TAMPA — Four years ago, before a drastic and dramatic shift toward so-called "no-kill" practices, nearly two-thirds of the dogs and cats that came into Hillsborough County's Animal Services Department were euthanized.
That rate is now down to about 11 percent, the department said Wednesday. And it means that Hillsborough is close to reaching its goal of saving nine of every 10 animals it takes in.
"That is unprecedented in the short period of time you guys have been able to help us achieve that," department head Scott Trebatoski told Hillsborough County commissioners. "Everybody in this community — our partners, the veterinarians, other shelters, rescues and every citizen — should be proud of the role they played in achieving that."
Getting here has not been easy, or without controversy.
In 2012, with some animal activists complaining about the high rate of dogs and cats euthanized by the county shelter, then-department director Dennis McCullough was pushed out (officially, he resigned) and the county shifted toward no-kill policies.
But local veterinarians maligned the loss of a popular leader and questioned the change in practice. They noted that the county had already seen a considerable climb in the rate of dogs and cats leaving the shelter alive, and they worried that no-kill policies could lead to animals being turned away.
During the next year and a half, McCullough's replacement, Ian Hallet, succeeded in increasing adoptions and lowering the kill rate. But the county shelter also struggled with complaints of botched euthanasias, diseased animals and a spate of partner complaints and staff resignations. Hallet was reassigned to a different department in 2013.
Since then, the county has rebranded the animal division into the Pet Resources Department, and refocused on community outreach and service. The department put in place more aggressive practices aimed at managing the stray and feral cat population by catching, neutering and re-releasing them. It has led to a major reduction in kittens coming into local shelters.
In fiscal year 2012, 7,340 of 20,031 animals that came through the Hillsborough shelter left alive. Last year, adoptions and live outcomes were up to 12,833 out of 15,434.
Trebatoski said the steep decline in pets coming through the shelter is not the result of the county accepting fewer pets. Service and intake hours, he said, have been expanded.
He attributed the decline to better county practices, coupled with a national decline in animals headed to shelters.
Commissioners on Wednesday gave a vote of confidence to the Pet Resources Department's new direction. They voted 6-0 to expand some of the existing spay and neuter programs for dogs and stray cats and added four animal control officers for neighborhood education and investigating abuse.
"While I am thrilled with the result, it is imperative that we continue to improve operations and identify opportunities to better serve the public," Commissioner Ken Hagan said.
"We've come a long way," he said. "Relationships, education, they have improved with the animal service community. But there's still room for improvement."
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scontorno.