I’m home again now and only just beginning to process all that I saw and learned in the last ten days touring shelters in the south. Images of the dogs haunt me – their eyes full of sadness and confusion, their bodies tense and leaping with stress or shut down and still.
They scroll through my mind when I wake in the night and when I sit down at the computer now to write this. There is much to feel hopeless about in the world of southern shelters and rural dog rescue.
But there is also much to be hopeful about. There were two shelters we visited that made it clear that while there is still so far to go, fixing this problem is completely doable. It’s within our grasp.
We visited the Greenwood Humane Society in Greenwood, South Carolina. This shelter is one of the very first shelters OPH began working with and so we’ve been witness to their transformation. In 2012, OPH created the documentary ‘600 Miles’ about their situation. You can view it here.
As Lisa and I strolled through the brand new state of the art shelter facility, I asked Tammy, who has been there since the beginning, how it came to be. How did Greenwood go from outdoor kennels with tarps over them and patched fences and dripping roofs where they were forced to euthanize for space regularly – to the beautiful shelter we were standing in that was scheduled to open the very next day.
She said it was that documentary. When it was shown to the county council they decided something had to change. The money for the shelter came in part from the government, but the rest from donations and fundraising. It took six years, but Greenwood now has the kind of facility that will allow them to house more dogs comfortably and change the community’s perception about adoption.
The shelter facility has a huge effect on how many people will come there to adopt instead of just to dump animals. Dark, over-crowded, noisy, desperate places do not attract adopters.
Employees who work in these places don’t have space to work with the dogs or grounds to walk the dogs. They play a desperate shell game trying to keep as many as they can alive. But a facility like Greenwood changes the game.
Yes, there are still too many dogs being dumped and abandoned, but walking through the bright, endless halls you could hear and see a new attitude at Greenwood. They are not alone trying to keep dogs alive—their government and their community are on their side. It’s a step. A big one.
We didn’t linger long at Greenwood as everyone was busy (and exhausted) getting ready for their big opening the next day. They still have a long road (we passed a man arriving to surrender his dog as we were leaving), but they are headed in the right direction.
Here are a few of the dogs we met at Greenwood.
Greenwood gave us a little hope, but seeing Anderson County PAWS (Pets Are Worth Saving) was what lifted the weight I’d been carrying around on my heart the whole week.
Two years ago, Anderson was a high intake, high kill shelter. One of their employees who worked there at the time and is still there now told me it wasn’t unusual for her to come to work on any given day and have to euthanize 35 kittens and 20 puppies. That was the norm. She said it made her sick and broke her heart, she hated her job.
Enter veterinarian Kim Sanders. Kim left private practice as a vet to run Anderson. It wasn’t an easy transition and she questioned her decision plenty, but her ideas and dedication changed Anderson. Now, they are as close as you get to a ‘no kill’ shelter. (Note: There really is no such thing as a ‘no-kill’ shelter and the term isn’t helpful for the situation.)
Anderson only euthanizes for extreme aggression. Kim told us she’ll scrape anything up off the pavement and put it back together. Her words, “You name it, I’ll save it,” should be the mantra of all of us.
Kim is not only saving dogs at Anderson with her programs, trained staff, and commitment, she’s reaching out to the shelters in the counties that touch Anderson and helping them save dogs. She performs 40 surgeries 4 days a week, spaying and neutering countless and dealing with many of the issues that are fixable but will get a dog euthanized at an underequipped shelter. They even treat heartworm positive dogs at the shelter before they go home or to rescue.
I asked her how she did all this, and she told me that the first thing she did was march into the county government meetings and demand they enact a few ordinances. They have spay and neuter laws in Anderson, and the shelter is no longer an ‘open intake’ shelter, which means you can’t just dump your dog there any time. You must make an appointment and currently, the wait time is 3 weeks to surrender your dog. This gives the resident and the shelter time to figure out if the problem is fixable – is it economic? Is it behavioral? Does the dog need medical treatment they can’t afford? Training help? Sort of like with abortion or gun purchases, an enforced wait time helps the person make an informed, responsible decision.
Anderson has a foster-to-adopt program that is a great model for other shelters. But it’s the simple, nearly free things they do that impressed me. Many of the dogs were doubled up in their kennels. This accomplishes two things – allows Anderson to hold more dogs, but it also gives the dogs a companion. Dogs are pack animals and at nearly every other shelter we visited, they are left alone in their kennels and never have physical contact with any of the other dogs. Having watched my Frankie play with our foster guests, I know that canine friends are important for the emotional health of the dogs.
There was also a small pail of treats outside each kennel for workers or visitors to feed to the dogs as they passed by. Lisa was big on this – and we had to wait for her as she treated every dog she could.
Anderson’s shelter was much nicer than many of the others we visited, but their transformation didn’t come about because of a new shelter, it came about because of their new director. Kim is always on the look out for grant opportunities and implementing new ideas to benefit the animals in her care.
More than that, though, she’s willing to advise other shelter directors, and will even take her staff to visit them and evaluate their situation. In the time she’s been at Anderson, she’s also doubled the salaries of the people working at Anderson. Through her efforts, they’ve just gotten a new grant to build a $100,000 dog park adjacent to the facility that will enrich the dogs’ lives even more.
That employee who told me about how much she hated her job two years ago? She was the person who arranged for our tour and is now the rescue coordinator who OPH works with to move dogs out of Anderson into rescue. As both she and Kim said, “We couldn’t do this without rescue.”
Anderson is at capacity and Kim told me she is always anxious because she knows that at any given moment the Animal Control officer could show up with twenty dogs from a drug bust or hoarding case and what would she do? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure she’d come up with something.
I wish I could clone Kim Sanders; there aren’t many people like her. Her veterinary skills, her passion for saving animals, and her common sense and open-minded approach to managing her staff and the animals in their care are making the difference for Anderson County. If you’d like to read more about how Kim Sanders and the community in Anderson turned their shelter around, click here.
See? I told you I would offer some hope after the last three hard posts.
The situation in the rural south (and I’d wager most of rural America) is a desperate one. One that most of us don’t believe (or don’t want to believe) is real. I’m up to my neck in rescue, and I had no idea it was this bad. But visiting Greenwood and Anderson, has only emboldened my resolve to help make change.
We can fix this, people! We really can! It is a shame on our country that it’s the way it is.
On our last night before heading home, Nick and I stayed at a Comfort Inn in Kingsport, TN. A crowd of people arrived on motor-tricycles (I don’t know what else to call them). They drank diet coke and played some kind of game with dice in the common area of the hotel.
They were a friendly bunch, and Nick chatted with them. When he heard what we were doing one man said, “They kill a lot of dogs in Alabama. No one wants to do it, but we ain’t got no choice.” Everyone nodded in agreement and began citing more atrocities. What struck me was how they saw this as inevitable. As if nothing could be done.
I don’t believe that. It’s in our power to change this situation. I saw it firsthand. We can demand that our county governments build and maintain shelters that create the kind of atmosphere that encourages adoption, with the space and the staff to care for animals humanely. We can pay shelter staff the kind of salaries that will attract people like Kim Sanders who will save the county money in the long run by implementing programs and policies that educate and support their community’s commitment to their animals.
Two years! That’s all it took Anderson. Anderson is not a wealthy County, their socio-economic situation is no different from Lenoir County, NC or Maury County, TN where I found a much different situation.
It can be done. But it will take more than one woman.
Maybe you’re saying – yes, but it can only be done by the people that live down there. Yes and no. The locals are the ones who must hold their own government accountable, but there is MUCH we can do from our cushy suburban worlds to make that possible. More about that in the NEXT post!
Meanwhile, here’s a quick run-down on my newest foster dog:
Flannery Oconnor is a pip-squeak of a pup who has an out-sized enthusiasm and plenty of personality. She loves to play with toys and reminds me of Billie Jean the way she tosses them around and entertains herself. So far, she appears to be crate-trained and after serenading us the whole drive home, she was a good sleeper and has been quiet since she got here. She’s in shut-down now, so I’ll know more about her as the days go by and we spend more time together.
Thanks for reading!
If you’d like to know more about the book, Another Good Dog: One Family and Fifty Foster Dogs, check out my new website, AnotherGoodDog.org, where you can find more pictures of the dogs from the book (and some of their happily-ever-after stories), information on fostering, event schedule, and more!
If you’d like to know how you can volunteer, foster, adopt or donate with OPH, click here. And if you’d like more regular updates of foster dogs past and present and extra puppy pictures, be sure to join the Another Good Dog facebook group.
Released August 2018 from Pegasus Books and available for preorder now: