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Joint Pinellas effort has reduced number of unwanted pets and strays that are euthanized

A five-year effort by Pinellas County animal welfare agencies coordinating data and resources helped lower the number of unwanted and stray animals being euthanized and trapped in shelters. Euthanasia is down 40 percent and stray pickup has dropped 25 percent since 2012 between Pinellas County Animal Services, Humane Society of Pinellas, SPCA Tampa Bay and Friends of Strays. This stray cat and her litter were brought to animal services in 2013. [JIM DAMASKE   |   Times]
A five-year effort by Pinellas County animal welfare agencies coordinating data and resources helped lower the number of unwanted and stray animals being euthanized and trapped in shelters. Euthanasia is down 40 percent and stray pickup has dropped 25 percent since 2012 between Pinellas County Animal Services, Humane Society of Pinellas, SPCA Tampa Bay and Friends of Strays. This stray cat and her litter were brought to animal services in 2013. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Mar. 31, 2017

A five-year effort by Pinellas County animal welfare agencies coordinating data and resources helped lower the number of unwanted and stray animals being euthanized and trapped in shelters.

Euthanasia is down 40 percent and stray pickups have dropped 27 percent since 2012 between Pinellas County Animal Services, Humane Society of Pinellas, SPCA Tampa Bay and Friends of Strays, according to their latest animal welfare report, released this week.

In 2016, the report said 71 percent of the 22,562 animals cared for by the four agencies were adopted, transferred to a rescue or returned to their owners — an increase of 13 percentage points over five years.

"I think we all knew we could do a lot more work together than if we tried to work individually, but this really proves it," said SPCA Tampa Bay CEO Martha Boden. "Not only do we share statistics, but we get together monthly with senior staff and literally sit around a table and share issues and trends with animals coming into our facilities."

The partnership began in 2012 when the four agencies agreed to use a uniform reporting system so their data would accurately reflect conditions in the community. Before, one agency might have defined a dog transferred to a shelter after being fostered by a volunteer as an "owner surrender" while another agency could have counted the animal as a stray, Boden said, skewing the countywide numbers.

In July, the groups centralized efforts for picking up strays by requiring residents to drop off homeless cats and dogs exclusively to animal services, reducing the number of places owners have to look for lost pets.

Animal Services director Doug Brightwell said the improved metrics, especially the lowered euthanasia rate, are also the result of public outreach and education. The number of owners surrendering their pets dropped 20 percent over the past five years, the lowest point on record.

Animal Services also added a second veterinarian to the shelter last year, so now the facility can treat injuries and conditions that previously would have resulted in euthanasia.

"We are doing things more medically we couldn't do in the past," Brightwell said. "We treat all heartworm positive dogs that are behaviorally appropriate, we now do enucleations (eye removal), limb amputations, tooth extractions, additional surgeries that we used to have to send out."

The shelters also have coordinated adoption efforts, which has helped raise the adoption rate by 10 percent over the past five years. That effort has particularly benefitted senior dogs who were often passed over in the shelters.

"It isn't just baskets of puppies and kittens, there are older animals with injuries," Boden said. "It's fantastic when someone looks at a 14-year-old chihuahua mix and says, 'That's my guy.' That's not something we saw happening 10 or 15 years ago."

Brightwell said enforcing the licensing of pets in Pinellas County and promoting microchipping has helped decrease the number of strays picked up. However, the number of strays reunited with their owners after pickup has remained flat, making this issue a priority for 2017.

Brightwell has helped the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Tarpon Springs, Pinellas Park and Treasure Island police departments gain access to the animal services' licensing database. Now if a police officer finds a stray pet with a tag, the officer can look up the owner's information from their vehicle's computer and return the pet home without having to go through a shelter.

Those coordinated animal welfare efforts have set Pinellas County apart, Brightwell said, in a field where some communities' rescue efforts are splintered.

"Our relationship here is an anomaly in the state and most of the country," he said. "You're not going to find another community countrywide where the top agencies in the county have standard data collection and collaborated efforts.

"You're not going to find it anywhere else in Florida or the rest of the country."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.