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Report: Hillsborough Animal Services suffers from distrust

TAMPA — A recently released report indicates the workplace atmosphere at Hillsborough County Animal Services is poisoned by distrust between management and employees, contributing to sense of continuous upheaval and disorganization.

The distrust is directly related to the failure of the agency’s leadership’s to effectively communicate and collaborate with employees, wrote Linda Andrews-Crotwell, an expert in organizational training and development, who wrote the report. The situation, she said, is jeopardizing the agency’s mission to care for stray or lost animals while euthanizing as few as possible.

“The bottom line is that management is not perceived as trusting most long-term employees and, conversely, many employees do not trust management,” wrote Andrews-Crotwell, who was hired by the county to examine Animal Services’ organization. “The animal community is now divided over new policies, and the public has been inundated with reports of possible mismanagement.”

Andrews-Crotwell could not be reached for comment.

The report reinforces criticisms from the animal welfare community and past employees directed at Ian Hallett, Animal Services’ director. Hallett’s tenure has been marked by a “perfect storm” of controversies, the report says, with Animal Services “at its center.”

Hallett, a Hillsborough County native, was hired from Austin, Texas, to spearhead the county’s effort to drive down euthanasia rates at the shelter. Known in animal welfare circles as “no kill,” the new policies proved controversial and divided animal welfare groups and veterinarians.

A key component of the no-kill policy — trapping, neutering and releasing feral cats — was especially controversial, with many county veterinarians opposing it as a danger to public health. Several veterinarians at the county shelter resigned.

Most recently, Hallett came under fire for a reported outbreak of the deadly parvovirus at the animal shelter. In an effort to quiet the uproar, County Administrator Mike Merrill called a press conference to deny that the 18 parvo cases at the shelter in July constituted an epidemic. Merrill said the number was actually lower than the number of parvo cases reported in the same month a year earlier.

Merrill also hired Andrews-Crotwell to look into complaints of leadership and organizational problems at Animal Services, and he requested a team of veterinarians from the University of Florida to examine health protocols in the shelter’s kennels. He also shifted the department’s animal cruelty investigators to the county’s code enforcement department, allowing Hallett to concentrate on straightening out problems at the shelter.

Merrill said Thursday he still supports Hallett but he wants his Animal Services director to take the consultant’s report seriously and adopt its suggestions.

“He needs to look at these recommendations seriously and make the proper adjustments,” Merrill said. “I’m not disappointed in him at all or disappointed in what (the consultant) found. I think it will be helpful in the end.”

Hallett did not respond to phone calls or an email.

Merrill had previously accused unnamed Animal Services employees of trying to “undermine” the changes Hallett was trying to put in place. But on Thursday, Merrill conceded that the department’s leaders must do a better job of listening to the workers’ concerns. At the same time, Merrill said, employees have a duty — once the rationale for the changes is explained — to support them.

“I think the employees have to be willing to be open and hear why some of these changes are important and hear what suggestions they need to implement them,” Merrill said.

Yet a common concern employees voiced to Andrews-Crotwell, according to her report, was that major changes in shelter operations were not explained and decisions were made by management without knowledge of how they would affect shelter operations. Communications with staff were often via emails with little explanation, employees said.

“The current situation is causing stress, fear and confusion,” the consultant wrote in her report. “Many employees are concerned when they are assigned new tasks with little training and almost no help or feedback on how they are doing.”

Volunteers with animal rescue groups generally concurred with the report’s findings, but they were angry none of them were interviewed for the report. Rescue groups play an important role in reducing euthanasia by regularly removing dogs and cats from the shelter and finding them foster or permanent homes.

Rescue group members also interact closely with shelter employees and volunteers.

Patrick Pacini, a volunteer with Guardian Angel Dog Rescue and a former shelter volunteer and employee, said Animal Services workers were hurt when they heard Hallet was being brought in to “fix” the organization. Despite deep budget cuts and layoffs at the shelter, the number of animals leaving the shelter alive has been increasing in the years before Hallett’s arrival, he said.

At the same time, the department was winning national recognition for excellence in animal cruelty investigations and enforcement.

“If you look at the numbers, the buzz word is live outcomes; it was trending upward,” Pacini said. “At the same time, they were cutting the budget of Animal Services. They were required to do more with less. Then they wondered, “Gee, it’s not going as good as we hoped.’ What did they expect?”

To be sure, live outcomes have increased at a faster pace in the 14 months since Hallett came on board. But at what price?

As Andrews-Crotwell points out, at least five experienced Animal Services employees have resigned, retired or been transferred outside the agency. Two of the shelter’s three veterinarians resigned, citing a lack of effective protocols to prevent disease spread in the kennels during the drive to curb euthanasia rates.

“I feel like the push to become a low-kill shelter has resulted in the cart being placed in front of the horse,” wrote veterinary Dr. Nicole Ferguson in an open letter circulated among animal groups. “There are no programs put in place at this time to reduce the amount of time animals are spending in the shelter and, as a consequence, the (animal) population’s health is affected.”

Most county animal rescue groups oppose the no-kill policy. Like the vets, the rescue volunteers say the shelter has become crowded and a breeding ground for disease.

Others, like Kelly Wilson of Lost Angels Animal Rescue, claim some animals are going out the door without being spayed or neutered first. Others are sent to less-than-responsible owners.

“I’m for lowering euthanasia, but not at the cost of the animals suffering,” Wilson said.

Andrews-Crotwell made a host of recommendations at the end of her report, including building trust with employees, strengthening leadership through training and mentors, and making communication a priority.

The consultant concluded her report on an up note, pointing out that Animal Services enjoys a great deal of public support and goodwill that will see the department through this time of transition.

“Those who doubt the progress or question the process need opportunities to offer solutions,” she wrote. “When we turn from criticism to helpful debate and collaboration, we can make great strides together toward a safe and humane community for people and companion animals.”

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