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PET-FRIENDLY SHELTER IS GOOD PUBLIC SAFETY IDEA

A Pasco school is about to go to the dogs. Cats, too.

Veterinary science isn't coming to the curriculum, but animal care will be added to school-related services (with an assist from Pasco County) under a pilot program to make a school building available as a pet shelter during hurricane evacuations.

It's a worthwhile effort to encourage at-risk residents to leave their homes during inclement weather. It's also a requirement. Counties now are obligated by the state to provide pet shelters in their evacuation plans.

Persuading pet owners to leave their properties during storms has been problematic.

Three years ago, Pasco County ordered 168,000 residents of coastal west Pasco and mobile home occupants countywide to seek shelter as Hurricane Charley approached . Only 2,400 people, however, came to the public shelters, leaving the buildings 90 percent empty and emergency management officials wondering where everybody went.

Afterward, numerous people reported their domestic pets prevented them from using the shelters housed in public schools where pets are prohibited there because of health and hygiene issues. Residents with special needs who registered in advance with the county can leave their pets at Pasco Animal Control during an evacuation, but that is not a large-scale option considering the 53,000 registered dogs in the county.

But under a one-year pilot plan, the Pasco School District will designate one of its schools as an animal shelter. Pet owners, however, will stay at a separate, nearby shelter. A memo of understanding outlining the agreement is scheduled to be considered by the Pasco School Board at its meeting this evening.

As superintendent Heather Fiorentino noted Monday, the agreement is intended to help ensure public safety during a storm and it continues the philosophy of schools being a central community asset.

Fiorentino declined to name the specific shelter until the board receives the information, but a logical choice is Pine View Middle School in Land O'Lakes.

It has an agricultural program and sits directly across the street from Pine View Elementary School, one of the buildings used as an emergency shelter in evacuations. The mid county location also is ideal because it would be equal distance from Pasco's coast and the large mobile home populations in the vicinity of Zephyrhills and other east Pasco locales.

The capacity of the shelter -up to 100 dogs and 200 cats -won't solve the evacuation reticence completely, but having a pet-friendly shelter available will allow residents more and safer choices when the evacuation order comes.

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