With Sheriff’s Office’s Animal Services Division seeing continuing climb in number of animals it needs to shelter, expansion of Bee Ridge facility expected to be necessary in a few years, County Commission learns

Rise in number of calls linked to 2015 assumption of full-time Sheriff’s Office work in North Port and in county population growth

The Animal Services shelter, operated by the Sheriff’s Office, is on Bee Ridge Road in Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Though Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight has put a focus on the rising jail population over the past year, his department also has been experiencing a significant increase in the number of dogs and cats it handles at its Animal Services facility on Been Ridge Road in Sarasota, Knight and his special projects administrator told the County Commission this week.

If the animal intake trend continues as expected, Knight and Marissa Marchena said on Jan. 15, expansion of the shelter — the only county-operated facility of its kind in Sarasota County — will be necessary.

Knight noted that County Administrator Jonathan Lewis has been working on strategic planning initiatives with the commissioners. “I know you don’t like surprises,” Knight said. That is why he did not want to come to the board members in two years with an urgent need for expanding the shelter, Knight added.

His goal, he reminded them, is to keep them apprised of potential problems before action is necessary. “We just wanted to get [this] on the radar screen.”

Commissioner Michael Moran referred to a graph Marchena had shown the board, noting that the number of Animal Services calls in 2015 was about 9,500; yet, in 2018, it was approximately 15,500, or a 63% increase.

A graph shows the trends in calls to Animal Services. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Telling Knight the statistics are “alarming to me,” Moran asked why Knight thought the climb was that high.

“Who knows why,” Knight responded.

However, as Knight and Marchena explained, in 2015, the Sheriff’s Office took over the handling of calls for the City of North Port on a full-time basis. The Sheriff’s Office, Knight noted, already was providing the service to the other municipalities in the county.

Still, Knight said, “Not all of [the increase in calls] came from North Port.” The county’s population has been climbing, too, he added. With more people come more dogs and cats, he noted.

The City of North Port, Marchena pointed out, consistently accounts for 18% of the Animal Services calls the department receives each month. She characterized the countywide increase in calls since 2015 as “a pretty drastic jump.”

By 2020, she said, the department expects to be handling 20 calls a day.

The county population has climbed approximately 6% over the past four years, Marchena pointed out. Animal Services’ intake of dogs and cats in 2015 was 2,710, she said. In 2018, the intake figure was 3,038, close to the equivalent of taking in 10 animals a day. The total increase over the period was about 12%.

The county population in 2015 was 392,090; in 2018, it was 417,442, according to a chart she showed the commission.

The facility on Bee Ridge Road was constructed in 2003, Marchena pointed out, when the county population was about 346,000. Therefore, she continued, even though the number of county residents has risen about 20% since 2003, the shelter has not been expanded.

The services and the needs

A chart compares the annual total of dogs and cats taken in by Animal Services to the county population over the past several years. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

During about a 15-minute presentation, Marchena explained that the Animal Services shelter has the capacity for up 75 dogs and 90 cats. Animal Services houses birds, snakes, rabbits and ferrets, too, she said.

The Florida Cattlemen’s Association and other groups help the Sheriff’s Office in the temporary placement of cows and horses, Knight added.

The shelter exceeded its capacity for a portion of both 2017 and 2018, Marchena told the board. May is an especially busy time for cats, she noted, as that seems to be the month when most litters are born. Thanks to the Sheriff’s Office’s partnerships with the nonprofit Cat Depot in Sarasota and the Animal Rescue Coalition, including the latter’s spaying and neutering program, Animal Services has been able to manage the case load, she said.

The Sheriff’s Office has only 11 officers who respond to calls, Marchena pointed out. Each works an eight-hour shift. Two shifts operate each day, she continued. The first is from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; the second, from 4 p.m. to midnight. One person is on call from midnight to 8 p.m. if a call necessitates a response during those hours, she added.

At the shelter, she continued, 10 employees each day care for the animals, answer questions posed by members of the public, handle adoptions and the fostering of animals, and coordinate the assistance of volunteers.

A graph provides information about the shelter’s capacity from month to month. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

“We are fortunate to have an amazing group of volunteers who assist with feeding, walking and cleaning,” Marchena said. Altogether, the number of volunteers is about 200, she added. Their work equates to what four full-time employees would be doing, she pointed out. “We would really struggle on a day-to-day basis without their generous assistance.”

Further, various groups, including the Humane Society, help staff find owners of animals that have been brought to the shelter, Marchena continued, and they assist with adoptions.

As for expanding the Bee Ridge facility: Marchena said, “We believe there is opportunity on the current Animal Services campus.” Consolidation of the operations of each of the Sheriff’s Office divisions in one area “is a preferred practice,” she pointed out.

Then Marchena showed the commissioners a graphic depicting possible expansion areas on the Bee Ridge Road site.

“You have the property right there,” Knight added. “Having everything on one campus is the best,” he said, reiterating Marchena’s earlier point.

“I’m glad to see there’s room for expansion on property that we own,” Commissioner Alan Maio told Knight.

Maio then asked County Administrator Lewis what Lewis felt the board’s next step should be to make that expansion possible.

“First of all,” Lewis replied, “the commissioners would have to direct us that that’s a priority … I don’t know what the sheriff’s timing would be … We would need a little bit more information.”

Knight emphasized that his goal that day was just to make the board members aware of the situation at the Animal Services facility.

“I like the way you’re doing this,” Chair Charles Hines told Knight. “We need to keep this [issue] in mind, too.”

A graphic shows areas available for expansion of the shelter. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office