“I’ve had a passion for rescuing animals since I could barely walk and talk,” she said. “I was raised here in Bryson City, so finding animals on the side of the road is something I’m used to.”
Cline was able to turn her longtime passion for animals into a career about four years ago when she became the executive director of PAWS of Bryson City, the only animal welfare organization in Swain County. Even before she was the director of PAWS, she contributed to the nonprofit for 10 years through volunteering and donating to their cause.
For too many years Cline has watched as abused and neglected dogs and cats come through the shelter doors. They are scared, starving and in desperate need of medical attention. Some are scarred emotionally while others have been beaten, shot or simply abandoned. It never gets easier for her to see animals in distress, but seeing them recover from the brink of death and find a forever home makes it all worth it.
“But I don’t want people to think the shelter is a sad place because most people when they leave are happy because they see the animals are happy,” she said. “They see the dogs aren’t in cages or crying. They get to run around and play together.”
As the only shelter in Swain County, PAWS has many challenges in meeting its mission to save animals. The county doesn’t have its own shelter or animal control services, which means PAWS bears a large burden. Resources, funding, volunteers and space is limited.
PAWS formed in 1989 and the shelter was built a few years after that. Cline said a new and larger shelter is desperately needed. When asked how much space she would need, her eyes grew larger.
“Well I’d love to be able to take in 100 animals, but the shelter would need to be sustainable,” she said.
It would be difficult to measure the space needed to fulfill the growing need in Swain County. The shelter can currently legally accommodate 15 dogs and 15 cats — and it’s always at capacity. A litter of Aussie-mix puppies and their parents were brought in the other day, but with no room for them they will all be transported to an Atlanta shelter soon.
PAWS tries its best to educate people about spaying and neutering their pets to cut down on the number of unwanted puppies and kittens, but it remains a big problem in Swain County because people think they can’t afford it. PAWS offers two spay and neuter programs — one is a subsidized program through a local veterinarian office and the other is a free program through a state grant.
“There are people who qualify for the low-income program, but they have multiple animals so they just can’t seem to catch up,” Cline said. “But if they reach out to us we can try to help them however we can.”
Animal abuse and neglect is another big issue that keeps the PAWS shelter full and drives up the cost for the organization. Cline said many owners abandon their dogs if they get heartworms, which is easily preventable but expensive to treat. Treatment for heartworms can cost about $700 per dog.
Cline has seen plenty of cases where dogs and cats were thrown out of a vehicle or abandoned on the side of the road or even thrown in the river. They’ve also had cases of people moving and leaving their animals in the house or chained up out back.
One of Cline’s adopted dogs, Miracle, had been abandoned inside a home for three weeks before she came to PAWS shelter. The vet told Cline to just take the husky mix home and make her feel comfortable, which is code for “she won’t make it through the night.” But she did make it through the night and slowly regained her strength.
“Now she’s my biggest helper with the other rescue animals because she knows someone saved her,” Cline said.
Cline admits it’s hard to let go of an animal after you’ve nursed it back to life. She adopted Miracle and also Sadie, a lab mix that needed a very expensive surgery that PAWS couldn’t afford. Sadie was found at 5 weeks old with a broken leg, dislocated hips and a cut neck. From the looks of it, it appeared someone tried to strangle her and throw her in the river. Against all odds, she survived thanks to Cline and a friend who helped pay for the surgery.
“She’s healthy and happy now and has no problem running and climbing on everything,” Cline said.
Witnessing this kind of abuse is nothing new — it’s been happening for years. The only difference now, Cline said, is that PAWS is putting it into the spotlight instead of shielding the public from it. Law enforcement agencies are also taking these cases more seriously.
“I’ve been encouraged lately because the last few years we’ve seen law enforcement starting to charge people for animal cruelty,” Cline said. “I don’t ever want them not to pursue charges because they think we don’t have enough room. We have a large network, so we can find them somewhere to go.”
Cline is also hopeful her work with an ad hoc committee will be successful in getting the county to adopt an animal control ordinance. The committee has spent many months collecting public feedback throughout the county before crafting an ordinance to present to commissioners.
It’s been an issue for many years, but not one that commissioners have been interested in addressing. She knows it’s an expensive endeavor that would require a shelter facility and more manpower, but it would go a long way in decreasing the number of abused and abandoned animals in Swain County.
Maintaining the shelter and taking care of these animals costs PAWS about $189,000 a year. With no contributions from the county government, the shelter has to rely on private donations and proceeds from its thrift store in Bryson City.
While monetary donations are always needed to keep the shelter going, Cline knows PAWS eventually will need more space to handle the growing need in Swain County. Until then, they will continue to hold adoption events and transport strays to other shelters in order for them to get adopted.
Even with the struggles before them, PAWS has been able to find forever homes for more than 3,000 animals and provided financial assistance for more than 11,000 spay and neuter surgeries. They will even help people with the cost of pet food if it means that person will be able to keep their pet in the home.
“We try our best to help everyone we can,” Cline said. “My job is to work with the community to raise awareness and educate, fundraise and put out fires.”
• Provides care for homeless and injured dogs and cats and facilitates pet adoptions in Swain County.
• 57 Lemons Branch Road, Bryson City
PAWS Thrift Store
• 110 Bryson Walk, Bryson City
• Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday