A big, black cat with listless eyes rested in a cage, not getting up even to greet a visitor to the room.
The tag attached to her cage had her name, her age and why she had found her way within the walls of the unwanted — her owner could no longer afford her.
About 4,000 animals come under the care of the Forsyth County Animal Shelter each year. Compared to other local rescue groups, fewer cases at the shelter come out with happy endings, as every animal here has been deemed lost, unwanted or unfit for society.
There’s little hope in a building that serves as the place where animals are taken from or surrendered by incapable owners.
Some animals have landed themselves in a cage with the pariah purple tag, signifying that they’ve attacked another animal or sometimes a human.
It’s not an easy job to see the unwanted every day, knowing that some of the faces may be gone without finding a home.
In Forsyth County, one family has headed up that duty for more than 20 years, though some in the community would like to see that change.
Homes for the homeless
In 1970, a much less populous Forsyth County had no animal control enforcement.
Local veterinarian Lanier Orr began putting unwanted animals into pens on his property, finding homes for them when he could.
As animal control ordinances went into effect, he began taking a small amount of money from the county for the services he was already providing.
He personally borrowed money to build a shelter, and as word got out, it filled up quickly.
For the past 15 years, the county has acknowledged a need to build its own shelter but to no avail.
“They told us in ‘97, [they’d be] going 4 or 5 years at the most and then they’d get their own place. This is 2010,” Orr said. “But I’ll help [the county] until they get their own place.”
Current county commissioners have agreed that Forsyth will eventually need to “get into the animal business,” as they’ve put it, but plans haven’t made it past proposals yet.
Most recently, the board approved a renewal of a contract with the Orrs for one year with an automatic renewal for a second.
The current contract ends Dec. 31.
With the clock ticking this year, the board bought themselves some time to decide what direction to take in the often emotional issue.
After some members wanted to postpone the discussion to 2011, Commissioner Jim Harrell motioned last week to approve the lowest bidder to design and build the county’s shelter, though a location, financing and builder were not made clear.
“I just want to know if the board wants to build a shelter and this is my way of doing it,” he said.
After a tie vote resulted in no action being taken, the board is expected to bring up the matter again at its next work session on Nov. 9, and possibly review the companies bidding on construction of the project at that time.
The county has asked for proposals to design and build an animal shelter without a surgical room, which would mean spay and neuter operations could not be done on site. No specific location has been identified for such a facility.
At last estimate, Donna Kukarola, the county’s procurement director, said it will cost about $2.5 million to design and build a shelter without a surgical room. That price does not include day-to-day operation costs.
Harrell said after the meeting that the issue is, and has been, a high priority for him.
“Being a public safety issue, I believe that the people need to have confidence that they have control over that,” he said.
With the current arrangement with NALAA, the official name of Orr’s business, Harrell said he’s not sure that confidence can be found when a private entity is in control.
“We’re kind of caught with the best we can do under the contract that we have,” he said. “If we’re able to build the building, that will give them all hope that in due course, things will be better.”
Commissioner Brian Tam agreed that the animal control and the shelter are issues of protecting the public, since stray animals can be dangerous and a health threat.
“Eventually, we’re going to either enlarge the [shelter] we have or build a bigger one,” he said.
With 15 years and counting, according to Orr, it’s unclear when that time will be.
Under our laws, it’s up to humans to keep animals under control.
When that’s not possible, Forsyth County Animal Control steps in.
Animal control officer Rick Aldrich said it’s his job to find out what the problem is and do his best to find out how to make any situation safe for humans while looking out for the welfare of animals.
Aldrich is one of four animal control officers employed by the county as a division of the sheriff’s office.
Sometimes he has to bring potentially dangerous animals or those without obvious owners to the shelter.
Under county ordinance, a person has seven days to claim an animal before control is handed over to the shelter’s jurisdiction.
Under state law, animals that have attacked other animals or bitten humans are quarantined for 10 days before shelters take responsibility.
After the quarantine expires, it’s up to an individual shelter to determine what to do with such animals, which can be to euthanize, transfer or put them up for adoption.
Forsyth County ordinances do not specify how animals are to be cared for in the shelter once the quarantine period expires.
The level of care that is acceptable is an issue the community must decide, and it is the first step toward moving forward, said
John McGruder, a local veterinarian.
“A lot of the controversy is that we haven’t defined the role of government in this operation,” he said. “The issue that’s dividing the county and creating such controversy is over what’s appropriate care for a county pound.”
On opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum are euthanizing all shelter animals after the required holding time, and keeping them all at a no-kill facility.
“Everybody has an opinion,” McGruder said. “I think there’s probably a middle ground some place.”
One of the biggest issues barring the board from building its own shelter right now is where to get the money to do so.
Since the shelter is county-funded, the $480,000 a year to support it comes from taxpayer money. As Orr pointed out, not all taxpayers want to spend more to support animals.
The county has received two proposals from other vendors for operating a county-owned animal shelter if one is built: one for $490,000 a year, and a second for $843,000 a year.
Orr said the current amount of the annual contract is sufficient to operate the shelter now, though in previous years he sometimes lost money in the operation.
“This is not a money-making project, but at least we’re not losing money now,” Orr said, adding that he plans to use any leftover funds this year toward construction of an exercise pen.
The board has floated the idea of increasing pet tag fees from the current $3 for a neutered or spayed animal and $5 for one that’s not, to a $10/$25 rate scale.
Whether that could raise enough money to build a shelter has not officially been determined.
McGruder said another possibility would be to hold a referendum and let the people decide if they want to pay for the government to build a shelter.
“There’s a lot of options out there,” McGruder said. “All of them cost money.”
A no-kill equation?
In Forsyth County, rescue groups such as the Humane Society play a different role than the animal shelter.
Several of these groups and their supporters envision a different outlook for county animal care than currently exists. Many say they haven’t had good experiences with the county animal shelter.
The local Humane Society has never euthanized an animal, something executive director Jill Gooch said she hopes will become the county’s goal.
She said the current euthanasia percentage at the county shelter is about 50 percent, which she said is “a really high kill percentage comparatively across the state.”
According to figures provided by the county purchasing department, the estimated percentage of animals euthanized in 2009 was 55 percent of all intakes.
Gooch said an easy way to increase the save rate would be to better advertise on the Internet. The Humane Society uses Petfinder.com to advertise animals available for adoption.
Working toward a no-kill community has 11 steps, according to the No-Kill Advocacy Center, and Gooch said a compassionate director is the most important of those steps — a role she hopes the Humane Society may be able to take on.
The Forsyth County Humane Society submitted a bid to operate a possible county shelter if the county decides to contract the operation out.
In Dawson County, the Humane Society works with animal control to provide the required shelter.
Gooch said it’s difficult for her group to get the Forsyth County animal shelter to release animals to her organization,
especially without paying the public’s adoption fee.
In addition, some of the society’s volunteers have left the shelter after becoming upset with the conditions.
She said that in other counties, shelters willingly allow rescue groups to take animals to help find homes for them.
“People have had experiences with the current shelter situation and they want to see changes,” Gooch said. “They think we can do better and I do too. We can save more animals. We can provide more humane treatment while we’re housing the animals as well.”
Michele Leyland spent about six months putting her own time and money into volunteering with the cats at the shelter five days a week.
In many attempts to provide for them — such as when she brought 25 cat beds for the adoption room — she said she was told she was breaking shelter policy.
After some time of using and regularly washing them, Leyland said she came in one day and found all the beds gone, the cats lying on their usual cage floor, covered in newspaper. She was told that the beds could spread disease.
“It was the only comfort these cats had,” Leyland said. “I was in tears.”
She also recalled another moment that was heartbreaking for her when a cat bit and scratched a staff member who was trying to return it to the cage.
Leyland said the animal was picked up by the scruff of the neck and taken away. The next day, the cat was gone and she never saw it again.
At the end of 2009, Leyland said she’d had enough and stopped volunteering there, shifting to the Forsyth County Humane Society in February.
She said the two organizations are like “night and day.”
Orr said a lot of those differences come from regulations the county shelter has to follow and their role in taking care of animals on the county’s dime.
Right now, animals are almost always put to sleep for behavioral or health problems, he said.
Unlike rescue groups, he said, “We don’t get to pick and choose what animals we keep.”
If animal control drops it off or an owner surrenders a pet, by law the shelter must keep it. Organizations like the Humane Society are not governed by such regulations and can choose which animals they want to house.
In moving forward with the county shelter, Orr agreed that the county must decide what its obligation is to the animals.
“I don’t think it’s the county’s responsibility to feed unwanted animals for a long period of time,” he said. “I think they should be cared for, but that’s what nonprofit groups are for, in my opinion.”