NEW PORT RICHEY — Within days of adopting Ryan, his new family brought the 10-week-old puppy back to the SPCA Suncoast. The hound mix was severely dehydrated, had bloody stools and no appetite. A Feb. 19 test confirmed the puppy had parvo. Ryan died a few days later.
From there it was a domino effect, said SPCA vet technician Julie Leonard. Nine more families returned adopted dogs that had contracted the highly contagious virus. All of those dogs died.
Jennie Briguglio, the executive director of the SPCA Suncoast, was devastated by the loss and angered by the source: She believes the parvo outbreak originated in the kennels she loaned to New Port Richey's volunteer-run animal control unit, temporarily housed in a building right next door to the SPCA shelter.
Worse, she said, the head of the city's animal protection unit never told her.
A few weeks earlier, the city-run kennel was placed under quarantine after losing two dogs to parvovirus, according to a Jan. 28 email by Sharon McReynolds, head of the volunteer unit. Briguglio didn't learn about it until a couple weeks later, and only by chance: She asked the police department why the locks had been changed on the facility she had loaned to the city. They told her about McReynolds' quarantine.
"We appreciate if this is kept somewhat quiet, as it could become a nightmare in the press," McReynolds wrote in her Jan. 28 email to Officer Greg Williams.
"Parvo is very common, but when you identify it you have to take immediate action," Briguglio told the Times on Wednesday. "It's not something you keep a secret. It's something you should talk about to get the help you need."
The virus, which is present in the fecal matter of infected dogs, is easily spread in common areas and can be carried on the soles of shoes. Briguglio suspects the city volunteers tracked the virus into the SPCA shelter when they came in to use the bathroom.
McReynolds, who did not return calls for this story, gave a different theory of the outbreak in her Jan. 28 email. "We do know that none of our animals brought the virus in," she wrote, "so it was either brought in by someone/something or it was already here."
The fatal communication breakdown is the final straw for Briguglio, who wants the city's animal control program out of the SPCA-loaned kennels as soon as possible.
"I really wanted this to work because I think it can be a great program," Briguglio told the Times. "But enough is enough. When you are putting public perception over the good of the animals that is a problem."
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The volunteers and supporters packed into City Hall on Tuesday evening to praise New Port Richey's animal control program. Some waved signs showing dogs rescued by the program. McReynolds nuzzled a toy poodle dressed in a pink sweater.
The city decided last year to part ways with Pasco County Animal Services and create its own animal control program, run by a group of volunteers and overseen by Police Chief James Steffens. The council hoped to provide a more responsive service while saving taxpayers' money.
Just five months into the experimental program, however, the volunteers' efforts have come under scrutiny. An article in Sunday's Pasco Times described how McReynolds authorized $1,400 in medical care for a pitbull that Steffens said should be euthanized, and refused to put down a couple other sickly dogs that ex-volunteer Beth Robbins believed were needlessly suffering.
Emotions ran high Tuesday as supporters praised McReynolds and her husband, Jeff, who served as an animal control officer with the unit. One woman who adopted a dog from the unit fought back tears as she described the joy her new dog has brought her family.
"I'm so proud to be a volunteer and I'll do it until my dying day if you let me," 72-year-old Jane Marinello told the council.
Several speakers, including Sharon McReynolds, also blasted Steffens, accusing the chief of undermining the program and the volunteers' efforts to save unwanted animals. McReynolds fired up the crowd as she expressed pride in the unit's work.
"Please tell me if you want it to remain the same!" she shouted to the crowd, which responded with thunderous applause.
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The SPCA Suncoast is completely separate from the New Port Richey animal protection unit. But SPCA director Briguglio offered her support when the city's program got started. She allowed the city to temporarily use a spare kennel building, with 11 fenced runs, right next to the SPCA shelter.
Briguglio said she also offered McReynolds expertise in operating a shelter, gave the unit medicine and other supplies, and helped the volunteers with keeping computer records of dogs coming and going from the facility.
But relations broke down quickly over a pit bull named Angel, which came into the city-operated kennels in October. Angel was one of two dogs that mauled a cat to death and attacked a man on the street back in the first weeks of the unit's inception. Her companion, Sky, was shot and killed while charging at New Port Richey police Officer Greg Williams.
SPCA behavior specialist Kellyann Payne, a consultant with 23 years of experience, evaluated Angel and found her too aggressive to be adopted. The SPCA recommended the dog, which McReynolds renamed Keona, be euthanized. Steffens agreed unless McReynolds could find a shelter. McReynolds got a different opinion from her consultant, arranged for removal of the dog's tumor and gave her to a rescue.
Following the disagreement over the assessment, Briguglio told McReynolds the SPCA would no longer provide the city's unit with behavioral assessments for dogs.
Since then, Briguglio said, she has had no communications from McReynolds.