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Outgoing vet helped transform animal services in Hernando

Published:   |   Updated: March 31, 2014 at 10:11 AM

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BROOKSVILLE - When Dr. Lisa Centonze opened Jigsaw's cage on Wednesday afternoon, the three-legged, long-haired cat hopped over to her, and started purring as soon as he got into her arms.

The cat came to Hernando County Animal Services less than two weeks earlier with a fractured right femur. The bone was sticking out through his skin, and he developed an infection, Centonze said.

Jigsaw was sent to Hillsborough Community College's Vet Tech program, where Centonze's husband, Dr. Vincent Centonze, amputated the back leg. The cat spent the weekend at their home, and returned to the Hernando shelter on Monday, where he's been healing from the surgery. Next week, he should be ready for adoption.

"This would not have happened two years ago," Centonze said.

Earlier this month, Centonze announced she would be leaving Hernando County to take a position as managing veterinarian at Hillsborough County Animal Services, where she worked before coming to Hernando.

"It's been a really rewarding experience. I've been really honored I've been able to be a part of this community for 14 months," Centonze said. "They picked me to be their first vet, and it's been a challenge but very rewarding, very gratifying."

While Centonze cites the animal services team and community partners for improvements at the facility, such as a cat viewing room in the lobby, enhanced volunteer program and new foster program, perhaps the most significant improvement at the shelter was creating a space to perform surgeries on site.

"That room was empty when I got here in January 2013. It had a black stainless steel cabinet filled with syringes and needles ... and a box of donated, expired sutures that I had to throw out," Centonze said. "I didn't even have a pair of clippers to shave to check for a spay scar on animals coming in."

Centonze said local vets donated supplies and equipment to get her started, and over the next nine weeks she acquired the necessary equipment and permits to perform surgeries at the shelter. The county's facilities department created the necessary improvements for a safe and sterile environment.

Numbers reflect the changes. In 2013, the county shelter had a 69 percent live outcome, up from 56.1 percent the year before.

According to records 874 animals were euthanized at animal services last year, compared to 1,507 in 2012.

"That's not just because of me coming in here. That's because of the team effort," Centonze said. "That's because Shannon (Finch) has worked with the rescue groups, that's because they're all leaving spayed and neutered. It's because people are getting a fully-vetted animal."

"We have a really good staff here," Centonze said, praising customer service, her vet tech and support from the county.

Looking back on her tenure, Centonze thinks animal services has become more "accessible" and "community engaged" in the past year, especially since the shelter started offering Saturday hours for families to come and look for a new pet.

Last December, county commissioners said Centonze had brought stability to animal services. When she arrived, the department was still reeling from two high-profile botched euthanasia cases, and Centonze was tasked with implementing recommendations from a county audit and changes recommended by the University of Florida.

Centonze did have one high-profile controversy - Rocky the Great Dane, who was relinquished by his owner after he bit multiple members of the household.

Animal advocates from around the country and an Orlando lawyer called for Rocky to be granted a reprieve, and the dog was evaluated by an independent behaviorist of the group's choice.

"I have to look out for public safety," Centonze said, recollecting on the June 2013 incident.

"This was a dog the owner wanted euthanized. I don't do convenience euthanasias, but the dog had bitten five times, three different members of the household, and its a 140 pound Great Dane that could kill a child, and that was the owner's concern. She did not want to see a child get mauled, or killed, by this dog."

"That was a really hard time ... it takes a lot of compassion and a lot of courage, not everybody can do this job," Centonze said.

As of Thursday afternoon, no one has applied for Centonze's position. Centonze, who finishes her duties today, said she is leaving the shelter with enough supplies, medications and vaccines so another vet can transition smoothly, and a part-time veterinarian, Dr. Boyd Harrell, will come in to perform surgeries until a new managing vet is hired.

"I've been very happy here and it's been a very difficult decision ... but I think I'm doing the right thing for me professionally," Centonze said.

As for her last word to county residents, Centonze's message is concise and clear.

"If you're looking for a pet, please come here," Centonze said. "You'll save a life."

Hernando County Animal Services is located at 19450 Oliver St. in Brooksville, and can be reached by phone at (352) 796-5062.

(352) 544-5283

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