MANATEE -- Tucked off U.S. 41 in Palmetto, Manatee County Animal Services is perpetually overcrowded.
The shelter, designed for 80 animals, regularly houses almost double that amount.
The out-of-the way location at 305 25th St. W. contributes to the constant overcrowding, shelter officials say. No one goes there unless they have to, making animal adoptions a challenge, said Bill Hutchison, interim director of Animal Services.
Before he was called to helm Animal Services in August, Hutchison said he was working on a public-private partnership to move the shelter into a better located, larger facility. A pile of maps of potential shelter sites sits on his desk.
"I think there is enough passion for animals in this county that a building would
be conceived, designed and constructed with a combination of taxpayer funding and private funding through donors," Hutchison said. "I really do believe that. That would be the public-private partnership that we've talked about for so long. It could conceivably be a regional solution, not just for Manatee County."
Planning for a new shelter is one way Animal Services is working to regain momentum lost after deficiencies in the county no-kill policy were exposed. A major setback occurred in February 2014 when a raid at Napier's Log Cabin Horse and Animal Sanctuary in East Manatee found some 300 ill-treated animals, which sparked intense scrutiny and criticism of Animals Services, which had contracted with Napier's and lagged in its oversight.
Since the division was moved under the direct supervision of the county administrator last fall, Animal Services has taken several steps to improve. A new location coupled with addressing other challenges could continue that movement, Hutchison said.
"Every one of these little incremental programs contribute to getting that live-release rate up to where it should be," Hutchison said. "We are managing, not by the number, but we manage by the individual case. Every animal is looked at individually. We deal with it individually whether it's heartworm or injuries or whatever it is, and then let the chips fall where it may."
For Hutchison, an ideal shelter location would be in Lakewood Ranch because population growth is in the east. A shelter near Interstate 75 and University Parkway would make a regional facility more feasible, Hutchison added.
"Right in the center of where the action is going to be and where the county is growing," Hutchison said. "If we do it right, with the Fort Hamer Bridge, you also pick up all the north county people because it's easier to get to. That would be ideal."
An existing shelter in Lakewood Ranch has had success adopting out animals.
"I think we are living in a growing community," said Susan Giroux, a board member with the Humane Society at Lakewood Ranch. "We turn over animals quickly. Lakewood Ranch needs a full-service operation here. We also want to grow. That's our objective."
All sites Hutchison is looking at are either affiliated with a county park or a community-oriented nonprofit, which would help attract people to the shelter, he said.
Pointing to the success Downtown Meowtown adoption center has had in its first six months, Hutchison stressed the importance of foot traffic. The Downtown Meowtown is nearing its 100th adoption.
Beth Lewis, shelter manager, echoed Hutchison.
"It just shows the potential if we were in a better location what could we do there," Lewis said. "Our volunteer base will triple if it's more convenient, safe and it's on their way to and from work."
Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, an animal advocate, said a more visible location would help.
"It is very hard to find Animal Services," Whitmore said. "Now that we have changed our model to an adoption center with animal enforcement, location is everything."
Manatee County is working toward putting out a request for proposal to encourage potential private partners to "bid on taking over the adoption and shelter functions from the county," Hutchison said.
Hutchison is looking to other U.S. public-private shelter partnerships to learn about "successes and failures and strengths and weaknesses of the program and the secrets of success and all that to improve our odds of being able to pull something like that off."
"I have aspirations for a regional center," Hutchison said. "I always have. I think the will is there and the resources are there. I think people really are passionate about their animals and a lot of those people have resources. ... We can't just drop it all on the county. The county can't do it all by itself."
Hutchison, a retired county public safety director, said he wanted to save every animal in the beginning. They would try to save the aggressive dogs by bringing in trainers and behavior analysts to evaluate them.
"What we've learned over the last year is that we would do all of those things and then we would end up putting the dog down anyway because it would bite somebody," he said.
The shelter does not euthanize any adoptable animal, but has modified how animals re considered for euthanasia recently to exclude dogs with treatable conditions. It does include bite dogs and dangerous dogs, Hutchison said.
"We are a lot smarter than we were a year ago," Hutchison said. "That's been a learning curve for us. That's been an experience thing that we have had to learn the hard way. We came in idealistic and thought we could do something with those dogs but we can't. We just have too many."
As a county shelter, it is impossible to reach 100 percent no-kill because it is required to take in every animal, Hutchison notes.
"The way you become 100 percent no-kill is you refuse to take animals that you know you have to put down," Hutchison said. "That's not us."
When Manatee County declared in 2011 it would become the first no-kill agency in Florida, Hutchison said they promised to raise the save rate 2 percentage points each month.
"That was a journey that would lead to a destination where we would become a sustainable no-kill community," he said. "That whole concept got lost. The fact that we were on this journey got totally lost."
For the past several months, the shelter save rate has been in the low- to mid-90s, Hutchison said.
"The number is what it is," he said. "After being here nine months in the thick of it, with the stable level of resources and the right number of staff, which we think we are on the way to, and barring any catastrophe like a Napier, we should consistently be able to hit 94 or 95 percent live-release rate. That's a good goal for us. It's a comfortable number and I think it would put us at the top of any list of shelters in the country."
Animal Services does the "community's dirty work" as other agencies send animals to the Palmetto shelter to be euthanized, Hutchison said.
"They get counted against our numbers," he said. "It's just unfair."
This summer the shelter will consolidate its numbers along with a few other agencies to do community reporting.
"One of my goals was community reporting, not just Animal Services, but how are we doing as the Manatee County animal community?" Hutchison said.
Because of the controversy surrounding the implementation of no-kill in Manatee County, a lot of counties may be practicing the tenets of no-kill without using the term, Hutchison said.
"They don't want to go through what we went through," he said. "They have different names. If I had to do it over again, I would disdain the term no-kill and I would call it something else, too."
Becoming a medical rescue
In the old days, a dog hit by a car and brought to the Palmetto shelter severely injured faced an immediate death sentence, Hutchison said.
Today, the dog is evaluated and if it has a good temperament, "we will do everything we can to find a foster or a medical rescue who is willing to step up and provide the medical care and help us find a home for that dog," Hutchison said.
Hutchison said the biggest shelter deficiency is in its medical treatment program. The shelter is spending more than double what it spent in August on medical treatment yet is still falling short.
"When we started our no-kill, we had zero medical treatment," Hutchison said. "We had no medical staff. We didn't even have the funds to do microchipping. We did microchipping but only because Animal Network donated the money."
The nonprofit Animal Network funds heartworm treatments for dogs at Animal Services. In February, Manatee County Commission approved adding the nonprofit to its list of authorized charitable organizations.
The shelter now has a "sophisticated intake" with a vaccination program and tests for heartworm and feline leukemia, Hutchison said, adding it also has treatments if an animal tests positive.
In February, the commission approved an additional $311,138 for Animal Services to continue elevating services provided. The funding was intended for hiring a veterinary technician and Animal Services officer in addition to medical supply, food quality and scanner upgrades. For the 2015-16 budget, the commission identified Animal Services as a funding priority.
"That was a huge vote of confidence, and it was an indication that the board really does understand," Hutchison said. "They hear the public and they understand the critical nature of what we are doing."
The shelter's second veterinary technician began June 30 and an animal control officer was also hired. By August, the shelter will add a portable building to the north side of the Palmetto shelter for work space for a veterinarian and vet technicians.
"That's the medical team compared to a couple of years ago where we had absolutely nothing," Hutchison said.
Stopping the flow
With some technology improvements, Animal Services is working to track where most animals come from to stop the overflow into the shelter.
"In order to stop the flow, we need a lot more education, and we need a lot more ways to reach the target audience," said Debra Starr, director of marketing and public relations for Animal Network. "We are trying to as a community to reach into these neighborhoods that are backyard breeding. They haven't gotten the message. This isn't going to help us get to no-kill."
Hutchison said they must "stop the supply and increase the demand."
"That's how we get out of this mess, but it's easier said than done," he said. "The first step is to recognize you have the problem and want to do something about it. Manatee County is no different than the other counties. For years, we were just the damn dog catcher. We had the problem. Everybody knew that we had overpopulation. The solution was to kill the animals. We recognize that we couldn't continue to do that and that's half the battle. Once you recognize that you have the problem, then you can start dealing with it. Dealing with it has been tricky."
The Humane Society of Manatee County is putting finishing touches on a 10,000-square-foot Pet Health Center to provide more spaying, neutering and wellness care for more animals. Hildy Russell, director of finance and communication, said they spay and neuter cheaply and sometimes free with grants.
"Our goal is to prevent, and that's how you prevent Animal Services and shelters from being overcrowded," Russell said.
Rebecca Neal, Humane Society of Manatee County board president, sees their biggest service to the community is providing low-cost spay and neuter. The agency completes 5,000 a year, which includes feral cats, and expects to do more once the center is open. The Humane Society partners with Animal Services on a trap-neuter-return program for feral cats.
"We really see our part is preventing the issue from being an issue in the first place," Neal said, adding they regularly take animals from Animal Services.
The county's newest animal control officer will be dedicated to community awareness about pet retention and licensing programs, what the law is and what services are available.
"This is not just a dumping ground but a resource center," he said.
With additional funds from the county, the division upgraded microchipping capabilities, installing a computer in each animal control officer truck to scan pet microchips.
"They will take the animal straight home and never bring it here," Hutchison said. "It never sees this place."
County critics have become less vocal following the Napier animal abuse scandal.
"I think those voices have gotten a lot quieter," Starr said. "I think the whole community is working together to make things better."
Lisa Williams, owner and president of the rescue Moonracer, said more people helping Animal Services means the better chance animals have.
"More people are definitely working toward the same goal," Williams said.
Moonracer takes larger dogs, often pitbulls. One challenge is people don't want to adopt an untrained adolescent pitbull, which can be found in abundance at the Palmetto shelter.
"I think there is a big problem," she said. "We need to promote spay-neuter, not breeding. ... Rescues are a huge part of it. If we don't help the dogs that are injured, sick and need behavioral help, they aren't going to get adopted."
Whitmore stresses community outreach.
"There is no way we would be able to do this without the community, the rescues and the citizens," the commissioner said.
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.