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Dealing with strays a hit or miss affair in Swain

Every Monday morning, Justin Mack roles through the Swain County dispatch office to pick up a list of the week's most-wanted before heading out for a day of bounty hunting.

Sometimes his job is easy, with his most-wanted already captured and shackled, ready and waiting for him to haul off. But others are more tricky and must be tracked down and drug out from under porches or trapped unsuspectingly.

This most-wanted list isn't stacked with deadbeat dads or check bouncers. Mack chases down stray animals for the Valley River Humane Society, a Murphy-based non-profit animal shelter. Swain County contracts with Valley River to make a weekly run to Swain County, pick up its strays and haul them back to the Murphy shelter.

The arrangement saves Swain money Ñ it only costs tax payers about $17,000 a year. The cost of county-run pound would be several times greater.

To run an adequate animal control program, you would need a facility and you would need the personnel and a budget of $80,00 or $90,000 a year, Swain County Manager Kevin King said. Valley River also contracts to Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties Ñ all small counties that don't want the financial burden of running their own shelter.

But having an out-of-town animal control officer and shelter has its downsides. Swain residents reporting a stray on a Tuesday are out of luck until the next Monday when Mack comes back to town. By then, the animal could be gone. Someone who fears their missing dog got picked up by mistake can't pop down to the local shelter to find out. And someone whose cat has an unwanted litter has nowhere to drop off the kittens.

Other side of the fence

Meanwhile, PAWS, a non-profit group that runs a no-kill shelter in Bryson City, is in a tough spot. Its mission is to be a pet adoption agency, temporarily housing a handful of animals at a time until a permanent home is found. But the lack of an official, county-sanctioned shelter pigeonholes PAWS into sometimes serving as a de facto general animal control agency.

Ellen Kilgannon, the director of PAWS, spends an inordinate amount of time fielding calls from the public reporting a stray, looking for a missing dog or wanting to drop off unwanted animals.

They expect us to take care of whatever they want to dump. When I leave work at 8 o'clock at night and there is a box of kittens in the driveway, people don't understand we don't have to be here, Kilgannon said. We are providing a free service for this community with no help from the county. PAWS relies on funding from its thrift store and donations.

On a daily basis, Kilgannon has to turn people away trying to drop off animals and explain they either have to drive the animal to Murphy or make an appointment to have the stray picked up the following Monday.

It is frustrating for people standing on the other side of the fence with that dog or cat and no place to bring them, Kilgannon said. People who move in here say I have never ever experienced this situation anywhere else'.

Trying to coordinate a pick-up with only a one-day window a week can be tricky.

You get a stray and it's here today and then it strays on off somewhere else. You could call, but by the time they got here, they would be gone, said Joeann Turpin of Bryson City. Turpin's son recently left his name on Valley River's pick-up list for a dog and two puppies he could no longer take care of.

He just can't afford to keep them up, Turpin said.

But unfortunately for Turpin, Swain County doesn't contract with Valley River to pick up unwanted pets, only strays. If people have an unwanted pet to unload, they have to bring it to Valley River's shelter in Murphy themselves.

We will take anything they bring here, Mack said.

But too often, a pet owner who can't take care of their animal anymore will simply turn it loose. The pet then becomes a legitimate stray, but it slips off the radar.

I bet half the dogs I pick up were once owned, Mack said.

Kilgannon said some people get upset when she won't take in every animal they bring to the PAWS shelter. PAWS has room for only 15 dogs and 16 cats. It strives to be a no-kill shelter, so taking on a new stray is contingent on getting one adopted.

When we adopt one dog out, there are a dozen more behind it waiting to come in, Kilgannon said. The more time Kilgannon spends filling in the gaps of the county's animal control system, the less time she has to find homes for strays.

Sometimes, when a pet has languished too long without being adopted, Kilgannon makes the tough call to send it on its way to make room for more adoptable animals.

It is a very, very hard judgment call, Kilgannon said. Any shelter should really call themselves a seldom-kill shelter.

PAWS formed 15 years ago to fill a very specialized role.

It was initially started because there was a need for animals being abandoned or surrendered by people going into nursing homes or pet owners who had passed away, Kilgannon said. PAWS has evolved because of the lack of a facility where people can bring animals they find or who are injured. It is safe to say that Swain County has no animal control.

How to report a stray

Valley River retrieves about 200 pets a year from Swain County. Mack, the animal control officer with Valley River, said coordinating the pick up of an animal might seem cumbersome on the surface, but the system works pretty well.

Mack said in an ideal world, the person who reports a stray will pen it up until the following Monday. If they can't tie it up, feeding the stray will often keep it hanging around. Hold off on the feeding Sunday night though, so it will be hungry and easier to lure with food on Monday, Mack said. Setting a live trap is the next option, and tranquilizing is a last resort, he said.

People with a stray to report usually call PAWS first due to the misconception that it is an official pound of some sort. Kilgannon passes them on to county dispatch. Dispatch asks them to leave a phone number Ñ home, cell or work, where they can be reached the following Monday.

They would have to be home Monday if they want pick up. You don't want to pick up the wrong dog, Mack said of his rule.

Valley River has a huge capacity for animals. It can hold upwards of 120 dogs and 45 cats. Valley River has had excellent success lately transporting unwanted pets from WNC to Connecticut.

We've been going to Connecticut once a month. We send upwards of 50 dogs once a month, said Justin Mack, an animal control agent with Valley River.

Connecticut's mandatory spay and neuter law means they don't have the glut of unwanted puppies and kittens so common in other states.

I'm not sure what laws they do have, but whatever they are, they work great. They are able to get rid of 50 dogs in a matter of weeks, Mack said. Prior to that arrangement, we were euthanizing a lot, but since we started going up there our euthanization rate is about 5 percent. So we are practically a no kill shelter.

It doesn't take a state law for spay and neuter programs to have a positive impact though. In Graham County, a Friends of Animals group began paying spay and neuter bills for those who can't afford it and has had great results.

There's hardly anything to pick up anymore, Mack said. Valley River had to refund part of Graham County's money because Mack wasn't picking up as many animals as their contract called for.

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