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A Model Animal Shelter

Conventional wisdom holds that dogs left too long at an animal shelter will be put to sleep. But the wisdom is not conventional at the Shelby County Animal Shelter in Shelbyville.

A dog named Ugly made the national news while here. Another dog, Pepper, likes it here so much, he jumps the fence at his home and comes and “turns himself in.” And a man in the community ran his election campaign based on the welfare of these animals.

Sounds like a fancy, perhaps celebrity-run, animal sanctuary, but in fact the Shelby County Animal Shelter is a small, inconspicuous place on the outskirts of town. But this county-run shelter has made tremendous strides in animal welfare and become the model that other shelters in Kentucky are patterning themselves after.

County-run shelters aren’t the most cheerful places. Often, they have run-down facilities, animal control officers that aren’t particularly popular in the community, and the kill rate of strays and owner turn-ins is notoriously high. However, the Shelby County Animal Shelter and its director, Monica Robinson, are changing all that in this county.

A number of factors separate this shelter from others in the state, and have even put the shelter in the national spotlight. The shelter has enjoyed political support in the county, has involved itself in the community, makes an unusual effort at working with rescues all over the country, and exceeded its goals in bringing down its kill rate.

It’s definitely a low-tech operation. There are no computers, no e-mail, and a simple chalkboard serves as a daily record. A quick glance tells each animal control officer which dog needs to be photographed, who’s pregnant, how long each dog has been here, and who’s been adopted.

“And a name,” Monica points out. “Every dog gets a name.”

It was thanks to this naming policy that put the shelter on national news. Earlier this year, a dog was brought in that Monica found hard to describe.

“He was such a mixture of colors,” she says. “He wasn’t really brown, or white, or black. He was just ugly. In fact, I thought he was the ugliest dog I’d ever seen!” she laughs.

The name Ugly stuck, and though Ugly had been at the shelter long enough to have run out of time, his personality overcame his ugliness and he got to stay. Shelter staff and volunteers made a concerted effort to get him adopted, placing ads and sending e-mails to various rescue groups. The result: Ugly was adopted. The twist: he was adopted by a blind man. Dan Ernspiker of Louisville heard the story of an ugly dog needing a home and, needing some company himself, decided it didn’t matter to him what the dog looked like, so he adopted Ugly.

It was too good a story for the media to pass up, and Ugly and the animal shelter were featured on CNN and MSNBC news programs. The story had been picked up by the local media, and it spread from there. Ugly is now considered a mascot for the shelter’s efforts at promoting dogs they feel are adoptable that would otherwise be put down.

But Ugly is not the only hero—this shelter has received unusual political support. When County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger ran for office in 2002, he promised the community, “I’m going to make Animal Control and its staff my priority, and get them a new shelter.”

He did exactly that, and says his reasons were simple.

“I’m a farm boy, dogs have been my best friend. I’m a big pet lover, even ran the Shelby County Police Department K-9 Unit.

“This shelter is small, it’s not conducive to holding and adopting dogs. The staff here and the community deserved better.”

And better is what they’re getting in the form of a brand-new, modern, 6,664-square-foot shelter. With cross-ventilation, heating system, office space, and a meeting room for potential adopters to get to know their new pet, the shelter, when it opens in April, will be among the best in the state.

Kennel Attendant Dale Figg has been dreaming of a new shelter since she came on board eight years ago, but after all this time, she’s still holding her breath.

“I’ve always wanted this, been hoping for it. But I’ll believe it only when I’m actually in it!”

Monica gives a lot of the credit to Judge Rothenburger for getting the new shelter built. “Basically, he gave me a blank check on this project. He let me build the shelter the way I wanted it built.”

But it’s not just the animals who deserved a better shelter—the hard-working, caring staff will benefit also. Deputy Judge-Executive Rusty Newton believes the staff and the volunteers here are all top-notch.

“You can so easily see how much they love their job, and it’s obvious how much they love the animals. And because they’re so community-minded, they’ve done an excellent job promoting their spay/neuter program.” Newton helped write a grant for this program, to give vouchers to animal adopters to be sure their pet is spayed or neutered.

Another reason for building the new shelter was for Animal Control to take a more active role in caring for stray cats in the county. With the new facilities and a grant from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Monica hopes they can do more about the population of feral and stray cats. Her goal is to match the work they do with dogs in finding adopters or other rescues to take these cats in. There are no plans for a trap-and-release program for cats, common in other rescues.

“It’s my feeling that when cats are returned to where they were originally trapped, they’re going to cause more problems for the community,” she says.

Therein lies the fine line Monica must walk in her job as director. As much as she loves the animals, she must also consider the needs of the community.

“It’s a balance between protecting the animals as well as protecting the community,” she says. “Where the humane societies put the animals’ interests first and foremost, in a government-run facility I have to consider the best interests of the community.”

Animal Control Officer Jessica Rucker says this is why she came to work at the shelter. Having worked with the Shelby County Humane Society, she’s seen both sides firsthand.

“They do wonderful work at the Humane Society, but they have little legal authority, particularly in neglect and abuse cases,” she says. “Here, I can actually do something about the strays, the dangerous dogs, the owner turn-ins, the reports of abuse. I can follow through and find out what happens to these animals. The goals here are different, giving me more opportunities to make a difference for the animals.”

Those goals have indeed made a huge difference. It’s a sad fact that county shelters, statewide and national, have high kill rates: there simply isn’t enough room for all the strays and turn-ins, and many wonderful dogs are put to sleep if they aren’t claimed or adopted. According to Monica, most government-run shelters have an 80-85% destroy rate. Monica and her staff decided they didn’t like those numbers, and set out to change them.

They succeeded. In 2005, among the nearly 900 dogs turned in or picked up as strays, the shelter averaged a destroy rate of 25%, with some months as low as 6%. And it was rare that a sweet, adoptable dog had to be put down: most of the dogs that were euthanized had considerable health and/or behavior problems.

So how in the world did this small shelter and its three-member employee staff bring their destroy rates down an unheard-of 60%? The staff and its volunteers have been building a network of communication with rescues and shelters across the country in an effort to save every dog they can. In other words, they’re rescue-friendly, and that’s a bit unusual for a county shelter. With the help of volunteers, word is sent out of their overflow of adoptable, sometimes purebred, dogs. Many of these dogs have been sent to breed-specific rescues in Florida and Tennessee, where they are adopted or permanently fostered.

As Monica says, “I think this is what most separates us from other shelters, that we’re willing to work with other rescues to save every adoptable dog we can. If we’re full, and a rescue says they can take a couple dogs next week, we’ll hold those dogs past their time rather than give the dogs a deadline.”

Betsy Packard is one of the volunteers most involved in the networking. Sending out e-mails and coordinating rescue efforts, she’s helped place many dogs, whether purebred or mixed breed. She got involved with the shelter after adopting Katie, her “Golden Achiever” retriever, here. Impressed with the rescue work being done, she volunteers at the shelter as well as working from her home.

“Monica and her crew are doing an awesome job,” she says, “both with running the shelter as well as enforcement,” referring to a dog-fighting instance being prosecuted and cruelty and neglect cases.

Kay Krug took a few photographs of the dogs at the shelter “as a favor,” and now finds herself coordinating the transportation of dogs to other rescues. She, too, is looking forward to continuing to volunteer in the new shelter.

“People are afraid to come here with the way the shelter looks,” she says frankly. “But in a new building, a nicer setting to do business and see the dogs, we have a shelter to be proud of.”

The volunteering doesn’t stop there. James Collins discovered he has a knack for grooming, and plenty of matted, hairy dogs come in for him to work on. Del Hagy does much of the walking and socializing of the dogs, ironic for a man who was once “terrified of anything bigger than a beagle.” And Howard Lamarr takes great pride in the painting he’s done throughout the new shelter.

Monica and the staff have a call out for more volunteers once the new shelter is open. And you don’t have to be an animal lover: if you have a talent they can use, such as building maintenance or yard work and landscaping, you’ll be welcomed. Nor will you be asked to keep to a regular schedule at the shelter—you can work when you want for however long you want.

When the new shelter does open, officials from other government-run shelters are expected to attend the grand opening. New state laws call for these shelters to upgrade their facilities and services by next year, and they want to see how Shelby County did it. This shelter will actually be a step above the proscribed standards, and will be a model for others to go by. As Betsy Packard says, “We really want other shelters across the Commonwealth to see that there are other ways to do things, and that thousands of animals do not have to die needlessly.”

The decision of what to do with the old building came about partially as the result of Hurricane Katrina and the death and abandonment of so many pets. The old building will be used in the event of an emergency for people to house their pets. If a similar disaster hits Shelby County, people’s pets will be kept in a safe place if their owners have to relocate or rebuild. This way, they can even come to visit and care for their pets knowing these family members will be okay.

It’s another example of the shelter serving the best interests of the community as well as the animals. Monica sums it up by saying, “We’re trying to build up our rapport with the community so they know what this shelter is all about.”

Shelby County Animal Shelter
266 Kentucky St.
Shelbyville, KY 40065
(502) 633-0009

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