MANATEE -- All but two of 46 citizens interviewed about Manatee County's Animal Services operation would support a new public-private partnership to better handle animal adoptions, a study has concluded.
The concept of creating a partnership between the county and a nonprofit, animal rescue-type organization drew nearly unanimous support among community and animal rescue leaders surveyed for the study, titled "Manatee Animal Partnership Study."
If such a partnership were to materialize, the county would continue to handle all enforcement-related aspects of its present Animal Services Division, while adoption functions would be handed off to a private partner, the report said.
"I'd like to get out of the adoption business, I think other people can do that better," Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said Friday.
Hunzeker said he would like a formal arrangement in place by the end of the year, adding that the county would be willing to invest money, or perhaps offer space or use of buildings, to help its partner.
"We want to do it right," said Hunzeker. He acknowledged that the county launched its "No-Kill" effort in 2011 without putting forth any cash, adding, "Now we're paying the price for it."
Manatee's No-Kill effort -- one of the first of its kind in the state and the nation -- set a goal to save more than 90 percent of the adoptable, healthy animals in the county's care.
County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who has led the No-Kill effort, said she had not yet read the new study's results. Told of Hunzeker's comments, she said, "We probably did need some money, realistically," to help the county's shelter staff troubleshoot difficulties accompanying No-Kill.
Since the effort was begun, the animal shelter has gradually increased its "live release" rate from about 61 percent to 92 percent, officials said Friday.
"Live release" refers to animals that are adopted, returned to their owners, or are transferred to an animal welfare organization, rather than euthanized.
The study found that 44 of 46 participants supported a public-private partnership plan, "assuming that it is done right," the study said.
Some said it might be the only way that No-Kill would be successful here, and a number of interviewees thought such an arrangement should have been done when the No-Kill program was launched amid much fanfare.
Keith Pratt, shelter manager for Bradenton's Bishop Animal Shelter SPCA of Manatee County, said he had not yet received a copy of the report, but confirmed that the private-partnership idea appealed to him.
"I think if everybody gets involved in the county, it'd be wonderful," said Pratt. "I think animal services should concentrate on enforcement, licensing; it would be a wonderful thing, I'm sure it'd work out just fine."
However, he said his organization would not be among candidates seeking to partner with the county.
Pratt noted that the county's Animal Services Division needs to know exactly where all its animals to be adopted go. He pointed to the law enforcement raid last winter at a private East Manatee animal shelter, where the county had been sending animals. More than 300 animals were seized after they were discovered to be living in deplorable conditions on Alan and Sheree Napiers' property.
"It's important to make sure this doesn't happen" again, he said.
Animal Services Director Kris Weiskopf could not be reached for comment Friday.
Investigations are under way in the animal cruelty and fraud cases against the owners Alan and Sheree Napier, along with another probe focusing on how county officials dealt with them.
The couple has pleaded not guilty to charges filed against them.
Sheltering animals costly
The success of a public-private partnership would depend upon its leadership and management, said Rebecca Neal, president of the board for the Humane Society of Manatee County.
She wondered how much money the county would be willing to pay to contract adoption out to a partner.
"Sheltering animals is a bottomless pit, it's extremely expensive, it's probably the reason the county wants to get out of it," she said. "Also, it can be a PR nightmare, which is what they're experiencing now.
"Again, it will go back to who's willing to do that, who could do it," Neal said. "Maybe the perfect person is out there, that remains to be seen; it's just a pie-in-the-sky idea at this point."
The study was authored by Len O'Hara, a former college president who volunteered his services for free.
A majority of those interviewed said they wanted the county to be more than simply a leader in the No-Kill world -- they wanted the region to be exceptional enough to be a model for others to emulate
When asked how much they thought could be raised through private sources for a model adoption center, most selected an amount in excess of $5 million.
Participants said the best feature was the concept of the partnership itself.
The weakest feature entailed uncertainties about whether a partner would be found, and whether county officials would refrain from undue interference in such an arrangement, they said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.