NEW PORT RICHEY — It has been a fast and furious start for the new face of animal control in New Port Richey.
Since the city launched its Animal Protection Unit — a partnership between local volunteers and the New Port Richey Police Department — Jeff McReynolds has emerged as the program's lifeblood.
McReynolds is the city's only volunteer certified animal control officer and has been putting in 60-hour weeks responding to animal complaint calls, driving the streets looking for strays and sheltering them.
So far he has captured nine stray dogs and found the owners of seven others. He has responded to 14 barking complaints and been called out after hours six times by police dispatch to deal with animal concerns. He has even accompanied pet owners to veterinarians to ensure rabies shots.
And all for no pay.
"I really love it. It's all about helping the animals," said the Missouri native, former cop, licensed pilot and a scuba instructor. "I'm a dog lover so I feel like I get to save dogs' lives every day."
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New Port Richey took over its own animal control services Oct. 1, ending its longtime contract with Pasco County. The City Council said it expected to save money and reduce complaints from residents unhappy with county service.
The program is the brainchild of McReynolds' wife, Sharon, an animal lover and owner of the downtown medical clinic Advanced Healthcare Alternatives.
She and veterinarian Dr. Terry Spencer spearheaded the effort for the volunteer-led program, which is under the authority of the Police Department.
The city is investing $57,000 in startup costs and expects the program will cost about $20,000 to $30,000 a year. By contrast, the city had been paying Pasco County about $60,000 a year.
Getting to the launch point was rocky.
First, county officials publicly expressed doubt that the city could pull off its own program. Then as Oct. 1 approached, Sharon McReynolds several times threatened to pull out saying the city had dragged its feet on building kennels and drafting the necessary ordinances. She and Spencer also were incensed that initially the city planned to nix a licensing program for animals in the city, as well as the handling of cats by the unit. The rift eventually led Spencer to disassociate from the program.
In the end, the City Council said it did want a licensing program established and for its unit to eventually handle cats. But the council agreed both should be phased in after the first six-months of operation of the unit. Sharon McReynolds agreed and stayed on.
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All that past wrangling doesn't seem to have affected Jeff McReynolds, 51.
"There were people in the county that were very vocal that we couldn't do this,'' he said, "but I think we are going well so far."
The setup is unique, with McReynolds partnering with police Officer Greg Williams. They took a 40-hour course to become certified animal control officers.
Williams, a 10-year veteran in the department, responds to animal complaints that could be dangerous or involve criminal activity.
"I love dogs. I'm always watching those animal cops shows," he said. "I've just been really impressed and amazed at how much time Jeff has been willing to put in on this."
It didn't take long for both men to be tested. On Monday, they responded to a complaint by a pedestrian who said two pit bulls had tried to attack him. When McReynolds and Williams investigated, one dog charged Williams and he shot and killed it.
McReynolds said the dogs were not licensed. "It makes you beyond frustrated, beyond mad that these owners don't take better care of their pets," he said.
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The program faces challenges. The kennel is on loan from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on Congress Street until one can be built at the Police Department. Quarters are tight. On Thursday, there was only one open spot. Fortunately, McReynolds said, animal rescuers have been adopting dogs regularly.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle moving forward will be launching the licensing program. In six months, the city plans to have McReynolds and other volunteers begin writing citations for unlicensed animals.
But there could be a backlash from a public unaccustomed to such enforcement. McReynolds said he has not come across a single dog that has a county license. So it's going to be a huge task to change the culture in the city.
"There's been a lack of enforcement for so long,'' he said. "It's really an epidemic right now in New Port Richey of these dogs with absolutely no documentation. No license, no record of rabies shots."