Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill was left with little choice but to remove Ian Hallett as director of the animal services department.
Consultants who studied the department at Merrill’s request found a deep divide between Hallett and a number of the shelter’s staffers and animal welfare groups. A lack of communication by the shelter’s leaders was singled out as a problem, as well as a lack of trust.
Hallett was brought on board in 2012 to reduce the number of animals being killed at the shelter. He had helped achieve a no-kill status as deputy supervisor of the Austin, Texas, animal shelter.
In Hillsborough, he reduced the number of animal deaths by extending the hold time for animals deemed worthy of adoption and eliminating a policy of euthanizing sick animals upon arrival. He managed to get county commissioners to agree to a controversial trap, neuter and release policy for feral cats.
But critics complained about the conditions the new policies left in their wake. More animals being housed meant a higher rate of disease spreading to healthy animals. Two of three veterinarians quit, and a number of animal welfare groups openly questioned Hallett’s leadership.
An outbreak this summer of the deadly parvovirus added fuel to complaints about the shelter’s conditions, even though Merrill and Hallett said the outbreak constituted fewer cases than in previous years. Recently, several dogs were mistakenly euthanized and the county’s implementation of its new feral cat policy was delayed.
Merrill stood behind Hallett throughout the controversy and questioned whether some employees and volunteers were working to undermine Hallett. His transfer to the county’s parks department indicates Merrill does not hold him responsible for the shelter’s troubles.
Where to put the blame depends on where you stand. Hallett obviously confronted a difficult situation, but the continued controversies were a distraction.
In the end, what’s most important is acting in the best interest of the animals. Clearly, a change at the top was necessary to unite the staff and volunteers.
Dexter Barge, the county’s code enforcement director, will serve as interim director while the county attempts to stabilize the department, which is responsible for handling more than 20,000 animals a year. He should continue Hallett’s focus on policies that reduce the number of animals being killed, while bringing administrative discipline to the operation.