Volunteers fight to save animals from euthanasia

Thousands of animals end up in the shelters of Western North Carolina each year, and a small group of volunteers, mostly retired, tries to save them.

The absence of strict enforcement of spay/neuter laws is the root of the problem. In a poor economy, cats and dogs are producing unwanted litters that their owners can’t afford to keep. Penny Wallace, board chair for Haywood Animal Welfare Association, has seen an existing problem worsen.

“What we’ve experienced is that the economy is putting a tough burden on people,” Wallace said. “They’ve got their pets, and then they lose their job, and they don’t have the money for pet food or medical bills.”

In Haywood County in 2009, the animal shelter took in just under 4,000 animals, and 64 percent of them were euthanized.

Wallace’s organization, HAWA, works hand in hand with Sarge’s Animal Rescue Foundation, to confront the problem. HAWA provides low-cost spay/neuter services and low cost pet food and supplies, so people can afford to keep their pets and the homeless population doesn’t spiral out of control.

In 2009, HAWA processed 1,921 low-cost spay/neuters, over 35 percent of them free. These days they’re doling out 1,600 pounds of free food per week.

Sarge’s confronts the problem from the other side, acting as a full-service foster and adoption network that matches people with pets that need a home. Sarge’s mission is to try to keep up with the rate of animals ending up at the shelter, and last year they helped 900 dogs and cats make it into adopted homes or no-kill animal shelters.

“What we’re doing is triage,” said Sarge’s board president, Steve Hewitt. “We’re worrying about the animals that are already on the earth.”


A regional dilemma

Similar animal rescue efforts are underway in Jackson and Swain counties, but the resources are even tighter for the organizations confronting the problem. The Jackson County Human Society shoulders the load of providing both low-cost spay/neuter services and a foster-for-adoption model.

In Swain County, PAWS Animal Shelter has to cope with the fact that the county doesn’t have an animal control ordinance or a shelter of its own. The organization serves as a no-kill shelter in addition to trying to provide spay/neuter, adoption and transfer services.

“We are truly stressed to the max,” said Ellen Kilgannon. “We are seeing a lot more animals wandering the streets. Last week, someone found a purebred Rottweiler tied to a guardrail on U.S. 74.”

Kilgannon’s little shelter is inundated. In 2009, PAWS received more than 900 requests to take in animals, and they were only able to take 106.

“In the past two years, the numbers have steadily gone up,” Kilgannon said. “We don’t discriminate between animals. It’s really just how much room we have.”

At any given time, the PAWS shelter can hold about 15 dogs and 15 cats.

“It’s gotten to the point where we’re pulling out hair out with what to do with these animals,” Kilgannon said. “Between the three organizations (in three counties), there’s thousands of animals that need homes.”

Meanwhile, getting money for programs has also gotten more difficult.

“With the economy the way it is, it’s hard to find grants for animal-focused programs because it’s going to people or disasters,” Kilgannon said.

Mary Adams has worked with ARF in Jackson County for 13 years. In spite of ARF’s efforts to spay/neuter over 500 animals per year for the past two years and transport another 200 to no-kill shelters, the number of animals coming into the Jackson County Animal Shelter is still high.

“The numbers haven’t gone down fast enough, but adoptions have gone down, and that’s something that goes back to the economy,” Adams said.

In 2009, the Jackson County Animal Shelter euthanized just over 600 pets, about half the number of animals they received. The county saw an increase of nearly 50 percent over the previous year.

Melissa Hawkins, who processes the intakes at the Jackson County Animal Shelter, has been amazed at the volume.

“Last year, we saw more animals than I’ve ever seen before,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said a collateral effect of the economy has been that people are moving in search of work, and they can’t take their pets with them.

Hawkins sees the full brunt of the rescue crisis. Stray dogs and cats get three days in the shelter before they are euthanized to make room for more animals. Animals turned in by owners can be killed the next business day.

According to Hawkins, hounds, pit bulls, and black dogs are least likely to make it out of the shelter.

“We see a lot of hunting dogs and unfortunately most of them get put to sleep, because people don’t see them as pets,” Hawkins said. “I’m sort of biased to hounds. I’ll get one myself once our herd thins out, but I’ve got five right now.”

Small dogs do well, particularly through online pet search Web sites like Petfinder.com.

For Adams and the volunteers at ARF, the trends are upsetting.

“A lot of the progress we’ve seen has been offset by people’s misfortune and that’s forcing them to give up their pets,” Adams said.

ARF has changed its emphasis in order to save its volunteer network from total burnout.

“More and more our efforts have been going towards spay/neuter, because adoption numbers are down and volunteers get burnt out,” Adams said.

ARF relies on a core group of five foster volunteers and another six who work on the spay/neuter program. Fosters are notoriously hard to keep, because the volunteers get attached to their animals, decide to keep them, and drop out of the rotation.

“I would say most of the fosters we attract do the same thing,” Adams said. “They’re afraid to come back because they don’t want to get too attached.”


A system that works

In Haywood County the partnership between the Haywood County Animal Shelter, HAWA and Sarge’s has made significant progress in reducing the number of animals killed each year.

Sarge’s grew out of HAWA’s small adoption program when Rosa Allomong saw the need to expand the work of saving animals from the shelter. Allomong and a core group of 15 volunteers started Sarge’s as a way to foster animals and to promote their adoption.

“When I got here and saw the predicament the animals were in, I just jumped in,” Allomong said. “Some people aren’t even aware that there are animals being euthanized in this county.”

Today Sarge’s draws on a pool of nearly 50 volunteers who represent the equivalent of 15 full-time employees. Many, like Allomong and Hewitt, are retirees from other parts of the country. Sandy and John Delappa, two of the organization’s newest members, learned about Sarge’s through its annual dog walk event. Having spent the last few years splitting time between Western North Carolina and a sailboat in the Caribbean, the Delappas recently became year-round residents. They’ve thrown themselves into the Sarge’s family.

“One of the things I really love about the organization is the people,” sand Sandy. “It’s such a great group of volunteers.”

When a person comes to the Haywood County Animal Shelter, they are likely to be greeted by a Sarge’s volunteer who has spent time with the animal and knows what it’s like.

Every day the volunteers make crucial decisions to pull adoptable dogs from the shelter and foster them with a volunteer until they can be placed or transported.

Fostering is volunteer-intensive, but it makes a huge difference for successfully placing animals.

“In the foster care the animals are socialized, potty-trained, and taught directions,” Allomong said. “We know they’re healthy. You feel 95 percent sure it will be a good fit when they leave, and if it isn’t, they can come back.”

In addition to fostering, Sarge’s volunteers photograph every animal at the shelter and post them to the Web where online pet locator sites can market them to a larger audience. According to Hewitt, two-thirds of Sarge’s contacts for dogs come via the Internet.

When an animal is fingered for adoption at the shelter, HAWA gets them spay/neutered. Then, Sarge’s takes them and gets them ready to be a pet again.

“We’re life, full-service adoption counselors,” Allomong said.

HAWA has kept pace with the increased demand for its services by stepping up its fundraising efforts. With grant money drying up around the country, a full-time three-person volunteer staff has managed to keep enough coming in for HAWA to double its allocation of free pet food from 2008 and increase its low-cost spay/neuters by 50 percent.

An average spay/neuter costs about $135 on the open market. HAWA pays $53 at the Humane Alliance of Asheville and charges its customers $30 or gives them away free.

The organization also won a grant to fund a program to trap feral cats, perform a spay/neuter, and then release the animals back to their colonies.

“We have really re-doubled our efforts,” Wallace said. “I don’t really know how people have been able to support us, but for animal lovers, it’s just really important.”

HAWA and Sarge’s are working together towards a five-year goal of dropping the county’s euthanasia rate to 10 percent.

Jean Hazzard, Haywood County’s director of animal control, has thrown her doors open to the two partner organizations in the hopes of having fewer tough calls to make in the future.

“Jean has to make a decision often whether to euthanize pets after the requisite number of days that are perfectly adoptable,” Wallace said.

As Sarge’s desperately tries to increase its foster network to help save animals, HAWA continues to spay and neuter them, so unwanted animals aren’t being born. Together they’ve reduced the euthanasia rate by 25 percent, but there is still work to be done. The Haywood County shelter is still receiving close to 4,000 animals per year. For Allomong, the way past the problem is to change the culture of pet-owning into one in which animals are spayed and neutered.

“We’re trying to get the intake down,” Allomong said. “And that means spaying and neutering animals.”

Dixie dog transport saves lives

With the euthanasia rate at area shelters fluctuating between 50 and 70 percent, animal rescue advocates are literally going the extra mile to save pets that haven’t been adopted.

Each month, local volunteers load crates of cats and dogs into a white van and drive through the night to deliver the animals to freedom in New Jersey, where no-kill shelters are starved for adoptable companion pets.

Last week, Ellen Kilgannon of PAWS Animal Shelter in Swain County and Annie Harlowe of the Jackson County Humane Society took their turn at the wheel. Together they drove 30 animals 700 miles from Sarge’s in Waynesville to Common Sense for Animals, an animal shelter and nonprofit adoption service in Stewartsville, N.J.

Kilgannon helped develop the Dixie Dog Transport program through a relationship she had with the Connecticut Humane Society in 2005.

“In the Northeast, it’s a cultural thing where spay/neuter is the norm. People just do it, and because it’s such a high population area, there’s actually a deficit of companion pets up there,” Kilgannon said. “With the opposite situation here in the South, we’re able to create a win-win situation. It’s been a saving grace for us.”

Once in New Jersey, dogs like Dakota, a tiny pit bull mix found in the snow in Haywood County, and Lily, a one-eyed hound that had spent the last two months in foster care, are shoe-ins for adoption.

Common Sense for Animals holds adoption open houses each Saturday, and the pets don’t hang around for long.

“When we do the transports, all of the dogs –– including the hounds –– are being adopted within a week,” Kilgannon said.

So far this year, Sarge’s has transported 123 animals to Common Sense, and ARF has sent 109.

Last year Sarge’s transported more than 500 animals north. The transport program has made a huge impact on the euthanasia rate in Haywood, Jackson, and Swain counties. In 2004, less than one-third of the animals that came to the Haywood County Animal Shelter made it out alive. Now, almost half survive.

Driving the animals north saves them from languishing in foster care or being euthanized. But the arrangement is also a reminder that the culture of pet-owning in Western North Carolina needs to change to include the spaying and neutering of family pets and hunting dogs.

Steve Hewitt, president of Sarge’s Animal Rescue in Waynesville, stressed that the number of unwanted animals in local shelters is the result of a complex of issues.

“It’s not a North/South thing,” Hewitt said. “It’s easy to point the finger, but it’s not a simple issue.”

In the meantime though, more than 500 hundred dogs and cats will get a new lease on life thanks to a hardened set of volunteers determined to deliver them to freedom.

“It’s well worth the sleep deprivation, and we’ll keep doing it for the animals as long as there is a place to take them to,” Kilgannon said.

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