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Animal shelter advocates make their case

fr shelterJackson County’s animal lovers had a message for county commissioners last week, and it couldn’t have been clearer: We need a new animal shelter, and quickly, speaker after speaker told the board. 

“Simply put, we’re out of time,” said Mary Adams, a longtime volunteer with Jackson County’s Human Society chapter, ARF. “We can’t wait for this project to be kicked down the road again.”

“Our shelter is archaic. Our shelter is an embarrassment. Our shelter is one of the most horrible I’ve ever stepped in,” agreed Betsy Ashby, also an ARF volunteer. 

“We need to move forward with a new shelter. It’s a no-brainer,” said Pat Thomas, chair of the task force commissioners created last year to examine needs at the county animal shelter.

Commissioners formed the task force following a public hearing in which 40 people turned out to say Jackson County needed to do something about its animal shelter. After months of research and site visits to other animal shelters in the region, last week the task force presented its findings to commissioners. The unequivocal conclusion: there’s no way to adequately renovate the existing shelter — a new building is needed. 

“It’s too far gone. Why would you want to put more money into it when you can put money into something better?” Thomas asked commissioners. 

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The existing shelter, located near Cullowhee up Airport Road, is 35 years old and endowed with a failing septic system, a well and heating system without backup power, spotty Internet service and limited space to house animals. The only entrance is through the front door, setting up potential for conflict between animals coming into contact with each other at what is already a stressful time for them. Office space is small and cramped. The building is hard to secure and has been subject to multiple break-ins. 

“I’ve been there once, and I cried when I left,” Commissioner Vicki Greene said when the issue was discussed at a December meeting. “I should have cried the whole time I was there.”


Envisioning a new shelter

The task force based its analysis mainly on comparison to the facilities in Transylvania and Buncombe counties. Transylvania is the more similar county to Jackson when it comes to demographics — the county’s population sits at about 34,000 compared to Jackson’s 42,000 — and its shelter is relatively new, less than five years old. 

A new shelter, Thomas said, should improve upon the existing one in a number of ways aside from basics like reliable Internet and newer infrastructure. Most obviously, there should be more space to house animals. Dog kennels should be situated so the animals aren’t facing each other, cutting down on noise and stress. There should be a grooming area to make the animals more attractive to prospective adopters and outdoor areas for dogs and cats. The new shelter should feature in-house spay/neuter, a dedicated space for adopters to meet the animals, a conference room to be used for training, improved office space and a nursery area for baby animals. The list of ideas goes on from there. 

Task force members were adamant that the new shelter wouldn’t need to be the “Taj Mahal” of shelters to do the job. But they were equally clear that they wanted the county to provide something more than just the bare minimum. 

“This doesn’t have to be a burden,” said Janet James, a Jackson County resident whose two dogs were both rescued from death row. “This could be something really wonderful for our community.”  

Animal shelter supporters tossed out ideas ranging from providing doggy day care at the shelter to holding obedience lessons to hosting a dog park — all available for a fee, with proceeds supporting shelter operations.  

“There’s a lot of things that could be done if the shelter was planned right where it could in part be self-sustaining,” said shelter volunteer Jane Finneran.

Making government services self-sustaining can be a challenge, with institutions in Jackson County ranging    from the Parks        and Recreation Department to the Green Energy Park to the Permitting and Code Enforcement Office never coming close to paying for themselves through fees collected — the only self-sustaining department in Jackson County government is the register of deeds. However, it’s a discussion that the animal shelter supporters said they want to have. Even if the self-sustaining part of it doesn’t come true, maybe the money could at least support services that wouldn’t otherwise be offered. 

“We have an opportunity here to build a real nice shelter and set a precedent for Western North Carolina,” Thomas said. 


Moving forward

No matter how the particulars wind up working out, the county is guaranteed a stalwart set of volunteers to work with. 

“The only thing preventing our current shelter from being a county embarrassment is the tireless work of its staff and a fragile web of volunteers who carry an enormous burden on their shoulders,” said task force member Sally Johannessen.  

It’s been more than a year since the shelter has euthanized a dog due to lack of space, and while the same can’t be said for cats, the limited use of euthanasia is a triumph that is directly attributable to volunteers who work through ARF and the cat rescue Catman2. Volunteers foster animals in their homes to keep them out of shelter cages. They help get the word out about adoption opportunities. And, perhaps most importantly, they make regular drives up North, animals in tow, to states where they’re more likely to get adopted. In states with strict spay and neuter laws, there are fewer puppies and unclaimed animals in general, so the demand for animals is higher. Those trips cost $1,000 to $2,000 apiece, and they’re done six to nine times each year. 

It’s a lot of responsibility. 

“Without all the work from ARF and Catman2 by a very, very few number of volunteers, thing would be so, so bad,” said Caleb Lynch, who volunteers at the animal shelter, works as shelter manager for Catman2 and serves as spay/neuter coordinator for ARF. “It’s very hard for a lot of people to see that because what we do is so behind the scenes, but I want to assure everyone we are all very, very tired. With a new facility the burnout rate is going to be a lot less.”

Commissioners have a full plate at the moment when it comes to capital projects like a new shelter. They’re already considering replacing roofs in the schools, increasing space at the courthouse, renovating the Skyland Services Center, building a new Health Department building and expanding the Green Energy Park. 

But despite all that, things are looking promising for the animal shelter. Last week, commissioners approved $15,000 for a needs assessment to determine what kind of space a new shelter should include and how much it might cost. 

“We’re going to work with you,” Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan told animal shelter supporters last week.

Even if the shelter wound up as commissioners’ number one priority, though, it would be a while before a new building materialized. An optimistic timeframe would be two years, and that’s assuming there are no hold-ups and the land search process goes smoothly. Considering that animals shelters often attract a not-in-my-backyard attitude from people living near them — and the desire to locate the shelter where public water and sewer hookups are available — finding a location could prove challenging. 

However, the will to try seems to be there. 

“I really believe it will move forward,” said County Manager Chuck Wooten.

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