At 4:15 p.m. Friday, a young black-and-white mixed breed dog named Zeus was brought to animal services by a family member hoping it would be placed for adoption.
Fifteen minutes later, Zeus was euthanized after being deemed unadoptable and because there was supposedly no available kennels to keep him confined. There are also reports he was dragged by the neck because he wouldn't walk with a department staffer.
Questions have surfaced as to how Zeus could have been evaluated so quickly and killed within minutes of arrival. The head of the department has launched an investigation and the executive director of PetLuv Nonprofit Spay and Neuter Clinic is calling this crisis another reason to clean up shoddy operations within animal services.
Director of Public Safety Mike Nickerson is calling this a tragedy and has launched an investigation. He said this will result in a stricter policy.
Nickerson said he will also examine the role Code Enforcement and Animal Services Manager Liana Teague played in the incident, which appears to have violated a written agreement with PetLuv as to the number of days an animal must be held before being euthanized.
"It was very unfortunate," Nickerson said. "All the staff here feel terrible about it."
There were reports from staff that Zeus was fearful when he was surrendered by a woman who dropped it off for her cousin. But even those reports are in dispute.
"Personally, looking at the picture and hearing a volunteer who observed him, I believe he would have quieted down had he stayed here awhile," Nickerson said.
As for the neck dragging, Nickerson said it wasn't as bad as it sounds.
"The dog was scared and the dog needed to be tugged on a little bit to get walking," Nickerson said. "The dog was not, in our estimation, dragged the entire way by its neck."
Nickerson said it just so happened that Friday, a two-person team that determines which animals are deemed non-adoptable and therefore candidates for euthanasia, was already there.
On that day, there were five dogs on the priority list of low adoptability and they needed to euthanize six, he said.
Nickerson said state law mandates that animal services hold stray animals at least three days. But Hernando County has an agreement with PetLuv to hold them for seven days, and that applies equally to strays and owner-surrendered animals.
Nickerson is also arranging meetings with volunteers with the Friends of Animal Services to go over adoption placements and procedures.
Nickerson and PetLuv Executive Director Richard Silvani are scheduled to meet Monday about the incident. But Silvani said he does not want Teague present.
'Things are at a breaking point'
Silvani calls this a full-blown crisis and, in an email, placed the blame on some staff members and especially Teague, who he refers to as "an incompetent manager."
Silvani cited an incident in 2010 when a parvovirus swept through animal services killing 31 of 64 Shih Tzus found abandoned on the side of a road.
"People were demanding her head after the Shih Tzu incident and they almost got it," Silvani said. "She is ignorant of many aspects of what goes on in the shelter, and she can't control her staff.
"As the county climate survey pointed out, she hides in her office (and she is gone more than anyone I've ever seen) even though the job calls for 'management by walking around,'" Silvani added.
Silvani said animal services maintains poor records, does not vaccinate upon intake of the animal and conducts lax evaluations.
The death of Zeus, he said, is emblematic of the ongoing problem at animal services.
"Things are at a breaking point, and we will either have a housecleaning and a great leap forward or the whole effort will end," he said.
Silvani said animal services violated its memorandum of agreement with PetLuv by euthanizing Zeus so quickly and not doing what it could to make it adoptable.
The agreement states that animal services will provide all the core vaccinations at no charge, the spaying and neutering for adopted animals at no charge — all in an effort to cut down on euthanasia and to increase adoptions.
"The whole Zeus incident, it violated…not only the (agreement) but in so many ways of what's right and decent and it's really horrifying," he said.
Teague was on vacation Thursday and unavailable for comment.
But in a memo to Nickerson, Teague said Zeus was euthanized due to space and fearfulness. The dog wouldn't even walk on a leash, she said.
"At the time that Zeus came in we had zero pens and were just beginning euthanasia for the afternoon," she wrote.
Uncovering the facts
Laurie Boynton, one of the volunteers of the Friends of Animal Services, said in a letter to Nickerson that she was present when Zeus was brought in last Friday.
She snapped a picture of the dog, played with it awhile and left. Later she posted the picture on the social media site Facebook in hopes of someone seeing it and adopting Zeus.
Someone did see it, contacted her and had arranged to pick up Zeus the following Monday.
Boynton said in the letter she was surprised to learn Zeus had been killed only minutes after she left the animal services building Friday and "to even try to justify Zeus' killing is despicable."
"When I left the shelter at 4:25, there were 10 empty kennels out of 58, and one dog was being returned to its owner," she wrote. "On top of that, only eight kennels had more than one dog in them, and those were just the small dogs. The shelter closed at 4:30."
Boynton said a staffer dragged Zeus across the floor by his neck without even trying to let him walk on his own.
"Of all the dogs in the kennel on Friday, there is no doubt in my mind that Zeus was the most adoptable," Boynton said.
Boynton said Zeus was "killed immediately by people who 'evaluated' him" and could not have determined his adoptability so quickly.
But Nickerson said it takes only a matter of minutes to evaluate a dog and, in the case of Zeus, it was done on the spot because there was no available kennel to secure him.
Nickerson said she believes Boynton drew the conclusion that there were empty kennels because the five dogs – including Zeus – had been euthanized and freed up space.
Still, Nickerson said an investigation will uncover the facts of the tragedy.
"We're doing everything in our power to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.