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Cat case reveals flaws in system

Animal control officials say they have revamped their system so a similar case won't happen again.

By LISA GREENE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001


Animal control officials say they have revamped their system so a similar case won't happen again.

Someone out there knew last October that Nancy Elizabeth Holloway's four cats were in trouble -- locked inside a vacant St. Petersburg house with no food or water.

That person called Pinellas County Animal Services for help. But nobody showed up, and the cats weren't found until January, when police looking for Holloway, not knowing she had moved, entered the house and found the cats' skeletons. They had starved to death.

Leaders at animal services said Tuesday, the day after the Holloway case became public, that they are overworked and have far more calls than they can answer. They also conceded that in this case, their safety net to ensure that calls don't fall through the cracks failed.

But leaders of private animal welfare groups said that such mistakes are rare for the county.

"They're a very good organization with caring and compassionate people," said Beth Lockwood, executive director of the SPCA of Pinellas County. "This is the first time I've heard of anything like this."

Lockwood said the county could have referred the call to the SPCA, and they would have investigated.

The animal services department has half the number of field officers that national standards call for and has asked for two more in next year's budget, said assistant director Welch Agnew. The county now has 16 field officer jobs, but three of them are vacant.

On a typical day, Agnew said, the department receives 700 to 900 phone calls. Usually, more than 100 of those calls are classified as needing a field officer.

The high call volume means the agency must prioritize its calls. The most important, such as an animal bite case, are answered right away. Others, such as a vague complaint of a dog wandering loose, take longer. Officers try to get to those, but residents should remember that many calls are unsubstantiated or involve animals that can't be found, Agnew said.

"You've got to be reasonable," he said.

The agency answers about 60 percent to 75 percent of its field complaints with a visit, he estimated.

Anonymous complaints drop off officers' computer screens after a few days. Usually, said Linda Britland, senior animal control officer, those complaints either were already answered or were too vague to respond to.

But after the Holloway case -- in which she pleaded guilty Monday to four counts of felony animal cruelty -- the county changed how its computer dispatch system classifies abuse and neglect complaints. Those changes mean that such calls are automatically a high priority, even if they come from anonymous complaints, Britland said.

"It was unfortunate," Britland said. "Usually, on a cruelty thing, people are really mad. They leave their names."

Before the system was changed, abuse and neglect cases were classified as a "public nuisance" -- the same code for barking dogs or pet odors. That made anonymous abuse cases easier to overlook.

Now, abuse and neglect cases are separated into a separate category, and even anonymous tips receive a high priority. Britland said officers made the change after reviewing the system, not because of the Holloway case.

National standards call for one officer per 18,000 residents, and Pinellas has half that, Agnew said. But he's not sure that Pinellas needs to double its crew. The county is relatively small geographically. Also, the department has a sophisticated computer system, linking field officers to a computer network through laptop computers in their cars. That helps them answer more calls, Agnew said.

"If we're hitting 60 to 75 percent with half (the number of officers), do we really need what the national average is?" he asked.

Rick Chaboudy, executive director of the Humane Society of North Pinellas, told similar stories of complaints about mistreated pets or wandering animals that can't be found. He said that people can help by giving as much specific information as possible when they call and by leaving a phone number so that field officers can call back with questions.

To report abuse

To report an abused or neglected animal, call Pinellas County Animal Services, 582-2600; the Humane Society of North Pinellas, 797-7722; or the SPCA of Pinellas County, 586-3591.

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