Agreement on the problem

Dec. 26, 2012 @ 05:34 PM

The Vance County Animal Shelter can’t keep them all. Animal rescue groups can’t save them all. But the flow of animals into the shelter continues, and rescuers work at a frantic pace to save as many as they can.

Both county officials and rescuers agree on the problem — animals are not being spayed and neutered.

“The core of our problem is people not spaying and neutering their pets,” Charles Brandon Boyd, president of the nonprofit Ruin Creek Animal Protection Society of Henderson, said. “They need to exercise their due diligence. We have to get more people to do it.”

“Their dog gets pregnant, and they bring us the puppies,” said Frankie Nobles, the county’s acting animal control chief. “By the time we get 10 (animals) out (of the shelter) on Monday, by Wednesday we’re at capacity” of 60 to 70 animals. But the population can balloon to over 100.

The poor economy is part of the problem, too. Some owners can no longer afford their pets or to pay spay and neuter fees.

“Surrender is hurting us a lot,” Nobles said. On a recent day, he said 25 animals were surrendered — 11 were brought to the shelter and officers picked up another 14.

“We’ll get 5,000 (animals) this year easy,” Nobles said.

County Manager Jerry Ayscue said the economy is having an effect.

“We would much rather they bring them to us than to neglect or improperly care for them,” Ayscue said.

But despite the work of rescuers, primarily the Ruin Creek group since it was organized in 2011, adoptions from the shelter and periodic visits of Spay-Neuter Assistance Program of North Carolina, a mobile veterinary surgery clinic, 5,785 animals have been euthanized at the shelter over the past three fiscal years, according to shelter records. In the same time period, 10,278 of the 10,972 animals that passed through the shelter were “stray” or “unwanted,” the records show.

Neither the state nor the county has a mandatory spay or neuter law.

“We encourage rather than mandate,” Ayscue said. “To require people to spay and neuter, while that would produce some good results, enforcement would be a challenge.”

Animal control is a stressful situation whose facets, in addition to the number of animals, include a shelter built in 1978, shelter workers with numerous duties, overworked rescue workers and the county’s own fiscal challenges that make building a new shelter a slow process.

The aging shelter on Vance Academy Road is no stranger to criticism.

Nobles said there is a great misunderstanding about the shelter.

“All we hear is ‘You’ll take him and kill him,’” Nobles said. “We try to give every animal a chance.”

The chance may be no longer than 72 hours, which is the time state law requires a shelter to keep an animal. The Vance shelter policy is five days, Nobles said, but the large animal population has forced a retreat to the shorter period.

Both periods are less than the 10-day hold once observed at the shelter.

However, the shelter works with 10 foster homes and holds for a longer period any apparently well-kept animal that might be adopted locally, along with animals identified for rescue by the Ruin Creek group or other advocacy groups.

Even considering the age of what critics call an inadequate facility, the Vance shelter earned “acceptable” marks in the most recent state inspection in October. “Acceptable” is the highest of three marks. The others are “minor deficiency” and “significant deficiency.”

State inspectors look at records, indoor and outdoor facilities, primary enclosures, feeding, watering, sanitation and veterinary care.

Shelters are inspected at least once a year, according to Lee Hunter, the director of the Animal Welfare Section at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, but less than “acceptable” invites a reinspection to assure that corrections have been made.

What the state finds acceptable, though, critics find unacceptable.

Euthanasia by gas chamber is inhumane said Angie Rowland, a member of the Ruin Creek society, charges.

Animals are locked up in a gas chamber, clawing their way out, Ruin Creek volunteer Lisa Dickerson agreed.

“There’s nothing worse than that,” Dickerson said. “People should watch them gas the animals.”

The shelter isn’t cooled and the only warmth for the 19 indoor kennels and 15 puppy cages is from heat siphoned from the shelter’s office. The kennels, though, have openings in the rear so animals can get outside — and cold air gets inside. Donated tarps are used to help block the elements from the nine outdoor kennels.

Rowland said the society has brought in small swimming pools and ice and purchased fans in the summer. Blankets have been provided in cold weather, and beds that stand six inches off the floor have been purchased to keep animals off the concrete floors.

Ayscue said animal control has evolved from the day when it was all about rabies control, Ayscue said.

“As society progresses, expectations have evolved into a more holistic approach,” Ayscue said.

Volunteer animal rescuers also want the county to be more proactive in getting animals adopted.

“We have a way to save them,” Rowland said, “but it takes a lot of work. I wish the shelter was more geared toward saving them.”

“Our staff is doing a great job,” Ayscue said, pointing to the workload for the five full-time employees and available finances. “The world of animal control has broadened over the past few years.”

Shelter workers are busy with maintaining the shelter, enforcing the law, trapping animals, dog bites, adoptions and court cases, he said.

Rowland said shelter workers get a lot of blame, and it’s not their fault. She said shelter staff can work only with the budget and facilities provided by county commissioners, Rowland said.

“They don’t have the staffing,” Rowland said.

Ideally, the shelter would also have one person dedicated to promoting and handling adoptions and another responsible for the well-being and maintenance of the animals, she said.

“The reason there’s not an uproar (about the shelter) is people don’t know what it’s like,” Rowland said. “People need to voice their concerns to our county officials.”

Lack of staff has also impeded the county’s taking advantage of a state program that reimburses a county for the entire cost of spaying or neutering animals for low-income individuals, Ayscue said.

To participate in the program, according to Penny Page, coordinator of the Spay/Neuter Program in the agriculture department, a county must submit an annual shelter report, which Vance does. They also must provide the county’s guidelines for individuals to prove they are low-income and an itemized list of its costs.

“The state isn’t interfacing with the individual,” Page said, leaving the application process and promotion of the program with each county. The program is financed primarily through a $20 share from the sale of each “I Care” license plate.

While Vance has been reimbursed in the past, Page said the county hasn’t requested funds for nearly two years.

Ayscue said that continued participation in the program is “on our radar” and that animal owners have access to the SNAP-NC mobile surgery clinics. A SNAP-NC clinic visits Vance at least monthly and offers a low-cost service for low-income individuals. The schedule, rates and program information are available online at snap-nc.org.

Meanwhile, critics like Dickerson believe the shelter system (in North Carolina) is broken. But a look at state law might leave a different impression.

Many of the regulations would cure what critics say ails the Vance shelter. For example, high and low temperatures in shelters are specified and conditions that require additional personnel are defined. Regulations — including those about sanitary conditions and the exact size of kennels — have been on the books for years, but there is no deadline for implementing them according to the agriculture department. Hunter said none of the regulations prohibit the use of a gas chamber for euthanization.

“We realize a lot of the shelters were not kept up,” Hunter said. “We don’t have set times” for compliance.

Vance, though, is on a path toward building a new shelter.

Five acres on Brodie Road were donated to the county in mid-2011 for the project. A condition of the gift from Charles and Mary Boyd of Henderson is that the shelter be completed in five years.

“Our eyes have been bigger than out pocketbooks,” Ayscue said of a proposed 13,000-square-foot, $1.2 million shelter. He said the project is being “pared down.”

Even with a lower price tag, Ayscue said the county will look to a fundraising campaign.

“We’re told there is significant interest among citizens and businesses,” he said.

The annual operating budget exceeding the current $287,000 will be the challenge.

“It has seen its better days,” Commissioner Eddie Wright said of the shelter.

Commissioner Dan Brummitt said the county will be better able to handle the cost of a new shelter after a couple more years of debt paid down on a number of school projects.

He said objectives for a new facility will be to improve conditions.

“We have capacity issues,” Brummitt said. “The building needs to be more user-friendly to accommodate the public.”

Through it all, the five full-time Ruin Creek society volunteers keep a hectic, weeklong schedule. They post photos of animals on social media, assess shelter animals for veterinary care (the society provides care for animals it expects to rescue) and compatibility with other animals and humans. They send and answer email inquiries, arrange transport for animal adoptions across the country and at week’s end load animals into a van and drive them to points as far away as upstate New York.

Each of the full-time volunteers also holds down a full-time job, said Rowland, who earlier this year was presented a Vance County Community Hero Award for animal advocacy.

Ruin Creek is one of a number of groups taking animals from the shelter, but the local group has had a “phenomenal impact” on the number of animals rescued, Ayscue said.

According to shelter records, the rescue rate in fiscal 2009 was 3 percent. By fiscal 2011, the rate had ballooned to 43 percent. Over the same period, the rate of euthanizations dropped from about 80 percent to about 27 percent.

“People should think before bringing animals to the shelter to die,” Rowland said. “I don’t know what they think when they drive away.”

Contact the writer at news@hendersondispatch.com.