Advocates push for policy changes at animal shelter

Published 12:10 am Thursday, March 5, 2015

By Josh Bergeron

This is the final in a three-part series on the Rowan County Animal Shelter.

With a recent resumé of successful change, animal advocates are aiming to further alter the Rowan County Animal Shelter’s policies.

Last year, animal advocates successfully lobbied county officials to remove a lethal gas chamber — used as a form of euthanasia — from the shelter. It was given to a Lake Norman animal rescue group and subsequently destroyed.

“People think its a quick death,” said Animal Advocate Mandy Nance about gas chambers. “But, it can take up to 30 minutes. The animals’ organs start shutting down. They still feel it. They still suffer.”

Now, due largely to efforts from local animal advocates and rescue groups, the shelter could implement a formal volunteer program and a policy for processing animals. An expansion that’s projected to be more than double the size of the shelter’s current facility is being donated by a Winston-Salem philanthropist. Shelter Director Clai Martin said an animal advocacy group has also proposed to renovate the shelter’s existing facility.

A number of policy changes will come through a recently approved task force, which would include: two veterinarians, four Rowan residents, Martin, a commissioner and County Manager Aaron Church. The task force’s mission, county documents state, is to create a formal policy for volunteers to help at the shelter and one to define how animals should be processed.

A volunteer program is heralded by animal advocates as a step in the right direction for the shelter. Some say it’s a way to educate potential owners on the realities of adopting an animal, while others say it’s a way to sustain the monumental decrease in euthanasia rates. At 2014’s end, the number of animal euthanized was one-seventh what it was five years earlier. County officials partly attribute the decrease to rescue groups, who temporarily foster animals before finding permanent homes or transporting them to other organizations.

“Should we not be concerned that the implied volunteers, groups, and individuals are the reason for the decrease in animals euthanized?,” asked Tracy Waugh, who’s involved with Friends of Rowan County Animal Shelter. “Should our shelter not implement better policies to assure the continued implied success of the shelter?”

A few animal advocates have raised concerns over the fact that Martin is on the task force designed to serve as a “checks and balances system” for the shelter. In response, Church said the makeup of the task force was decided based on the “appropriate stakeholders.” The task force is expected to eventually present a series of recommendations to the Rowan County Board of Commissioners and subsequently be dissolved. The residents on the task force haven’t yet been named.

Based on prior experience, Martin said he’s hesitant to support a task force.

“We had a volunteer program years ago, way back when I started,” he said. “This facility isn’t designed for it. It was just too much liability.”

He also cited issues with volunteers entering quarantine areas — where dogs are kept for a period of time before adoptions are allowed.

“Maybe once we get the new cat wing, we might be able to do something different,” Martin said.

Another policy that’s come under fire limits animal advocates to remove eight animals from cages for pictures. Groups that post shelter animal pictures on Facebook can only take pictures from outside of cages after reaching the limit. Some are also limited on the specific days they’re allowed to come to the shelter, said advocate Candace Terry, who is also involved with Friends of Rowan County Animal Shelter.

“For somebody who has helped them, all of a sudden it’s like a slap to the face,” Terry said.

The shelter’s policies divide many of the animal advocates. Some dislike Martin. Others say the policies are a non-issue.

“I try to do what’s best for the animals,” Martin said.  I think I’m a good person. I hope I am. We have to have rules and regulations and some people just don’t like our rules and regulations.”

The task force won’t be the only source of change at the shelter, as the county plans to contract with local veterinarians for medical services. As a result, Church said the shelter would provide spay and neuter services and rabies vaccinations before adoption. Vaccination and spaying and neutering would only occur after a family has decided to adopt a particular animal. Church said the in-house spay and neuter services could be fully in place in six months.

The in-house services would replace vouchers currently used as a form of down payment for spay and neuter services. A large portion of vouchers are never redeemed, Martin said, meaning many adopted animals are never spayed or neutered.

Perhaps the most visible change will be a massive expansion to the shelter, paid for by Winston-Salem philanthropist Christine Morykwas. A contract, approved in February, values the expansion at $832,000. Morykwas would pay for the entire cost of the shelter.

Animal advocacy group Shelter Guardians has also offered to pay for renovations to the shelter’s existing building, said Martin.

“This shelter is really small,” he said. “It was built back in 1995 and a year later we had already outgrown it. I’m amazed at what we’ve been able to do over the years with a lack of space.”

With the help from Shelter Guardians, Martin said the exiting building would become entirely devoted to dogs.

The county’s official objective for the future of the animal shelter, said Commissioner Craig Pierce, is for the county’s shelter to become a low-kill facility. Animals with severe injuries or disease may be euthanized simply because of medical costs. Rabid animals may also be euthanized.

“Unfortunately we have people that will drop off an aging dog, for example, that they just don’t have the heart to put down,” Pierce said. “If you didn’t have but five per month like that, you’d have 60 animals. You have to look at the big picture. Low kill is where I’d like to see us be. It’s obtainable and it’s affordable.”

With the county’s in-house spay and neuter program being planned, Pierce said an animal overpopulation problem could be significantly reduced.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246

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