That doggie on the Web
By ALICIA CALDWELL
She came in as a feral cat. Strike one. She has yet to be tested for potential diseases. Strike two. And there are a whole bunch of cats ahead of her here at Pinellas County Animal Services who are more likely to get one of the few spots in the adoption center or photographed for the county's Web site -- a virtual guarantee of a home.
"Maybe she'll make it out," said Gary Miller, shelter adoption coordinator. "But we've got sooo many cats."
It is one of the more difficult decisions animal services workers in the Tampa Bay area have to make: As the holiday pet adoption rush begins, which of the cats and dogs do they photograph and post on county Web sites?
And which stay in the shelter's general population and end up with much higher odds of being euthanized before a slot opens in the adoption center, or they get sick, or crazy from being in a cage?
Of the five Suncoast counties, Pasco and Hernando don't post online photos of adoptable pets -- though they have plans to start doing so in the next few months -- while Pinellas, Hillsborough and Citrus do. The pets on these sites often draw several phone calls and are quickly taken home.
The shelter workers who choose animals for the Web sites say they try to be fair, they try to feature more than just purebreds and the young animals. In Citrus, where the adoption rate doubles over the holidays, the choices can be difficult.
"I try to go with some that will draw interest, like kittens and puppies," said Debbie Ward, shelter manager for Citrus County. "And I pick some of the older ones who wouldn't otherwise draw as much interest."
In Pinellas, the kennel assistants are well aware of the importance of Web shoot day. They all make sure they're around Thursday afternoon to lobby for their favorites, Miller said.
"They'll say, "This one is really sweet,' or "This one can roll over,' " Miller said.
The online pets go so quickly that shelter workers often find themselves telling potential owners that a particular pet is gone -- but quickly following up with others they hope people will find equally charming.
"What it does is spark interest," said Greg Andrews, Pinellas animal services operations manager.
Part of the difficulty at these public facilities is the huge volume of animals they handle and the many services they are charged with providing. Workers investigate complaints about barking dogs, catch loose animals, conduct rabies investigations, pick up dead animals and, of course, run a shelter and adoption operation.
In Hillsborough County last year, nearly 28,000 cats and dogs came through the county's animal services department.
The online pet photos, said the animal services projects manager, are well-read pages. The dog page, said Greg Berhow, is the No. 3 site in the Hillsborough County family of sites.
"It's getting a lot of hits and a lot of traffic," Berhow said.
While the site is a valuable tool in getting pets into good homes, it would be too time-consuming to continually update the site with new pets or even banners saying a particular animal had been adopted.
Berhow said he goes through about once a week and shoots photos of all of the animals ready for adoption at that moment. It's a somewhat arbitrary selection process, but it's not difficult, he said. The difficult decisions, Berhow said, are made by the veterinary staff. Those are the folks who decide which animals are adoptable, and which are too sick or ill-tempered.
"Our vet staff gets lobbied fairly heavily," Berhow said.
Bill Armstrong, Hillsborough County animal services director, said he is looking into computer software that would allow a quick posting of a mug shot of each animal when it is brought in, so people could search for a new or lost pet online. The fast turnaround would have another benefit: It could get animals out before they become unadoptable.
It's true that many animals come to the shelter unfit to be adopted because of disease and poor temperament. But it's also true that living in a crowded, noisy kennel often traumatizes or sickens animals that initially had a chance to be adopted. Cats are particularly prone to respiratory infections that spread quickly and can leave them with pneumonia.
"Animals deteriorate quickly," said Hank Baggett, Citrus County animal control director. "They start drawing back and getting in a corner. It's not a good setting. Picture yourself in jail. You're not going to exhibit your normal behavior."
Jim Varn, Hernando County animal control supervisor, has seen this happen all too often. His department will be moving into a new, $1.5-million facility on Monday. He hopes the skylights and quieter setting will help by allowing him to keep more animals for longer stretches. Another thing he plans to do is start a Web site and put up a different cat and dog each day.
"We're coming out of the dark ages," Varn said.
With the technology, he said, comes the hope that more pets will end up going home with owners instead of languishing in the shelter. The people who work in the kennels forge a bond with the animals and feel like they've done some good when they manage to match a pet with a new owner.
"It makes their day to see one go home," Varn said. "You can feel good for two or three days on something like that."
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