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Lake county animal services and canine commandos too . . .

Superdog, can you help save the day for Lake County and your canine friends in need . . .
Superdog, can you help save the day for Lake County and your canine friends in need . . .By: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

There are no more hot button issues in a community than those involving children or animals. Given that many of us consider our four-legged family members to be our "children" they trigger the same response we might have when there are concerns expressed about two-legged children. Many of us do not distinguish between the two as being members of the family and deserving our protection and love.

As previously reported Lake County, Florida is once again under the microscope from animal-rights activists as they continue to struggle to meet the needs of the animals their Animal Services Division is responsible for. For the second time in a year, Lake County Animal Services is losing its director and County commissioners are engaging in much fodder about transferring the operation to the Lake County Sheriff's Office.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Cyndi Nason, Lake's director of animal control, resigned for a number of reasons and stated, ". . . primarily it is made from the realization that I am not able to handle the workload and feel that I have not been as effective as the position requires. Having not worked in government before, the county's funding challenges and being under the 'microscope', so to speak, are new to me. The public criticisms and staffing struggles have been difficult to adjust to." Ms. Nason had replaced Marjorie Boyd, who worked at animal control for eighteen years, after she ". . . resigned in the wake of an audit criticizing the operation for the way it handled money and for failing to keep track of some of the animals."

On the face of it, moving this operation to the Sheriff's Office may be the right move to make in terms of established leadership and resources. The Sheriff's Office carries a higher profile with the public and this affiliation could invoke greater recognition for the vital services animal operations provide to the community.

According to Orlando Sentinel columnist Lauren Ritchie, "Sheriff Gary Borders informally has said he likely would take on the operation if asked and given funding. Borders would use free labor by county jail inmates to perform such tasks as cleaning pens, feeding and watering animals, bathing them, doing laundry and keeping up the animal-control grounds, located just south of Tavares on County Road 561 next to the sheriff's vegetable garden, where inmates already work. The money saved could be used to hire the coordinator position."

Furthermore, the use of ". . . inmate labor would free up trained, paid employees to do more to promote adoptions and to handle jobs inmates shouldn't do, such as administering medication, working with the public and entering data into the county's new software designed to better track animals. County residents would win because fewer creatures would be euthanized and those being adopted would be better cared for — without raising taxes or raiding the budget of a department that benefits humans."

Wow, sounds like prison labor under supervision of the Sheriff's Office is the answer county taxpayers have been looking for to bring animal services under control. Such a simple solution indeed. Plus, this would be ". . . a natural fit with the 24-hour operation of the Sheriff's Office. Already, deputies often are dispatched to handle calls with animal-control officers between 5 and 7 p.m. when animal control is closed. A supervisor in the form of a sworn deputy would be on duty to make decisions, and deputies would be able to seamlessly provide support during the day."

However, let's slow down for just a moment. The Sheriff's Office may not be the panacea for the faltering agency the commissioners think it is unless animal services would be an equal partner under their domain.

Sheriff's spokesman Lt. John Herrell said Sheriff Borders "is willing to do whatever he can to help the county save taxpayer dollars". Believes Kent Weber, head of the Groveland, Florida based Misfit Animal Rescue, ". . . Borders could do better at handling the animal-control 'policing' aspects of the job but must get the right people focused on animal care if he is to take over the duties."

We understand the fiscal concerns each local government faces year in and year out; especially in light of an economy that hasn't fully recovered from the recession. However, we are concerned that the primary focus of this proposed transition is on cost-saving and less on animal care. Monetary considerations are a reality, but let's not forget the sentient beings who are at the center of what animal services should be all about.

If Sheriff Borders does take this responsibility on as part of his law enforcement agency will he install a civilian leader to manage this new division or will he assign it to sworn personnel? We ask this because in our experience placing sworn personnel in charge is sometimes viewed as nothing more than a stepping stone along the promotional ladder and not fully embraced by some who are rotated in and out every few years.

On the other hand, sometimes law enforcement agencies are forced into hiring a civilian leader because it is felt the civilian manager will have greater focus on the animals and their welfare because they want to be there instead of being assigned. Law enforcement agencies have a culture inherent to doing things a certain way and the animal welfare aspect can be considered by some as a secondary cause or less than an equal partner in the agency hierarchy. If a civilian leader is selected, would they have enough clout to do what needs to be done for their mission and staff?

Placing animal services under the Sheriff's Office could turn out to be the right move for the county, but we still must be aware of the pitfalls if the sheriff is not fully engaged and resources (including training) aren't shared. There are uncertainties as the county reviews this issue and continues to search for viable solutions.

What does seem to work with a better sense of certainty is the Canine Commandos program in Brevard County. It is not about transitioning an animal services agency, but about what can be done by two-legged kids to help four-legged kids survive.

The brainchild of Brevard County teacher Virginia Hamilton, "Canine Commandos is a program gifted students from Indialantic Elementary along with 18 other schools participate . . . The Commandos hope to improve these dogs' behaviors in order to help them find forever homes."

Canine Commandos is considered a school function, but funds for the program are channeled through the Brevard School Foundation and the Parent Teacher Organization. This year, they received multiple grants from the following organizations:

Petco Foundation
North Shore Animal League
Sue Bassett Foundation - - not a foundation specific to animal causes.

Hamilton believes dogs are often overlooked for adoption due to a lack of training. She started this program in 2002 for Brevard County Schools utilizing at risk all the way to gifted kids doing it today. She was motivated as an animal lover and someone involved with animals trying to fight the greyhound dog track in Melbourne, Florida. As a side note, this column believes greyhound racing should have been shut down as an industry years ago and remain constant in wanting to see that happen.

Said Hamilton, "Kids love animals." As a teacher, she saw the development of Canine Commandos as a natural fit. This program allows both parents and kids to be involved with two ultimate goals, as follows:

  1. For kids to learn they need to give back to the community (be that helping with animals or other social issues) and for them to feel compassion; and
  2. To find more adoptable homes for animals.

Hamilton teaches at a very involved school and this program utilizes kids as young as the fourth and as old as the eighth grade. It is a project that is run in conjunction with two local animal shelters:

Canine Commandos takes a class of students to the shelter. While dealing a lot with pit bulls, they also experience other breeds (including Boxers, Great Danes and more) as well. "Once they arrive, the Commandos train basic obedience commands, "Watch Me," "Sit," "Down," Stay," and "Come" outside with the dogs secured to the fence to prevent the students from letting go of the leashes. Once the basic commands are taught, the Commandos go into the shelter to clicker train the dogs in their runs."

When clicker training begins inside, ". . . the dogs are in their runs and the Commandos stand in front of the dogs' doors. When the dogs are quiet and not jumping at their cage doors, the Commandos click and give them a treat. This makes the shelter quieter and the dogs more desirable for adoption." The Commandos now socialize cats and at CBHS, they agility train too.

The Canine Commandos program is insured for liability coverage, but according to Hamilton incidents are isolated and rare. She did recall one incident when a dog got loose and engaged in a fight with another dog. A parent put her hand in between the fighting dogs and was bit. Although her intentions were good, but unfortunate, the parent acknowledged being at fault for her own bite by placing her hand in the charged area between the two dogs.

Despite any isolated incidents, the reaction to this program has been all positive. It is supported by the School Board, County Commissioners and now the Sheriff's Office. She emphasizes that a community effort is needed to be effective for this animal work. Hamilton says the kids love the program and they love animals. She describes a child's love of animals like peanut butter sticking to jelly - - "they just go together".

Hamilton says the kids scrapbook their learning experience with the animals they help socialize. She is teaching the kids at a young age to help make a better world, make positive changes and give back to the community. They are learning to be humane and to respect all living things and the environment. "If I reach one child to think with compassion towards animals that's really cool!", said Hamilton.

Personally, Hamilton eats, sleeps and breaths her work on behalf of animals. In addition to Canine Commandos, Hamilton is the education director for the Brevard Aiding Shelter Animals Project Board of Directors (ASAP). She said this group came together about six years ago because of the high animal shelter kill rate with the intention of addressing this issue by helping shelters out.

"A 501(c)(3) Florida non-profit corporation with one mission—to generate resources to enhance Brevard County’s animal shelters. With four primary goals, Brevard ASAP is raising funds and other resources to accomplish the following:

  • Develop low-or no-cost spay and neuter programs throughout the County, especially for low-income families. The simplest way to achieve the shelters’ goal of becoming no-kill facilities is to stop the influx of unwanted animals into our shelters. And the simplest solution to this daily flood of unwanted animals is spaying or neutering our pets.
  • Enhance our shelters by improving their facilities, programs, and operations. These enhancements will ensure a better experience for shelter animals and staff, improving each animal’s chances for adoption into a loving home.
  • Increase adoptions by creating programs and opportunities County-wide which make shelter animals more accessible to the public. Making our animals available to meet pet-lovers during non-work hours creates more adoption stories with happy endings.
  • Educate the community, including our children, about all aspects of proper pet care. The no-kill goal in our shelters will be possible only when the public understands that pets are a life-long commitment, which includes preventing unintended litters."

Furthermore, Hamilton is trying to get an active humane education program into the Brevard County School system by holding in-service classes for teachers. One of the slogans on the back of a teacher in-service flyer caught our attention. It reads, "Animals look up to everyone; let's start with our children first!" Hamilton believes that If you can teach a child to be a caring and compassionate person it will positively impact their whole life.

Hamilton has also been recognized by Office Depot's national "Teachers Change Lives" program (see her video, the ninth on the aforementioned Office Depot website). This program honors teachers who go above and beyond to change kids lives.

Thank you Virginia Hamilton, Canine Commandos and Brevard ASAP for being a part of the solution. Lake County Sheriff's Office take note and if you're going to take on the animal services function do it for the right reasons to help turn a troubled agency around and be a part of the solution too.