SPRING HILL — Maria Velez and her 11-year-old son, Austin, were looking forward to bringing home Buddy, their big, lovable orange tiger-stripe, when they went to Hernando County Animal Services on Friday.
But when workers tried to hand over the cat they thought was Buddy, it was obvious something was wrong.
The cat was an orange tiger-stripe, but its face was different. It was thin. It had no tail.
Then came the horrible news.
Buddy was dead, accidentally put down a day earlier when an Animal Services worker who thought she was calling Buddy's owner called the wrong person. That person didn't want the cat, which had been brought to the shelter, and gave permission to have it euthanized.
Buddy mistakenly received the lethal shot.
"I was horrified,'' Maria Velez said. "My poor baby.''
In the aftermath, Animal Services is crafting new safeguards to keep something like this from happening again, said Liana Teague, code and animal services manager for Hernando County.
"This was just one of those tragedies that happens, but we don't want it to happen again,'' she said Tuesday.
Even before calls started coming from the news media and county commissioners, Teague said, she called her staff together Monday morning to develop new ways to double check information and improve communications.
"We try so hard to get animals home and not let them get euthanized,'' she said. "It tears the staff up. I know it's more tragic for the owner, but it's terrible for us. It's not what we do.''
Teague blamed the incident on human error and said the investigation into the details continues.
On Tuesday morning, Velez was tearful as she described her beloved pet, which she had raised in her home near Elgin and Deltona boulevards for the past five years, since it was a kitten. She sifted through snapshots of the robust feline sprawled out on a table mugging for the camera.
"He was a healthy, beautiful, cat,'' she said. "It just breaks my heart.''
The saga began earlier this month when Velez had to be out of town for a few days. She asked her friend Debra Yarzab to take care of Buddy.
The cat would cry and come running when Yarzab came by Velez's house to feed and care for him.
"I spent some time with him. He was lonely. He missed his family,'' Yarzab said.
She played with him, and when she went to brush his hair off the counter, Buddy bit her.
Yarzab didn't think anything about it until a day or two later when the bite wound began to swell. She went to the doctor, and then Health Department officials got involved because the cat had not been vaccinated.
By the time Velez returned from her trip, she had been ordered to take Buddy to Animal Services to be quarantined. Velez complied, signing all of the appropriate paperwork. By July 15, the Health Department notified Yarzab that Buddy was cleared and did not have rabies.
The next step would have been for Animal Services to call Velez and tell her she could pick up Buddy. But instead, a worker called another unidentified person who had brought a cat to the shelter and asked that person if they wanted the cat back. The person said no.
The worker apparently had been looking at the wrong paperwork, and Buddy was taken to be euthanized. In the meantime, after Velez received word that Buddy didn't have rabies, she went to the shelter to claim him — which is when she discovered what had happened.
Yarzab was angry.
She said she was told by a worker at the shelter that other animals previously had been mistakenly been put to sleep.
"They said, 'It happens. We don't live in a perfect world, and Buddy paid the ultimate price,' '' she said.
Yarzab said the workers needed to show more compassion. Buddy's owners were obviously hurting, yet no one came to console them when they were told their pet was dead.
"They're cruel,'' Yarzab said. "You're dealing with a part of a person's family.''
Velez said that she wanted to bring attention to what happened to her pet so that changes can be made at the shelter.
"I know there is no bringing back my baby,'' she said. "I just want changes so this never happens again.''