SPRING HILL — Facing dozens of animal advocates stung by failures at Hernando County Animal Services, the county's public safety director vowed Tuesday night to pitch a package of solutions to the County Commission.
"Failure is not an option,'' director Mike Nickerson said.
About 50 people attended the town hall meeting at the Palace Grand to hear Nickerson and a panel of others discuss the findings of a recent audit of Animal Services completed by the clerk of the circuit court.
The audit was requested after a young black and white dog named Zeus was euthanized in April, just 12 minutes after a relative of the owner turned him in at Animal Services for adoption.
Using the recommendations in the audit, Nickerson shared details about some of the changes and improvements he will recommend to the County Commission in mid October.
Among those that received the most positive feedback was confirmation that embattled animal and code services manager Liana Teague will not remain as supervisor over Animal Services.
Nickerson said the move was not disciplinary. He said that with the planned separation of Animal Services from Code Enforcement, Teague would move over to the Building Department to oversee Code Enforcement.
Nickerson said he is looking at ways to bring a veterinarian in to oversee the county's animal shelter, a move that he believes would solve many of the medical care issues that have arisen. He said the county is exploring cost-effective options.
If a veterinarian cannot be found, he said he wanted to see someone in the job who had animal expertise.
He will also push for the hiring of a rescue, adoption and volunteer coordinator, which would allow the shelter to again begin to accept volunteers. A rift between a group of volunteers that reported the Zeus incident and the shelter staff has been blamed for some of the recent problems at the facility.
Several audience members said they hope they can now volunteer.
"The volunteers are your answer,'' said Cheryl Fagundo, who is one of the shelter volunteers.
She said she knew her group had been criticized for being outspoken about the problems at Animal Services. But she noted it was the volunteers who have been working to increase the number of shelter animals that are adopted and placed in homes. Fagundo urged Nickerson and the county to take advantage of what the volunteers have offered.
"We can put together that army. You just have to let us put together that army,'' she said.
Nickerson credited the volunteers, rescue groups, individuals who have adopted animals, PetLuv Nonprofit Spay and Neuter Clinic executive director Richard Silvani and the county staff for increasing the number of adoptions.
While last year the county was euthanizing 70 percent of the animals at the shelter, in the most recent quarter the percentage dropped to 30 percent. Nickerson said the goal is to sustain those numbers.
Another change at the shelter will be utilizing trusties from the county jail. Nickerson said that the Animal Services staff will be trained to supervise those workers to save the cost of having to have a sheriff's deputy on duty at the shelter.
That idea got a strong vote of support from local defense attorney Colleen Kasperek. She told the panelists that some of her clients would love to be able to work with animals.
"It helps (the trusties). It helps the county. It helps the animals,'' she said.
Nickerson said other plans for improvements include enlarging the cat cages, which currently don't meet basic shelter standards, and building an open area in the garage for more cat housing, a project that likely would require private fundraising.
He also said there is a plan to outfit the shelter with video cameras that would document what is happening at the facility, for the sake of the employees and the animals.
Animal advocates in the audience asked a variety of questions about the shelter's operation, ranging from details about the euthanasia process to the procedures for determining which animals are aggressive and how their cages are labeled. There were also questions about how the shelter ensures that people who adopt animals follow through with veterinary care and sterilization.
That question prompted Silvani to offer to have all adoptable pets spayed or neutered at his clinic before they are released to the public. The offer drew a standing ovation, and Nickerson praised Silvani, noting that he has been the biggest outside contributor to Animal Services.
Nickerson also acknowledged that the county's downsizing had led to many of the issues at Animal Services. He likened the situation to cutting the staff in a hospital and having the patients suffer.
"Only our patients do not talk," he said. "They bark and meow.''
Nickerson repeatedly promised that a situation like the one involving Zeus would not happen again, and he cited his own history of firing an animal supervisor for just cause and disciplining two employees lately for abuse and neglect as evidence he was serious about making changes at the shelter.
"I want to be able to sleep nights,'' he said.
He said he would bring his proposal to the County Commission and hope for at least three favorable votes, even though costs would increase — by how much is yet to be determined.
Commissioner John Druzbick told those in the audience that they had to be willing to voice their support, especially since the county is in such dire shape with its budget.
"We hear from a handful of people who tell us cut, cut, cut and cut. This is the result of that,'' he said. "We need you folks to help us. ... A large majority of people want better.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.