by Anna Cooke

Recently, we visited Citrus County Animal Services and met with Operations Supervisor Colleen Yarbrough, Citrus County Foundation for Animal Protection President Wanda Moak, Citrus County Board of County Commissioner Ruthie Davis Schlabach, and Citrus County Public Information Officer Veronica Kampschroer. The main focus of our discussions was the need for a new shelter. Then, we took a tour.

Money does not get a new shelter built. People do. Supporters, volunteers, staff and animal advocates who live in and around Citrus County are moving forward with a capital campaign. They are advocating loudly for a new building to replace the old, outdated and dilapidated one that has housed Citrus County Animal Services for more than 40 years. Not everyone is on board with the new shelter movement, even though it’s been a hot topic among county leaders, county commissioners and campaigning politicians for the last 20 years.

Years ago, around the time Citrus County Animal Services’ shelter was built, public animal shelter buildings were designed with the idea that a high percentage of dogs and cats taken in would be killed. Under such circumstances, the thinking was that the health and comfort of the animals was not a concern since they would not be in the shelter for long. Back then, efficiency was more important in shelter design than concern for the animals.

In Citrus County, there are some who feel the existing shelter is just fine the way it is. However, the way it is includes animals exposed to the elements (heat, cold, rain), cramped quarters for the animals and staff, a rotting roof, no designated areas to quarantine animals to keep the sick ones away from healthy ones, and a poor drainage system. There is more. If you are a resident of Citrus County, and you’ve never been to your municipal shelter, you should pay a visit. It will be eye-opening.

For instance, before animals are brought in from an impending cruelty case, Citrus County Animal Services staff and volunteers must immediately start creating makeshift quarantine areas. They build temporary kennels and move animals, equipment, supplies, and staff to accommodate the additional intake.
Providing a good customer experience in the existing building is difficult. There is only one entrance for the public to use. Imagine someone enters the shelter to
consider adopting a pet, while passing someone else exiting in tears after having their pet humanely euthanized. Two completely different experiences that occur often at the same time.

On campus, inside or outside, staff members and volunteers have no place to go to decompress. Kennel fatigue is real and these quiet areas are necessities, not
luxuries, to ensure the health and well-being of staff and volunteers. Building a new shelter is just as much about taking care of the humans who work and volunteer there as it is about caring for the animals. Educational and enrichment programs for children, like the reading programs found at so many shelters, are non-existent here. These are fundamental to teaching kids, among other things, the importance of responsible pet ownership. As it stands now, how can parents be encouraged to bring their child to an unsafe and unhealthy environment?

New shelters offer lots of natural light, entry areas that welcome the public, frequent air exchange, more space per animal, colony housing for cats away from dogs, and noise control. There are good reasons for
providing these basic amenities.

Right now, Citrus County Animal Services is a facility that is unsafe and unsanitary for humans and animals.

At least seventy percent of the community’s voters have expressed support for a new shelter. They have already raised more than one million dollars without the help of a big fundraising event to kick off a capital
campaign drive.

We have to wonder whether the other 30 percent, who are so against a new shelter, have ever visited Citrus County Animal Services? Do they even know what staff does to keep their community safe? And, are they aware of how encumbered staff are, doing their jobs in an outdated facility? Perhaps they don’t know that a municipal shelter’s first priority is to protect the public. Maybe they don’t realize the breadth of services the shelter is providing for the health, safety and well-being of the community.

Citrus County Animal Services, the only open-admission shelter serving Citrus County, takes in approximately 5,000 animals a year, regardless of capacity or reason for surrender. In spite of the limited space and resources, the shelter does not euthanize for space.

Since 2019, the shelter staff and volunteers have increased lifesaving measures to achieve a live release rate of more than 90% for cats and dogs. They have developed good working relationships with area rescue groups and other shelters as well as their local animal advocacy groups to make sure the adoptable dogs and cats receive the public exposure they need to increase adoptions.

Citrus County Foundation for Animal Protection (CCFAP) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that partners with the shelter to help increase adoptions and ensure the well-being of the shelter’s animals. They have raised funds to help cover certain medical care for shelter animals, including low cost spay/neuter procedures and microchip programs, and purchase medical equipment.

Shelter staff members are encouraged to take additional steps to help reunite a stray dog with their humans. This has been a godsend in an area that has a large older population, many of whom may not have access to computers and the internet to report and/or look for their lost pets.

Additionally, the shelter will hold onto a pet whose owner may be temporarily incapacitated. Those who are hospitalized, working through mental challenges and/or incarcerated can receive some assistance with their pets’ care. The mindset is to keep families together.

The shelter also manages eight pet food pantries around the county as part of the Community Food Bank of Citrus County for pet parents struggling to feed their pets.

“General capacity for our shelter is about 68 dogs and roughly 30 cats,” said Colleen Yarbrough, Director of Citrus County Animal Services. The shelter consistently sees numbers way beyond capacity. Overcrowding is not as a result of owner-surrenders, but more from animals confiscated during cruelty investigations, which appears to be on the rise. In a recent instance, the shelter took in 51 dogs just from one case.

After animals are confiscated as part of a cruelty case, they are often held at the shelter as evidence throughout the investigation. This puts an additional burden on an already overcrowded shelter. In another case, last year, officers
confiscated 43 dogs, three chickens and one pig – all in one investigation. The result was makeshift kennels and shelter animals living in the conference and break rooms. Climate-controlled storage units were added outside to house the overflow of animals. In the last 12 months alone, more than 200 animals have come through the shelter as a result of cruelty cases.

The public may not realize another service the shelter provides. Full forensic exams are conducted by shelter staff as part of ongoing cruelty investigations to help in building cases for successful outcomes.

While the expense to build a shelter without a veterinary medical suite may decrease the initial budget, it is important to look at the long term savings when those services remain in-house. Outsourcing veterinary medical needs has become a costly endeavor, and those costs continue to rise. Not to mention the level of care an on-site veterinary clinic would provide.

This staff is doing amazing work even with the lack of resources. Oftentimes, the place looks like a M.A.S.H. unit on the frontlines of a war zone. When a dog was brought to the shelter with three inches of bone exposed on her leg, staff did skin grafts and anything else that was needed to make sure her leg was saved.

Last year, veterinary students from Puerto Rico visited the shelter through a Maddie’s Fund program. The visiting students were able to experience how an outdated shelter with limited resources is able to function. Think about that. According to the Sato Project, there are an estimated 500,000 stray dogs roaming Puerto Rico’s streets and beaches with no access to food, fresh water or veterinary care. The drastically-strained municipal shelter system, which includes five shelters across all 78 of the island’s municipalities, has a combined euthanasia rate of more than 94%. Those veterinary students from Puerto Rico were sent to Citrus County Animal Services because of its poor condition in order to be better prepared to work within their own
limited environs.

Until we level the playing field between our municipal shelters and the public, we will continue to see a rise in unenforceable cruelty cases such as unattended chained dogs and dogs living in boxes outdoors. We cannot expect the public to provide better than the minimum care when it comes to space, shelter, food, and water for their pets when that minimum is all our municipal shelters have to legally provide the animals under their care.

The New Barker

Continuing to repair an outdated and dilapidated facility will only end up costing the citizens more – and that’s not only in money, but time, resources, and ultimately the lives of animals. It is not sustainable to keep running with such an old building. Animal management policies are essential to creating and sustaining humane communities. These policies should balance public health and safety with animal welfare needs.

Historically, municipal shelters have had it particularly tough when it comes to generating positive foot traffic. They’re competing with private shelters for adoptions and donations. Bringing a municipal shelter up to the 21st
century in terms of building, equipment and processes is paramount to remaining a viable community resource.

Marketing is key here. Educating the community with a clear message would be helpful. Inviting high-profile business leaders for a tour of the current shelter is an obvious first step. From a community standpoint, one cannot have a true appreciation of what their municipal shelter is doing until it is experienced firsthand.

“When people visit us for the first time, they leave surprised and amazed at the work we are doing with such limited resources,” said Yarbrough.

Shelter animals deserve safe, humane housing while they wait for placement. A new shelter building can be the capstone of a community’s continuing efforts to remain No Kill. Having amenities such as modern bathrooms and a kitchen are not luxuries, they are necessities. Give the hard-working staff and volunteers the tools to make their jobs easier and safer so they can focus their energy on the animals instead of shoring up a dilapidated building.

As the mission of animal shelters has changed, so too has their design needs. Today, new shelters are designed with the purpose of having animals leave the shelter alive, healthy and happy through the front door versus being
quietly euthanized and taken out the back door.