The power of a professionally-run organization, social media, and human kindness came together last summer to save the life of a starving dog that allegedly had been left to fend for itself. The story earned national publicity for Jessamine County, where local leaders have acted decisively to upgrade the county’s animal control office and build a modern animal shelter.
An animal control officer was dispatched to a local apartment building in response to a call and discovered an emaciated dog – “basically a skeleton with skin,” said Mike Cassidy, Jessamine County’s director of public services. The pit bull-boxer mix was estimated to be six months old and weighed just 11.2 pounds, about a third of the normal weight. With no leads as to the dog’s owner, the shelter posted the dog’s picture and story on its Facebook page. The post generated more than 70,000 hits. A $1,000 reward from the America Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for information about the dog’s owner also was posted on Facebook, resulting in a tip that led to the dog’s home address and owner, who was questioned and subsequently charged.
Meanwhile, under the shelter’s care, the dog gained 24 pounds in just a few weeks. A family that saw the initial Facebook post about the dog began visiting it daily at the shelter and bringing it gifts. Eventually, they took it home.
The happy ending was the high point of the Jessamine County animal control office’s transformation into a businesslike organization led by well-trained full-time employees backed by a pool of volunteers and operated out of a clean, modern facility.
“The [Jessamine County] Fiscal Court funds this place and makes sure we have the best employees possible,” said Cassidy, a member of the Kentucky Animal Control Advisory Board. “They receive the best training they can get. And all the equipment here – it’s the best of everything. It’s just a huge commitment that they’ve made.”
Cassidy said officials from other counties across the state have traveled to Nicholasville to see the facility and examine the county’s policies and procedures.
“It seems we are the envy of the region as far as facilities go,” Jessamine County Judge-Executive David West said. “We have other counties that regularly come by – not just the region, but the state – to view our facilities, to view their procedures, and to take those back home with them. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, we are flattered quite a bit.”
Jessamine County Fiscal Court took over the county’s animal shelter in 2011 and set out to build a new facility to replace its existing decades-old structure. The county built the new shelter with a $150,000 grant from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and county funds. The shelter was completed in 2012 at a total cost of about $900,000. New equipment was obtained with county funds and donations from area businesses.
Cassidy said the county reduced its costs to build and equip the facility by utilizing skilled inmate labor where possible and hiring a part-time general contractor who bid each part of the project rather than bidding the entire project together.
The building is 10,000 square feet, about five times the size of the old shelter. Cassidy said the county built a large structure to enable the county to meet future needs without having to add on to the facility. Cassidy, the county judge-executive, and two magistrates met regularly and changed the building design during the construction process “so that what we constructed would be something that would be here and be useful for years to come,” Cassidy said.
“At first, it was a difficult sell” in the community, Cassidy said. “But, after the building was constructed, it sold itself. Ever since we moved into this building, we’ve seen our visitor numbers increase dramatically, and our adoption rates have also increased dramatically. This is just a place that people like to come visit.”
Since the county took over the local animal control program and built the new shelter, Jessamine County’s rates of live release and euthanasia have flipped, from 58-42 percent in favor of euthanasia in 2011 to a projected 60-40 percent in favor of live release by the end of 2015. Cassidy attributes the change to the new facility but also to new procedures and hiring of professional staff.
Cassidy said the shelter employs seven full-time paid staff (not including Cassidy, who, as the county’s director of public services, “floats” among numerous county government units) and has a pool of about 100 volunteers who work at least once a month. The county’s animal control officers are required to complete the National Animal Control Training Academy within a year after they are hired. Kennel employees go to the Kentucky Animal Care and Control Association Training Conference and the Midwest Veterinary Conference hosted by the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association every year. Volunteers must attend orientation and have the option to seek additional training, Cassidy said.
The shelter is designed to protect the animals as well as the public and to ensure that its “guests” are suitably stimulated and exercised. Strays and lost animals that are brought to the shelter for the first time enter through a door separate from the main entrance and go straight to the examining room for an intake exam, microchip, and vaccination. Cats can play (or sleep) in the feline colony room, which is equipped with various toys and climbing furnishings, and wander through a plexiglass passageway to an outdoor play area. The facility is surrounded by open fields where dogs can get some fresh air and stretch their legs.
The shelter operates a mobile adoption trailer that travels to local businesses for special events.
Cassidy said the shelter uses Facebook, Adopt-a-Pet, and Petfinder to help owners find their missing pets and help homeless animals find a forever home.
The shelter requires every animal that is discharged via adoption to be spayed or neutered, and it works with local government to help owners spay or neuter their pets. For one month a year, the shelter offers vouchers that enable owners to have their pets spayed or neutered for $65 or $55, respectively. Under a partnership with a nonprofit, the shelter conducts another event in which owners may receive income-based assistance to have their pets spayed or neutered. Cassidy said the shelter performs about 1,200 procedures a year.
Cassidy said the shelter works closely with nonprofit rescue groups in the county. “We have a great relationship with them,” Cassidy said. “We know that they have a mission with what they’re doing, and they know we have a mission with what we’re doing, and we come together for the same purpose.”
West said hiring full-time staff and building a new shelter was costly but worth it to enable the county to meet its obligations under state law and to protect the public.
“In general, Jessamine County government is going to support this place,” he said. “We’re pretty proud of it. When other people come and copy you, you’re doing something right.”