Hillsborough takes steps to limit kills at county animal shelter

Published April 20, 2012

TAMPA — Hillsborough County took the first step Thursday toward making its animal shelter a no-kill zone, or at least one where sharply fewer animals are euthanized.

It began with the immediate departure of the Animal Services Department's longtime director of operations, Dennis McCullough, who "voluntarily retired," said County Administrator Mike Merrill.

McCullough, 61, who spent 15 years with the county after 20 years with the Secret Service, will remain with the county until Aug. 3, but on leave.

He declined comment.

Employees of the department were given literature Thursday coinciding with McCullough's departure showing that there will be a new philosophy moving forward.

It will greater mandate attempts to ensure as few animals as possible are put to death.

Merrill said he is trying to avoid the description of "no-kill shelter," which other agencies have adopted. It's impractical to think the shelter won't continue to have to euthanize sick or dangerous animals, he said.

Animal Services euthanized a little more than 14,000 animals last year. That number is sharply down from nearly 30,000 since 2005, reductions for which McCullough has earned credit.

"Everybody wants to save as many animals as possible," Merrill said, declining to elaborate on McCullough's departure. "Any way we can reduce that number as much as possible, we want to explore."

Steps include:

•Setting goals to increase adoptions and return more strays to their owners;

•Renewing an emphasis on the importance of pet sterilizations;

•Employing a strategy used by some nonprofit shelters of capturing feral cats, sterilizing them and reintroducing them near where they were captured.

Two leaders of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, which uses the so-called catch-neuter-release program, will step in to temporarily run the county's shelter on a volunteer basis.

Dexter Barge, the county's code enforcement director, takes over for McCullough short-term.

The county is currently seeking a new Animal Services director. Merrill said he hopes to name a replacement soon and will take the concept of creating a no-kill, or reduced-kill shelter, to commissioners in coming weeks.

A group calling itself Save 90 has been advocating that goal, or at least saving 90 percent of the animals that are euthanized now. Public shelters in Manatee and Broward counties, to name two, have moved in that direction within the past year.

County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan addressed the Save 90 group last weekend in remarks posted to YouTube. He voiced support for the cause and foretold changes in Animal Services management. "The killing must stop," said Hagan, who could not be reached late Thursday.

Hagan also backed a new ordinance that bans owners from tethering unsupervised pets. Supporters of the ordinance blamed McCullough and members of the county's volunteer Animal Advisory Committee of fighting the ordinance for more than a year. McCullough said at the time that he was trying to ensure good pet owners weren't turned into criminals.

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Other commissioners reached Thursday said they want to learn more about how no-kill pet shelters work and whether it could result in increased costs to house more dogs and cats longer.

"I like the direction we're trying to go," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "But I don't understand the implications."

Members of the Animal Advisory Committee said they were caught off guard by changes within the department, finding out about them through Hagan's video clip.

Veterinarian Michael Haworth, a member of the committee, described McCullough as a "stand-up guy" who succeeded in helping to reduce the number of animals killed each year. He said he doesn't understand why the county's main sounding-board for issues relating to animals hasn't been consulted.

"I don't understand how they can't take more time to look at this before they jump into it," Haworth said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at or (813) 226-3387.