A couple of weeks ago I wrote a news story about how animal rescue organizations are being inundated with unwanted pets in the down economy. I didn’t, however, get a chance to say why I care. So here’s a happy story about how we found our wondermutt and how she found her forever home...

I resisted getting my own dog for a long time. Bethany started suggesting that we adopt one after moving to North Carolina in November. But really, we both thought, how could we get a dog? You can’t vacation with a dog. You have to walk them a million times a day. They take time and money and long-term commitment. What if we move again? What if it hates the cats?

Some of our questions were excuses and some were valid concerns, but, looking back, I realize we were goners at that point.

We followed Petfinder.com for a few weeks and eventually found our way to the Sarge’s Animal Rescue Web site. It’s fun looking at dogs online. How much is that doggy in the window? Free, well practically, with a small donation to a rescue organization.

Maybe I want four huskies so they can pull me through the streets on skis in winter. Maybe I want a German shepherd I can train to start my car for me or pin down marauders. Maybe I want a golden retriever to fetch my slippers... I’m sure Bethany had her own fantasies as we grew up around different breeds. We both knew that we wanted a big dog.

There is something abstract about online shopping, even for objects, so, on a chilly gray weekend in January, we went to one of Sarge’s Saturday adoption events. Lena was standing in a cage in the back. Her name was Buttercup then, and we had already identified her as a potential candidate for our family from her headshots.

There were other cool dogs at the adoption. A pair of black German shepherds. A tall redbone hound. An adorable Plott mix. But Lena stood out, a leggy blonde on her hindlegs with her big paws resting on the edge of her cage.

Come see me, she was saying, wagging her tail and smiling. I know that all dog owners claim their dogs can express emotions, but trust me, Lena can smile.

I went to her, and she put her paws on my chest and started to speak.

Aaaaar aaaar aaaar. Lena speaks Malamute.

That was it for me. I was hooked. Lena rubbed her head against Bethany’s chest, and I could see she was hooked too.

We couldn’t take Lena home right away, but Bethany and I talked it over and decided that we wanted her. We had to figure out some logistical stuff, gather dog supplies, and figure out what to do with the cats. The application process was thorough. We emailed back and forth with Diana Ritter, a Sarge’s volunteer, and talked to her at length about Lena.

Diana told us what she knew of Lena’s story. They found her at the Haywood County Animal Shelter. She was later adopted twice from Sarge’s and returned. Diana’s theory was Lena had scared her first owner’s other dog, because she was so dominant. The second couple to adopt her had a hard time keeping up with her exercise requirements.

The wonderful thing about Sarge’s is that they don’t give up on the animals they rescue. If something doesn’t work out, you are free and encouraged to return the animal at any time. So Lena was safe from being turned in to the pound again, but her failed adoption trend was worrying.

We went to visit Lena once more at a local kennel where she was being boarded. She wasn’t the same dog we met the first time. In fact, she freaked out. She wouldn’t come near us, no paws on our chest, no talking, and no smiling. I didn’t know if it was a smell or the surroundings or what, but that instantaneous recognition I had felt the first time I saw her was gone.

Still, she was so beautiful. And now she was intriguing too. Mysterious. A long, lean mutt who smiles and talks... when she feels like it.

After spending some time with her at the kennel we were able to get a few face licks, and she showed a willingness to be scratched. And so, seeing as how no one wanted her and we still did, we took her home.

Lena is now a full member of our family and a best friend to us both. She and the cats are getting along... almost. She sleeps in our bed. She comes with me to work some days. She wakes Bethany up with kisses. She requests belly rubs on a regular basis. She speaks Malamute to us and smiles. We have our very own Wondermutt, and we have Sarge’s and their dedicated volunteers to thank for it.

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.”

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