kernon: "As much as we'd all like to think so, Pasco's not going to be able to do this all by themselves. The more help they can get, the easier it will be."
Recently, the county temporarily extended its holding capacity and had 200 animals on Friday. Malley said the county has largely stopped euthanizing animals for the past two weeks.
"We're doing everything we can right now to maintain those numbers," he said.
Officials are crafting a business plan to provide more details, including financing strategies, for the "Save 90 percent" strategy. Part of the plan could include a slight increase in licensing fees to pay for an adoption and rescue coordinator whose sole job would be working with rescue groups to find permanent homes for animals.
Other ideas include registering cats (currently the county only requires registration for dogs) and a trap, neuter and release program for feral cats. Right now, cats are euthanized at a much higher rate than dogs.
"We see it's the only way out for our feral cat population," he said. "That's what destroys our life-release numbers."
Malley said he hopes to finish the plan in the next month or so.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.