By Christa Jennings
Senior Staff Writer
The Coosa County Animal Shelter has now closed to the public, at least for now, as the future of the facility remains uncertain.
Following his open letter to the county that was published in the February 24 edition of “The Coosa County News,” Dennis Hill, operations manager and chair of the animal shelter, sat down for an interview to provide more details about the status of the shelter.
“We put our hearts into it, and if I hadn’t called it off when I called it off, I wouldn’t have been in shape to shut the thing down,” Hill stated. “I know that even though Dr. [Chad] Baxley, Janet [Gogan] and Debbie [Hill] have not complained about it, it’s wearing them down, too. This was a tough job.”
Baxley, Gogan and Mrs. Hill all served alongside Mr. Hill on the Coosa County Animal Shelter Board of Directors, spearheading the effort to make the shelter a reality for the county.
“It had to be shut down when it got shut down because we wouldn’t have been in physical and emotional shape to shut it down if we had gone any further,” Mr. Hill stated.
At the time the decision was made to close, the shelter had $30,000 remaining in funds, with other funding having been used for the building and operation expenses. When mentioning that other people had suggested the possibility of using the remaining funds to hire someone to run the shelter, the Hills said that the shelter would still end up being shut down in a few months when that money ran out.
“We wouldn’t have had the money, and we’d be deeper in than we are with animals right now,” Mr. Hill stated. “We could have done that, but we’d have spent that money in six months’ time, knowing the same thing that we know right now, and having a lot longer process to shut down at that point.”
At the time of the interview he said that they had 27 puppies and five juvenile dogs to find places for, whether adopted to families or sent to rescues. As such, at that time he estimated that they still had another month or so ahead of them with the shelter, since any available animals will need to be adopted or rescued before the shelter can fully shut down.
Since the announcement of the closure a couple of weeks ago, the shelter has not been accepting any more donations or animals.
As far as the facility, it remains unclear at this time what will become of it. Someone may still come on board to run it as a shelter, or the building may meet other needs and be utilized for other purposes – that remains to be seen.
The building was initially leased from the Weogufka Volunteer Fire Department for $1 per year to be used as a shelter, following agreements from Fire Chief Wendell Weathers and the department.
Regarding the initial idea of the building being used for an animal shelter going forward, Hill stated, “Are we actively searching? No, I’m not actively searching. The fact that it has been in print, we’ve got it on Facebook – it’s out there for anybody that wants to do it. All you have to do is get with Wendell at the fire department and convince him that it’s something that is viable. Get with Amy [Gilliland, county administrator], and she might even release the funding back to an individual – might. I can’t talk for her.”
“Based on my experience, you better have financial backing if you’re going to do this,” he added. “That’s one thing learned from the experience. You can’t do it without the funding. You’ve got to have those paid individuals that you can count on. You can hire the right person with the right physical capabilities at the right price, and hopefully you can make it work. Then you’re going to be in the same position all these other shelters are. You’re going to be overwhelmed, but at least you’ll be kicking.”
Regarding the simple explanation as to why the shelter had to close, he stated, “It’s an overwhelming task with limited funds. It’s a day to day thing; you can’t skip a day.”
Dr. Baxley, a Coosa County resident and veterinarian in Sylacauga who served on the shelter’s board, added, “Animals take work. They take a lot of work. You have to stay on top of it, and at the same time you’re out trying to do fundraising and trying to get more help in, trying to do all this stuff. It will wear you out real quick.”
Hill said that some people mention other area counties who have no-kill shelters and make them work. However, he pointed out that the counties are paying for those shelters and said he would not put that on the Coosa County Commission.
“I hope our commissioners and hope Rep. Ben Robbins can possibly take it to the state level and say, ‘Look at our great experiment we did in Coosa County. Everyone backed this thing. We had a pretty good team together to run it, and it lasted three weeks,’” Hill said.
Hill further stated, “If there was an easy solution, everybody would be doing it. So how do you teach people that don’t have any respect for their fellow man? That’s why you see all the litter on the side of the road. That dog is just more litter thrown out. How do you teach disrespectful people to have respect and irresponsible people to have responsibility? It’s a long-term thing, if you can do it at all.
“I’m not making excuses for the shelter closing; I’m just saying that being overwhelmed would have been enough, but the fact that we were trying to do it the only way that we could do it, on a trial basis in Coosa County, was with volunteers. The funding wasn’t there to do it any other way.”
However, Hill also noted that if the county gets the funding, then they would still need manpower to run an animal shelter.
“The task is just overwhelming,” he said. “If you want to just work on the symptom and not work on the cause, you’re never going to get anywhere.”
In reviewing the short time the shelter was open after spending a year and a half to get it up and running, Hill said it only took two weeks to fill up the shelter.
In the three weeks the shelter was open, he said they had 45 animals come in and had only 10 that went out. Of those 10, five were returned to their original owners, two were adopted, and three went to rescues.
“Five found their original owners, which was fantastic, but still we only had 10 animals out and 45 in,” Hill emphasized. “As of right now we have 32 animals seeking homes.”
Additionally, in the short amount of time the shelter was open, they already had a case of parvo, as well as scabies. Hill said puppies also “really eat up” the medical bill costs because of needing multiple shots and other medical needs.
“I don’t think I overestimated my ability as much as I underestimated the task,” he added.
He mentioned the lack of control also being a significant factor. He said that having no control ate at him.
“You think you can put the brakes on when you’re near capacity, but then you realize there are no brakes,” he said.
Hill and the shelter’s board are continuing in efforts of trying to find good homes for the remaining animals, whether through adoption or rescue groups.
Some of the puppies are undergoing their series of shots and then will be ready for homes, and the juvenile dogs are already available for adoption. Hill said that 15 puppies would become available for adoption soon as they finish their course of routine shots.
Any animals available at the shelter can be adopted for a fee of $25, which gives the adopter a voucher to have the animal spayed or neutered. The voucher is for the spay and neuter clinic in Trussville.
Those rates are typically $75 for spays and $60 for neuters, so anyone choosing to adopt an animal from the local shelter would be able to have their new pet fixed at a significantly discounted rate.
The animal shelter is closed to the public, but anyone interested in visiting and potentially adopting a pet can call 256-391-7192 to set up an appointment.
Hill, the shelter volunteers and the board members were appreciative for all of the help and support received.
“Everybody supported the shelter,” Hill said. “The citizens have been great. You can’t say it didn’t have the support of the citizens, and it got more than expected from the city and county officials. Everybody backed it. We’re all in the same boat as far as being disappointed.”
He added, “Everybody in the county was good enough to support us. We learned from it. Instead of running a year or two years and then hopefully turning it over to the county, and then the county would have to say no – which, they would say no – we went three weeks.”
Hill said that the county needs to attack the problem from a different direction. He stated that unfortunately there is no quick fix.
“If there was a quick fix that was cheap, everyone would be doing it,” he said.
Hill stated, “In my mind, is there a place for a shelter? Sure, shelters do fantastic work, but why do you have a shelter? Because you have those irresponsible and disrespectful people that are putting animals out there on the roads in the first place. That’s the same reason you have jails, right? If you didn’t have lawbreakers you wouldn’t need jails.”
He said that it would take approximately $100,000 to $125,000 per year to run an animal shelter in the county in order to cover payroll and operating costs. This included factoring in roughly $50,000 for a manager, $20,000 for each helper and another $25,000 to run the shelter.
He asked, “So where does a county like Coosa go to from here?”
Hill and Dr. Baxley, who is also the rabies officer for Coosa County, then mentioned licensing for pet owners.
“This is not a Coosa County problem,” Baxley said. “This is a statewide problem. This is a southern problem. It should be the state dealing with this, but the state is in effect refusing to deal with it. In effect what they are doing is leaving it up to the counties to do things, and the counties are doing nothing.”
They both emphasized the importance of having enforcement and fines, with Baxley stating that the fine would need to be “something that is meaningful.” He stated that if there is not a meaningful fine to make people take notice, then they will not do anything.
Regarding the licensing that is done in some other states, Baxley said that if a person has a dog or cat then every one of them needs to be licensed. He said it would not need to be “a huge licensing amount,” just $15 or $20 per pet.
If the animal is not spayed or neutered, then he said the license fee should be more than that, such as $50 or more, “at least.”
“My opinion, I think there should be a breeding license,” he added. “If you’re going to breed your animal, you need to have a breeding license. I don’t think that should be a huge amount, but if your animal gets pregnant then that fine should be a huge amount – such as $500, and maybe $100 for each puppy that animal has. That’s a great incentive to get that animal spayed or neutered. These days we can do DNA testing on animals the same way you do with people. We can find out who that father is real quick.”
Regarding the importance of enforcement, Baxley said they have to have inspections. He mentioned that what he has suggested in the past is using the rabies tag as a license tag, as well.
He said that every pet dog is required to have a rabies vaccination, and with that they get a tag. He added that it would be a simple process to utilize that same tag for the licensing tag for that pet.
“You can get a separate tag, but a simple thing to do is just use the rabies tag, and the veterinarians can send the tag number in to the courthouse, and they can log it into a simple program,” he said. “An inspector goes around, and if that animal doesn’t have a license, fine them.”
Hill added that the good thing about the process is that the license fees and fines could then be used to aid in the enforcement of those rules.
“Aid your enforcement and aid the shelter, that’s the way things should work,” Baxley added.
Baxley stated that he has worked with the Sylacauga Animal Shelter for 10 years.
“We adopted out animals – I don’t know how many hundreds of animals we adopted out,” he said. “We sent animals all over the country to rescue groups – hundreds and hundreds of them. I put down, euthanized, over 25,000 animals. They’re documented. Did not make a dent.”
Hill added that 673,000 animals were euthanized in the United States last year alone. He stated that they are still in a crisis right now with shelters and rescues being overcrowded.
Baxley stated, “All the southern shelters and stuff have been piling all their excess up north. Now the north is full, so that’s drying up. We’re not going to be able to ship up north much anymore.”
Baxley also said that they are seeing “a lot more gunshots now” because “people are tired of stray animals.”
“People are also poisoning animals because they don’t want them on their property,” he stated.
In regards to the ongoing problem of strays and animals being dumped, Hill stated, “The animals are the victims. They didn’t choose to be stray. They got put out. People don’t think anything about it.”