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Hillsborough seeks audit of animal shelter ‘live release rate’

— Hillsborough commissioners on Wednesday asked the county’s internal auditor to review the rates at which dogs and cats leave the county animal shelter alive.

Commissioner Ken Hagan initiated the review even though he said he believes fewer of the animals coming into the shelter are euthanized.

Last month, The Tampa Tribune reported the number of dogs and cats leaving the shelter alive had risen dramatically in July compared with the same month last year. The live release rate for dogs was 71 percent, compared with 55 percent in July 2013, and 61 percent of cats survived compared with 27 percent a year earlier.

The news, however, drew questions from members of local animal rescue groups.

“To ensure the integrity of the system,” Hagan said, “and to show our support and commitment to the department, I believe we should have an internal audit.”

Hagan said he wants the audit to cover the period from January 2012 until today. In addition to the live release rate, he wants the auditor to look at policies and procedures used by the county’s former Animal Services Department, now called Pet Resources.

One who criticized the new numbers was Bill Gray, founder of Second Chance Boxer Rescue. Gray said Pet Resources Director Scott Trebatoski is boosting the live release rate percentages by cutting down on the number of animals accepted at the shelter.

Pet Resources records show that in July 2013, the shelter took in 2,306 dogs and cats. A year later, the total animal intake was 1,513, a decrease of 34.3 percent.

Gray said animal shelter employees try to dissuade people from bringing in dogs and cats.

He presented this scenario:

A driver on his lunch hour sees a ragged-looking dog running loose along a highway. Trying to be humane, the driver puts the dog in his car takes it to the animal shelter. But an employee tells him the dog can’t be taken because it’s lunch hour; he has to come back at 1 p.m. The good Samaritan is on his lunch hour as well, so he can’t wait and lets the dog off on the side of the road.

Gray also said he believes the shelter staff don’t care what happens to animals once they’re adopted. They could be going to breeding kennels or, even worse, dog fighters.

“The way they’re reducing the numbers is they’re reducing in-take,” Gray said. “They’ve given up caring about where the animals go as long as they leave the shelter alive.”

Trebatoski, who was hired in February, said the shelter does not go out of its way to discourage people from surrendering their animals. But shelter employees, under his direction, try to be honest with people about the chances a dog or cat will be euthanized.

“If someone says, ‘Is my dog going to be adopted?’ we tell them there’s a chance they will be adopted, there’s a chance they will be euthanized,” Trebatoski said.

His employees also try to determine in interviews the reasons why an owner wants to surrender a pet. If it’s an economic problem, such as job loss, the shelter employees will look for ways to help the pet stay in the home, like connecting the owner with a pet food bank, or trying to find an animal clinic that will perform needed surgery on the animal at a lower cost.

As for adoptions, Trebatoski said the clinic tries to make them as pleasant, easy and affordable as possible. They do check the department’s records to make sure the potential adopter hasn’t been cited for negligence or cruelty.

Making adoptions easier is in line with best practices adopted by the animal care profession in the early 1990s.

“You treat everybody like they’re a good citizen because it’s probably 1 or 2 percent who fall in the other category,” Trebatoski said. “So are you going to euthanize 99 dogs because one dog would end up in a less-than-ideal situation.”

And making adoptions easier is the ideal strategy from a marketing standpoint, Trebatoski said.

“What you want to do is get a life-long customer so that the next dog they get will be from a shelter,” he said.

Hagan, who for several years has pressed for strategies to reduce shelter euthanasia rates, said those efforts have paid off. He said in 2010, the save rate was 49 percent for dogs and 13 percent for cats.

In May 2012, the commission approved the Be the Way Home plan, developed by former Animal Services Director Ian Hallett with the assistance of the county’s Animal Advisory Committee. The program emphasized marketing to increase adoptions. By the end of that year, Hagan said, the save rate had improved to 59 percent for dogs and 20 percent for cats.

Last year, the county adopted a pilot Community Cat program, in which feral cats brought to the shelter are sterilized, vaccinated and released to their former neighborhoods.

Due in part to that program, the live release rate for cats so far this year has improved to 66 percent, Hagan said. About 72 percent of the dogs that have entered the shelter this year have left alive.

“I believe having an independent audit will validate the improvements we’ve made in the last couple of years and shed some light on how we can perform better,” Hagan said.

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