“Why are you still here?” exclaims Dr. Karen Hill Sheppard, director of Huntsville Animal Services as she looks into the cages in the shelter lobby, spying an orange tabby kitten, all head and meow, a regal tortoise-shell and a gray kitten stretching his arm through the bars.
Good question. How these adorable faces didn’t go home with somebody during a weekend pet adoption availability is a mystery.
But, good news:
As the years have gone by, fewer and fewer pets are here looking for homes. There were nearly 10,000 pets handled by the shelter in 2009. It’s projected to be down to 5,000 this year.
Even better news:
As the years have gone by, fewer and fewer pets are euthanized because they can’t be placed with new families or because they are unadoptable. Huntsville is determined to reach “no kill” status, and it’s well on the way. The live release rate is 93 percent, compared to less than 20 percent in 2009.
“I used to say this was a slaughterhouse,” Sheppard says. “Now, we’re this life-giving machine. We’re so grateful to Mayor Battle for supporting this effort.”
Huntsville leaders have recognized that “if you’re a progressive city, you’re trying to save your shelter pets. It’s part of the improvement in quality life,” Sheppard says.
“It’s a reflection of the culture of the community when you’re seeking to care about life in all forms,” says Huntsville City Administrator John Hamilton. “We’ve made a decision we’re going to save pets’ lives. You can only do that with a lot of partnership and with a certain amount of resource investment.”
The city implemented a spay-and-neuter program several years ago designed to help low-income families with their pets.
The city has also supported low-cost and, occasionally, fee-waived adoptions. The price for a family to adopt a pet from Huntsville Animal Services typically ranges from $35 to $50 “in an effort to make sure we have affordable pets for everyone,” Sheppard says.
That doesn’t mean everyone gets a pet or should have one. There is a protocol for adopting pets and shelter staff meet with potential owners to assure the pets are going to good homes and that the owners are capable.
Staff also works for solutions with owners who want to surrender pets. The shelter only rarely accepts such pets because of space constraints. But often that becomes a moot point.
“We’ll counsel the owners and figure out
how to make the situation work.”
“We’ll counsel the owners and figure out how to make the situation work,” Sheppard says. “It could be something simple … and we help them untangle the situation. We try to talk through things.”
Before the shelter doors open on a recent morning, Sheppard is making the rounds with members of her staff, checking for health issues, to assure the animals have been eating and drinking and examining any behavior. Most every kennel is full.
There’s a variety of sizes, ages and breeds. As Sheppard says, the dogs “tend to be one to three years of age, busy and playful and healthy and vibrant.” However, a challenge is presented in that a number of them are larger breeds and certainly not puppy-sized, and there are many pit bulls and similar dogs.
Pit bull breeders have proven to be less likely to spay or neuter their pets, and families with children are often hesitant to adopt such a dog.
Says Sheppard, “We’ve got to do more to address that issue” with pit bull owners.
As she leads the way through the building, an animal control truck is delivering three strays. But just as animals are brought in, they’re also taken away, alive and to welcoming homes.
“There’s so much joy in this business, it’s addictive,” Sheppard says. “Sometimes you almost have to make a choice if it’s half-full or half-empty. But there are so many good things happening here.”
Huntsville Animal Services is located at 4950 Triana Boulevard. For more information, call (256) 883-3782 or visit Huntsville Animal Services.
Mark McCarter is a regular contributor for CityNews.