Internal changes are playing out within the county’s animal control operations that will ultimately impact the culture of how stray and orphaned animals are dealt with — an evolution that will parallel the planning and design phase for a new shelter.
The long-time animal services Director Jean Hazzard retired rather unexpectedly last month after nearly 30 years in the position, paving the way for a new director to shepherd the era of a new shelter.
Animal welfare advocates see that as a positive.
“It is an opportunity for a younger professional trained in modern day shelter management to make us a model in Western North Carolina,” said Penny Wallace with the Haywood Spay and Neuter program, who has been active in animal welfare circles in Haywood County for 10 years.
Wallace said the idea of animal shelters as mere holding tanks for strays waiting to be put down is passé.
“Basically it used to be a dog pound where you disposed of the animals. The culture nowadays is a more humane approach. It has done a complete flip-flop,” Wallace said of the modern paradigm.
Haywood County has come a long way in rejecting the old-school approach, witnessed by a major decline in euthanasia rates.
In 2000, more than 2,600 animals were euthanized at the Haywood animal shelter — 68 percent of all the dogs and cats that came through the door were put down. Last year, just 525 — only 20 percent of those coming into the shelter — got put down.
Wallace said the successes are largely attributed to the work of animal welfare groups.
“Ten years ago, it was a militaristic, machine-like process,” Wallace said. “By example we showed how we could reduce the numbers and get these animals adopted out. It was a process in changing the culture in how they think about animal care in the shelter.”
A coalition of animal welfare nonprofits is actively engaged in keeping dogs and cats out of the shelter with a multipronged approach.
It has rescue programs that proactively find homes for dogs and cats that would otherwise languish in the shelter and eventually be put down. Armies of volunteers also intercept animals before they reach the shelter’s doorstep in the first place. Meanwhile, active spay and neuter programs have reduced the population of unwanted strays overall.
But Wallace believes more can be done, and sees the transition of the department coinciding with a new shelter as a golden opportunity.
“It takes a different kind of energy,” Wallace said.
County leaders have embraced the new philosophy, witnessed by their willingness to pony up for a new animal shelter.
“It is a reflection of where your community values are,” said County Manager Ira Dove.
Harkening back to his days as the social services director for the county, Dove pointed out that the treatment of animals in a home is an indicator social workers consider when investigating child abuse and neglect. The same principle could be applied to the community at large.
Dove quoted Gandhi, who said the measure of society is how it treats its children, elderly and animals.
County commissioners have also pledged a strong, cooperative partnership with animal welfare groups.
Dove cited Sarge’s Animal Rescue, which pulled more than 250 dogs out of the animal shelter last year, and intercepted hundreds more from entering the shelter.
“If you can get intervention at an early phase to help get those animals moving into an adoption track, and avoid the costs of euthanasia, that’s a good deal for everybody,” Dove said.
There’s a structural change afoot within animal services as well.
With only five employees, it is the smallest stand-alone department and should really be consolidated, Dove said.
Some counties put animal services under law enforcement. But Dove suggested it would be better aligned under health and human services.
“We wouldn’t be the first or only ones to do it as a public health issue,” Dove said.
Stoney Blevins, the director of health and human services, said animal services is an “awfully small department to have it standing alone.” Making it part of a larger department would provide admin support, budget oversight and personnel supervision.
And given the retirement of the long-time director and a new shelter in the works, “It is a good time to look at it,” Blevins said.