Thursday, May 24, 2018
Public safety

Sheriff's takeover of Hernando animal services officers has gone well, but more help is needed

BROOKSVILLE — Teri Blake opened a door on the back of her Ford truck one recent morning and kicked her cooing voice into overdrive.

About an hour earlier, the animal services officer had responded to a call in Spring Hill about a dog stuck in a fence. She found a black and white shorthair terrier and a larger terrier with long, wheat-colored fur. Both were roaming free, neither had a collar, and the bigger dog nipped at Blake.

Now she was about to move the dog from a carrier on the truck to a kennel in the county's animal shelter on Oliver Street. The dog looked scared.

"You going to be a good boy?" Blake asked as she gently petted the dog with a black nylon leash. "See, I'm not going to hurt you."

The dog behaved. As Blake took both dogs into the shelter and started the intake process, calls began to stack up on the screen of the laptop computer in the truck's cab. When she got back behind the wheel, she saw two separate calls for loose dogs in Spring Hill and a third to deal with a resident's howling cat in Brookridge.

It's been 18 months since the Sheriff's Office took over control of animal services officers to save the county's general fund about $300,000. Previously, they were employees of the county's Animal Services department.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis says the change has gone well, but that he needs reinforcements for the four officers who cover 506 square miles and handle a total of about 680 calls each month.

Nienhuis hopes to save enough money this year to hire a paid part-time officer, but he is also seeking volunteers. The duties could vary widely, depending on how much time and effort the volunteers want to put in.

"It would be ideal if we could get them up to a full-time animal service officer, as far as training and abilities, but we'll take any help we can get," he said.

When under the purview of the county, officers worked from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and rotated on-call shifts. Now they work the same 12-hour shifts as deputies. Two officers are usually on duty during each shift.

That allows for better coverage on evenings and weekends, freeing up deputies who used to have to respond to calls about, say, a howling cat. With the former schedule, some lower-priority calls placed late on a Friday didn't get a response until Monday.

The new schedule with four officers "does spread us a little thin," Nienhuis said, "but the additional hours that are covered more than compensate for that."

There are other benefits. The animal services officers also help deputies at crash scenes and with other calls when an extra hand is needed, the sheriff said.

Blake, who has worked as an officer since 2001, said that, previously, she and the other officers were often required to clean kennels or do paperwork at the Animal Services shelter.

Now, she said, "I'm actually doing what I'm paid to do. I come to work knowing I'm going to be doing my job today."

One of the officers' most time-consuming tasks remains controversial. Officers deliver cat traps for residents upon request and pick up the trapped animals if a resident requests that service.

Between October 2012 and the end of last month, officers transported 526 cats trapped by residents. Critics, including Dr. Lisa Centonze, managing veterinarian for county Animal Services, say the county is enabling people who dislike cats by providing a service that should be left to the property owner.

Many of those animals are feral and not adoptable, said Centonze.

"The only choice we really have is to euthanize them," she said, noting that the shelter put down 245 feral cats in 2013.

Nienhuis said it's unreasonable to ask some residents, such as the elderly and those with small cars or no transportation at all, to bring animals to Brooksville.

"I'm not prepared to make a drastic change in the services we provide for the simple fact that the unintended consequences could be greater than the issues we're dealing with today," he said. "Would we prefer they take it? Absolutely, and we ask them to. But those people who dislike cats might take matters into their own hands, and that could cause us greater issues."

So for now, transporting trapped cats would be one of the myriad of duties a volunteer could do. Volunteers also could respond to neglect calls to confirm that there is an animal in distress.

The Sheriff's Office put out a similar call last summer, and about 15 people expressed interest. Only one person made it through the process, then decided to work in the agency's communications department instead. Some didn't pass the extensive background check required.

Nienhuis is hoping for a better response this time, considering the passion many people have for animals. A spare Animal Services truck is waiting for the right volunteers.

"It's surprising to me that, as emotionally charged as this issue is, we don't have more people stepping up," he said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

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