Animal lovers in Hillsborough demand action on dirty shelter
Hillsborough County Animal Services will get an extra quarter million dollars to hire more staff thanks to a 6-0 vote Wednesday by county commissioners. The decision came after complaints about animal deaths and unsanitary conditions at the shelter. During a commission meeting Wednesday morning, Bill Gray was one of 19 volunteers to lash out at the agencyâs new leader.
âTwice the number of dogs have been found dead in rungs this year as opposed to the same time frame last year. Why is that? The pictures here are not selective. If someone from animal services came to my home and inspected my home and my dogs lived in the conditions that exist in this county, they would confiscate every one of my dogs and shut down my rescue.â
The pictures he was referring to showed animals lying in filthy cages where the floors were spotted with feces. The packed board room was filled with people like Gray, wearing red shirts and a little bit smaller group wearing neon yellow shirts. The second group supports a new program called Be the Way Home and its chief author, animal services director Ian Hallett. The plan was approved two months ago after a year of work aimed at reducing the number of animals euthanized. Pam Backer was one of only two people to defend Hallettâs work on the plan.
âTwo thousand extra lives have been saved at animal services in the past 12 months under the direction of Ian. Is that not what we, the community, asked of him? Where are the cheers? Where are the hoorays and the high fives for those saved lives? Instead of saying, âgood job,â heâs being heavily criticized and raked over the coals. May I remind you that animal services has taken some severe, severe cuts to their budget over the past several years. Itâs quite simple actually, just do the math â if you increase the number of animals that youâre taking in and holding without increasing the workforce to care for them, youâre going to be upside down.â
But speaker after speaker claimed Hallettâs leadership had led to a drastic drop in morale and fear among staff that they couldnât speak up about it. Some, including former county employee Thomas Green, suggested commissioners consider some sort of amnesty provision so employees would feel comfortable coming forward with their concerns.
âI hope you have your ears on today. You need to know that the staff of animal services is a hard working bunch of people. Theyâre dedicated and they do a hard job that, probably, you and I wouldnât want to do anymore. Now add to that a director that threatens their jobs continuously and warns them that they better get on board. And how about these words, âI cannot trust anyone that I did not hire.â What kind of leader would say that?â
Hillsborough County Animal Services director Hallett admitted there were some problems.
âStaff was very worried about the changes that would occur. I think the changes seemed like they would be more radical than they were. So, weâve had a very difficult year with a lot of changes and a lot of anxiety about what that would look like.â
Hallett did take some responsibility for not catching employeesâ discontent sooner, but assured commissioners and current staff members, volunteers and stakeholders heâd work on it.
âI think that we had suffered from my attention towards policy and development of the plan and now that we have that I will have time to work on those relationships.â
Hallett said he hired temporary workers Tuesday to work five hours a day cleaning kennels and is in the process of finalizing a deal with the Hillsborough Sheriffâs Office to bring in non-violent offenders to help with cleaning duties. The decision to inject $250,000 into animal services was kick-started by Commissioner Ken Hagan who asked that this issue be brought up in a public meeting. The funds would be used for six new positions including two veterinarians and two vet techs. Hagan said it isnât commissionâs job to replace the director, but did express some concerns over the complaints. He added, he thinks the Be the Way Home plan should still be implemented.
âThe bottom line is that there must be time for our plan to be fully implemented and for the improvements to be effective. We approved the plan two months ago and if you read the plan, the reality is that it will only be 60% completed by fiscal year 14 and will not be 100% completed until fiscal year 15 so the plan does need time to work.â
The man who could take steps to oust director Hallett is Hillsborough County administrator [(http://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/administrator/about/director.cfm)Mike Merrill. Merrill said he met with an expert from the University of Florida to take a look at conditions in the animal services shelter.
âWhile she had a number of constructive criticisms â I emphasize the word constructive because there seems to be a lack of that lately â she also said that sheâs supportive of the direction that Ian is going and she knows itâs difficult and they will be a good partner and they will help us through this, as will the ASPCA.â
Merrill claimed that some of the criticism of leadership at the shelter comes from disgruntled ex-employees or other stakeholders with a chip on their shoulder about the Be the Way Home program. One of them is Amy Howland.
âThe dangerous and disastrous policies and procedures that have lead to the deplorable conditions we see now at animal services for the first time in over a decade, that has nothing to do with Be the Way Home. The concepts of Be the Way Home are solid. The policies and procedures are taking us to a bad place. It will not be long before we have a parvo outbreak at animal services like Pasco currently has.â
In addition to providing more funding, todayâs vote also calls for continued coordination with all stakeholders including volunteers and pet foster parents. Commissioner Mark Sharpe also encouraged the director of animal services to reach out to some of his biggest critics and try to make amends. There will be another report from the University of Florida about the condition of the shelter later this month.
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