BROOKSVILLE — Several missteps by Hernando County Animal Services staff contributed to the deaths of more than two dozen abandoned Shih Tzu dogs last year and an ensuing barrage of criticism, a report from the county administration released late Thursday concluded.
Termed a "climate assessment,'' the report by County Administrator David Hamilton and human resources officials determined that, in the two years since Animal Services and Code Enforcement have been combined and downsized, friction has developed among workers. But the report also notes that the "culture of complaining'' existed before the merger.
The report does not call for any dismissals or reprimands. It does recommend new procedures for emergencies, more internal communication through regular staff meetings, and stronger partnerships with groups such as the Humane Society and Pet Luv.
It also urges county officials to avoid further cuts in the already downsized department in the coming budget preparation season. Any cuts should target management, not workers.
Hamilton decided to do the survey after more than half of the 64 abandoned Shih Tzus that Animal Services took in after they were abandoned overnight on a rural Brooksville road fell victim to parvo virus, an infection they contracted while at the shelter.
Some of the dogs died from the virus, while others had to be euthanized.
"Agencies included Put Luv along with members of the public provided harsh critical comments on decisions that had been made and also not made in a timely manner that resulted in the deaths of many of the dogs,'' the report notes.
Two key managers, as it happened, were away from the shelter on a scheduled trip and a vacation when the abandoned dogs arrived at the shelter.
While that complicated the response, "solid organizations with established and well-communicated policies and procedures should be structured to deal with any emergencies with results that convey a positive outcome for Hernando County,'' the report states.
"Unfortunately the incident prompted harsh public criticism and resulted in a tarnished image for the entire Hernando County organization.''
The report notes disagreement among staff and the public about the housing of the abandoned dogs and concludes mistakes were made.
"What is clear is that animals that were part of the sheriff's investigation should not have left the kennel for grooming while they were being de-stressed and that the vaccinations and care that had been offered to Animal Services (by Pet Luv) should not have been rejected by management.''
The report recommends that new protocols are needed for emergencies and that they should be practiced through drills. Procedures also should be developed for groups that work with Animals Services, such as the Sheriff's Office, Pet Luv and the Humane Society of the Nature Coast.
A media/site visitation policy is also needed.
"In the case of the Shih Tzu dogs, unauthorized staff and media photographers were allowed onto the site to view the dogs. This only added to the confusion that the incident prompted,'' the report stated.
The Animal Services and Code Enforcement employees were also asked about their thoughts on the public/private partnership under discussion about the Humane Society taking on the animal adoption portion of the service.
Some were concerned that the partnership was a "done deal" and that their input and concerns were not going to be addressed. Others were worried about more job losses and that the loss of the adoption function would be the loss of the most positive aspect of the department.
"Regardless, the existing relationship with the Humane Society involving their assistance with adopting qualified animals was seen as a welcome relationship,'' the report states.
There was also an openness to working on a more cooperative level with Pet Luv and renewing the relationship with that group to enhance services to animals.
The report recommends pursuing and formalizing those partnerships and possibly locating a new Humane Society facility on county land close to the animal shelter.
Staff morale issues also emerged from the interviews in comments that criticized one officer for "having a caustic and abusive attitude towards fellow workers.''
There was also frustration over the perceived lack of public perception of what animal and code officers do.
But "there is a deep sense of commitment by both Code Enforcement staff and Animal Services staff who genuinely care about the work that they do and are proud to be part of the Hernando County organization.''
The report recommends sparing the department from significant additional cuts. If vacant positions don't take care of the cuts that would be needed as a last resort, then they should come "at the highest management level rather than at the operational level'' because the seasoned employees "do not need a great deal of fixed management.''