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Continuing his pet project

Rick Chaboudy says he is ready to move on.

After his abrupt departure from the Humane Society of Pinellas in May, where he was director for 20 years, Chaboudy said he has had time to catch some rest, reflect and pursue another animal-rescue venture.

On Saturday, Chaboudy, 54, opened the Suncoast Animal League in a 2,200-square-foot building off U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor.

He and several other volunteers have worked tirelessly, turning the building into a place for animals, where cats, for example, can move about the rooms along shelves without having to touch the floor.

Reflecting on his departure from the humane society, Chaboudy, of Dunedin, said he has no hard feelings.

But in his first interview since then, Chaboudy said Thursday that he was fired from his post. That contradicts the official word from the humane society board in May that Chaboudy resigned to explore other opportunities.

"In this business, it's high stress," Chaboudy said Thursday. "Anytime you deal with animals, there are a lot of emotions."

He said that after his firing, "people wanted me to feel a certain way. They wanted me to be angry, but I'm not that type of person. They made the choice."

While he called his firing "a relief," he said he missed the work "very, very much."

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Word of the circumstances surrounding Chaboudy's departure surfaced Nov. 9, when he was being deposed in connection to a lawsuit over the ownership of two dogs rescued and adopted out by the humane society after Hurricane Katrina.

Chaboudy said humane society board president Jack Geller and vice president Jim Warren entered his office on that day in May and asked him to sign a severance package.

Chaboudy said the two told him he was being fired because there were concerns that he didn't care about the day-to-day operations of the shelter, and that shelter employees had complained of being overworked.

"I didn't even get a chance to clean my office," Chaboudy said Thursday. His belongings were boxed and delivered to him later.

The severance package included some compensation, which Chaboudy declined to discuss, and the stipulation he not speak of his termination for four months, Chaboudy said.

Earlier this week, Geller declined to comment on whether Chaboudy resigned or was fired.

"If you want further information, you talk to Rick," Geller said. "I'm not going to discuss Rick. That's old history. That's done. The humane society is moving on."

Chaboudy said that he was given no other reason for his firing, and said that it had nothing to do with the society's handling of the animals rescued after Hurricane Katrina.

"During the deposition, when I explained why I was fired, Jack Geller didn't dispute it," Chaboudy said. "He was sitting right there."

The months following Chaboudy's departure have been tumultuous ones for the humane society. It was named in the lawsuit over the ownership of the dogs rescued after Hurricane Katrina, several staff members and long-time volunteers have left and others have been asked not to return.

There also were allegations the shelter euthanzied three cats that were adoptable, which would have violated shelter policy.

The latter incident led to a humane society review of its euthanasia policy, which found that the euthanization of the cats was justified. But it also found that other animals may have been wrongfully euthanized, prompting the shelter to clarify its written policy on euthanasia.

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Saturday marked a new beginning for Chaboudy.

The Suncoast Animal League is a nonprofit that's relying heavily on donations. Someone donated lumber for the cat walks that are on the walls. Busch Gardens in Tampa donated some old fencing that was turned in cages for cats. Dog and cat food has been donated.

At Suncoast, cats and dogs will be fostered and adopted out to suitable homes. Because of limited space and finances, a local veterinarian is donating time to check all the animals at an off-site location.

Chaboudy said he wants to focus his new shelter's efforts initially on spay and neuter programs in the county, and to eventually expand into Pasco County, where he says there is much work to be done.

"People know who I am and what I stand for," Chaboudy said. "Hopefully, they will be there for me like they have been in the past."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

Open for business

Suncoast Animal League is at 37594 U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor. Its hours of operation are weekdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (727) 542-8945.

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