Scott Trebatoski was hired as the director of animal services for Hillsborough County to clean up a mess.
The animal welfare community was deeply divided during the previous administration, with many citing a lack of communication with the previous director. There were mistaken euthanasias of healthy animals and an overpopulation in the shelters that led to a spread of disease.
Trebatoski thinks his success running shelters in Jacksonville and elsewhere can help him improve the department. He sat down with the Tribune to talk about the segmented animal community, his current job compared to his stint in Jacksonville, the trap-and-release program for cats and his plans for the department.
Tribune: The previous administration had a problem with factions in the volunteer and animal welfare groups. How do you go about uniting these groups?
Trebatoski: It’s difficult in every community. Animal welfare groups have a lot of passion, but there’s also a lot of segmented focus within the community. Cat groups might not get along with dog groups; people who like both might not like ones that are specialized, etc. It’s a matter of balancing all of the interests. You’re not necessarily going to get a homogeneous community. What we do is we look at piecing together a patchwork of all of those groups in order to maximize live outcomes. I think the bigger thing is utilizing as many people in the groups who want to work with you, even though they may have a narrower focus. That could be 1 to 20 more animals that get out, so you have to look at that big picture. Sometimes the error is trying to bring all of the groups together to think as one. It’s never going to happen. It’s never happened anywhere that I’m aware of, but there are many successful communities where you can take this diversity of groups and produce good results with it.
Tribune: What do you have to say about the concerns about the trap-and-release program’s effects on native wildlife and the potential for the spread of disease?
Trebatoski: The one thing I think that’s often misunderstood about the program is that we’re not introducing any new animals to the environment. We’re simply taking animals that exist, sterilizing them, and then returning them to where they came from. The impacts on wildlife are no different than before. It’s not like we’re saying we’re going to throw out every cat that comes through into the community and let them run free. This is what we’re saying: There are cats already out there that are not sterilized or vaccinated. We want to sterilize them so we stop getting the kitten intake because at this time of year literally hundreds, if not thousands, of kittens come into the shelter. While we’ve got them, we can see if they have any health issues that mean they shouldn’t go back out and give them at least one set of vaccinations. It’s not ideal, but with a cat, one set of vaccinations makes that animal a little less likely to spread disease than one that has none. These aren’t new cats, and ultimately there are probably fewer cats that go out because a certain number of cats that are brought into the program end up being culled because of health, or they’re friendly enough to get adopted, among other reasons. In the long-term, the impact should actually be reduced, because if we stop these cats from breeding you’ll see fewer animals in the shelter, and therefore fewer animals out in the community causing these problems. You see this in San Jose, Charleston and Albuquerque. This isn’t something you see today because the program has just started. That might be seen four or five years from now. We’re just trying to figure out how to handle those cats until that number is reduced to a more manageable situation, hopefully due to natural attrition because of sterilization.
Tribune: How do you compare the situation you’re entering here in Hillsborough County to the situation you entered in Jacksonville? What are the similarities and differences compared to your previous job?
Trebatoski: We’re starting in a better spot than I did in Jacksonville. When I went there, the live-release rate was only around 17 percent or 18 percent. When I came here, I think our starting point was around 45 percent. That’s a pretty substantial difference. We had a much more homogeneous community in Jacksonville. There was a lot less variety of concerns in the animal welfare community. Here, we may not exactly agree on the technique to [find the animals a good home], but if everybody plays their role, we’ll still be doing well. When I started in Jacksonville, some of our coalitions were apprehensive, and it took three or four years in some cases to build those coalitions because you have to get a few people and then build that group. I’d say there’s more passion, or at least more vocal passion in this community, than there was in Jacksonville. In Jacksonville, I think they were just worn out after a lot of years of not-great results, and they were just at the point where anything’s better than nothing. There have been some moderate successes here, just not in a unified manner. If we can harness that extra enthusiasm and greater resources here, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t do better than what’s going on in Jacksonville because they don’t really have that community financial support that seems to be here for the animals.
Tribune: How do you prevent disease from spreading in the shelter while decreasing the number of euthanasias?
Trebatoski: Disease control is really about proper protocol, sticking to the protocol and using the right products. It’s very mechanical; you can’t cut corners. You have to follow the same steps and the same order and allow the chemicals the same amount of time to disinfect. That’s more of a training and work side to things, and I think we’re making some big gains there. The other part of disease control is helping to segment your population. You don’t want sick animals next to healthy animals because you’re just increasing the risk of disease transfer. It’s mostly technical, while some of it is managing the population. I think our veterinarian medical director has done a tremendous job, along with the entire staff, of getting those diseases reduced. We’re probably not where we want to be, but I think that we’ve come a tremendously long way. I don’t think you’ll ever keep disease out of an open emission shelter because a lot of [animals] are exposed to disease before they come in. They don’t show any symptoms when we get them, and then there’s nothing we can do except react to the situation once the symptoms show.
Tribune: Why do you feel you can accomplish what your predecessor could not?
Trebatoski: I think being through some of the trials and tribulations that I’ve been through has helped me along. I think he was primarily dealing with an organization that was in the success phase, where I’ve taken organizations from the bottom and moved them up, and I think there’s nothing short of experience to help you learn that. I think the person who was here before, with the right mentorship, might have been able to grow into the job. I just think it was a bigger job than he was prepared for at the time.
I think I come with a broader background, and while everything is unique, sometimes learning in the trenches over time at least prepares you for what you don’t know is around the corner.
Emerson Brito is a student intern in The Tampa Tribune Editorial Department. He can be reached at (813) 259-8107.