Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker seeks advice on improving animal services

skennedy@bradenton.comApril 11, 2014 

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All was relatively quiet Thursday morning at Manatee County Animal Services in Palmetto. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

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MANATEE -- Letters have been sent to 40 members of the public seeking comment on the idea of forming a public-private partnership with what would be a newly-formed charitable organization to save more animals housed at Manatee County shelters.

The project is called the Manatee County Animal Partnership Study, according to the letter, which is signed by Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker.

It asks recipients to schedule an interview "regarding our community focus on animal issues."

"It's to engage the community, and work together," Hunzeker said Thursday in explaining the purpose of the letter. "We're making every effort to improve our service delivery."

"You may have already had a conversation with one of our volunteers regarding the idea of forming a public-

private partnership with a 501(c)3 organization to better serve our community," the letter states.

Hunzeker said he had been working on the issue since last fall, well before controversies erupted in the animal services department during the last few months.

"It's to engage the community in discussion about how to partner in No Kill," said Hunzeker. "It should be a community-wide effort to be the best in the state."

He referred to the county's No Kill policy, adopted in 2011. Under terms of the policy, commissioners OK'd a resolution and action plan that has guided its county animal shelter toward a No Kill policy. Under the plan, the shelter has gradually increased its "live release" rate from about 61 percent to more than 90 percent. "Live release" refers to animals that are adopted, returned to their owners, or are transferred to an animal welfare organization, rather than euthanized. Currently, the county is at a 92 percent No Kill rate, said county information outreach manager Nick Azzara.

The letter says interviews will be done by Len O'Hara, a former college president and volunteer at the county animal services department with decades of experience in such studies. The letter says O'Hara will be working for free.

Neither Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh nor Humane Society of Manatee County board president Rebecca Neal had received copies of the letter, they said Thursday.

"I've not seen it, but it's very interesting," said Baugh on Thursday. "I think its fair to say we want to make sure whatever we're doing, we're doing the best we can possibly do it."

"Obviously, there's an investigation going on right now," she added. "Some things we're not really pleased with; we can do so much better in some ways -- I'm sure that's what the county administrator is trying to figure out: How we can change and be better."

In February, county officials announced an internal audit to evaluate how complaints about animal cruelty at Napier's Log Cabin Horse and Animal Sanctuary had been handled. The probe was aimed at determining how Manatee County Animal Services employees dealt with those who operated the East Manatee farm, which was raided by law enforcement officers who confiscated hundreds of animals, many in serious distress.

The couple contended later they had done nothing wrong, and hoped to reclaim their animals and reopen their shelter, they said through their attorney. No one has been charged in the case.

Neal said she had not received a letter but knew it was in the offing.

"We have got plenty of shelters and foster groups, so much support in this community, but the fact of the matter is, we're still struggling over how to make this a No Kill community," she said.

A call to Kris Weiskopf, the county's animal services chief, was not immediately returned Thursday.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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