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Four-legged crisis brewing in Swain

Swain County’s complete lack of services to handle the growing stray animal population is putting a heavy burden on a nonprofit shelter and forcing county commissioners to weigh their options.

“We have absolutely nothing right now, and we are trying to develop a plan,” said County Manager Kevin King.

It’s been months since the county canceled its contract with Valley River Animal Control, an Andrews agency that made weekly rounds to pick up strays. Granted, people plagued by stray dogs or cats lurking about their yard had to corral them until the animal catcher came through. But it was better than nothing — which is what residents have now.

The contract with Valley River was the county’s sole strategy for handling strays. It doesn’t run an animal shelter or have animal control officers of its own.

A local shelter run by the non-profit, no-kill organization P.A.W.S. (Placing Animals Within Society) has long acted as a de facto county shelter. That role was tough but manageable.

But without Valley River, PAWS has been left to shoulder the entire burden of stray animals. The small shelter is overwhelmed by those trying to dump off strays or unable to care for their own pets.

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“Once the contract was ended, I think our requests on a monthly basis have doubled,” said Ellen Kilgannon, PAWS’ executive director.

In all of 2008, PAWS fielded 633 requests to take in stray animals. In December alone, the organization took 85 calls. The economic downturn isn’t helping — Kilgannon said lately, PAWS has seen a spike in “people that can’t afford to keep their animals anymore.”

If the trend continues, PAWS could field more than 1,000 requests in the next year.

PAWS is already stretched to capacity, said Kilgannon. It only has slots for 16 cats and 15 dogs at one time. She wishes the county would build a shelter that could accommodate more.

“We would very much to like to see the county have an open admission shelter, that being, you could take an animal to the shelter and then they would accept it and there would be no limits on the numbers they could accept,” Kilgannon said.

Any takers?

Building a shelter is one option on the table, King said. But the county isn’t eager to bring animal control services in-house. Swain would rather contract with an outside agency to handle strays — whether it’s to haul them off or house them in a shelter somewhere else.

The county has been in negotiations with several agencies since August, but without much success.

“Up until this time, we still don’t have a contract with anybody,” said King.

One problem the county is running in to — other counties are already struggling to handle their own stray populations, and are hesitant to take on that of another county.

“The majority of people we’ve talked to have said if they had the space, they would be talking to us more seriously,” King said.

It’s a problem that PAWS is already familiar with. If their shelter is full, it’s often forced to tell disbelieving callers that their only option is to hang on to the stray until space opens up.

“We apologize and say we can put an ad in the newspaper to try and find the animal a home, but that’s about all we can offer them,” Kilgannon said.

First things first

Building a shelter is not the county’s top priority. First, the county is attempting to put an animal control ordinance in place. The ordinance has already been drafted and is currently being reviewed by the county’s attorney. Then, the county would like to hire an animal control officer. After those things are in place, the county may consider building a holding facility or even a larger shelter facility.

It’s all a learning process for the county, which has always contracted out for services to control the stray population.

“This is the first time we’ve had to do it ourselves,” said King. “This is starting from ground zero. We’re trying to get educated on the pitfalls of the process, crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s.”

Part of the process is figuring out how to fund in-house animal control services. The county’s former contract with Valley River was a bargain at only $21,000 per year. King estimates it will be at least triple that to hire an animal control officer and give them the equipment to operate. That amount wouldn’t include an animal shelter building, which could cost roughly $150,000 for a bare bones facility, King said. Macon County recently spent $500,000 to open up its shelter facility.

PAWS: We need help now

While the county looks for a solution, commissioners seem unwilling to help PAWS deal with the flood of animals in the meantime.

Commissioners recently ignored a request from PAWS board chair Julie Thorner for $10,000 that would supplement the organization’s low-cost spay and neuter program. For the past year, PAWS has been operating with a grant that allowed individuals receiving Medicare, Medicaid or food stamps to get their animals fixed for a mere $8. That grant expired in January. Without it, PAWS will have to return to charging between $40 and $50 for spay and neuter surgeries.

The $8 bargain was effective in getting people to fix their animals. In 2008, the number of people spaying and neutering their animals through the program increased 25 percent over the previous year, said Kilgannon.

Though the county couldn’t give PAWS the money, King said commissioners still appreciate the work the organization does on behalf of strays.

“I really commend PAWS for all that they’ve done for the county, because they have a tremendous spay and neuter program which eliminates the need for euthanizations,” said King. “They’ve done a fabulous job.”

But kind words alone don’t provide the financial support that PAWS desperately needs.

The situation in Swain has become so dire that PAWS is taking a serious look at whether it can continue to operate.

“The economic downturn and lack of animal control have really caused us to consider, ‘Do we stay open?’ and ‘Can we continue and afford to keep our doors open?’” said Kilgannon. “Any support that we would see from the county government and the community at this point in time would be a huge morale boost and give us hope.”

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