The fall-out from Animal Service workers euthanizing the wrong dog earlier this month includes a significant recognition from the county administration: Rebuilding public confidence in the troubled agency is not a part-time job.
Moving Public Safety Director Mike Nickerson to a full-time (but supposedly temporary) assignment overseeing Animal Services follows yet another report critical of the operations at the county shelter. Nickerson, himself, didn't escape blame for the Sept. 7 mix-up in which workers confused two reddish brown mixed-breed dogs and ended up killing an animal that had arrived at the shelter just two days earlier.
The error occurred because the agency didn't follow its own protocols. An Animal Services officer, who the county now says will be leaving the department, used the kennel number to identify the dog for euthanasia. Standard procedure is to cross-check the euthanasia schedule with an animal identification number assigned to each dog. In this instance, the dog to be put down had been moved, a newly arrived animal had taken its place in the cage and nobody bothered to match identifications beyond the kennel number.
But, that's only part of the problem. A county review found an agency using as many as four different identification numbers to track dogs: animal ID, cage number, paper collar and neck tag and each has its own numbering sequence. It's an inefficient and cumbersome process that adds to employees' workload, is applied inconsistently and brings errors.
It's also indicative of a needed management overhaul to adopt permanent procedures — the current rules are temporary and already have changed twice since April — to ensure humane treatment of animals and to help restore public confidence in county Animal Services. The agency, like other county departments, has been under financial siege from budget-balancing commissioners. However, the department also had to deal with an emotional public outcry in April after another high-profile incident in which an 8-month-old dog was euthanized just 12 minutes after being dropped off at the shelter.
The county investigation of the Sept. 7 error is the third examination of the agency since 2011 and each has found a department that is understaffed and working without sufficient procedures.
"Much as it seems like there is chaos, we're working through this,'' Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said, trying to assure the public on Tuesday.
He's right on both counts. The county is working to get better, but the chaotic results are unimpressive. Nickerson has been lauded for improving the working relationships between county employees and shelter volunteers, but the job demands his full-time attention. Toward that end, the demanding task of merging the county and Spring Hill fire departments is now assigned to Spring Hill Fire Rescue Chief Mike Rampino, and Nickerson is charged with bringing a series of recommended changes at Animal Services to the commission next month.
Clearly, changes are needed, but it is the commission that must accept ultimate responsibility and act accordingly. A patch-work animal control system should no longer be tolerated.