One of the visits I was most looking forward to on this trip was with RUFF (Rescuers United For Furbabies), an OPH rescue partner.
They are a foster-based rescue on the front lines who are saving lives in Walker County, Alabama.
RUFF supports Walker County Humane and Adoption Center in a gazillion ways, but I knew of them because they pulled dogs from Walker County for OPH, placing them in their foster homes, getting them to the vet for everything necessary to make the trip north and then meeting our transports to hand off dogs.
We met Kara Jones, one of the RUFF leaders at Walker County late in the afternoon after she had finished her workday teaching seventh graders. Kara is pretty amazing, and not just because she has such a great name (misspelled, though, I might add). She is young and enthusiastic and Ivory girl pretty, yet fierce when it comes to saving dogs (she’s allergic to cats or I imagine she might be saving them too!). Like all good teachers, Kara is a curious person and as we walked through the facility, she asked again and again, “What can we do better?”
Kara introduced us to the new director at Walker, Kay Farley. Kay is just as determined as Kara to save the animals and I was impressed with her frank, open answers and how much she clearly loved the animals in her care.
Walker County is a relatively new facility, but the indoor kennels fill up quickly and many of the dogs are housed outside in large chainlink kennels with roofs. We started by visiting the indoor kennels which, like every kennel we visit were loud. There were lots of puppies and we met a little dog OPH would be transporting north soon (he’s that first gray one, giving you the hairy eyeball).
We spent some time in the male dog area where a handful of dogs live together in a large fenced space that has shade and available dog houses. It struck me as the best possible housing for many dogs. They had friends and space to run around. We made a quick video to introduce some of the dogs.
One of the dogs I met reminded me of Lafayette, one of our foster puppies who we nearly adopted. Lafayette ended up in a wonderful home with a great life and I see him once a year at the Hamilton Puppy Birthday party. His new name is Princeton and he grew up going to school with his teacher-mom, helping kids as a reading buddy and study group partner and class clown. The dog I met at Walker looked just like him except his black eye patch was on the opposite eye. He had the same goofy smile and friendly nature.
I asked Kay and Kara to keep me in the loop on him and hope that if he doesn’t find other rescue or an adopter, OPH will bring him north someday soon.
We also visited in the female dog area and the other dogs in outdoor kennels, and then helped catch an escapee dog who had dug out under his kennel.
There were LOTS of puppies and Nancy got some great pictures.
Before we left, I asked if we could bring out Houdini, a dog who has been at the shelter since May. We’d walked past his kennel earlier, and while all his neighbors were jumping and barking competing for our attention he was curled in a tight ball and didn’t get up to greet us despite the ruckus around him.
He was called Houdini because he had managed to escape pretty much every kennel they put him in, injuring himself in the process. They’d finally contained him in an indoor kennel by covering it with another piece of chainlink and heavy objects to keep it in place. Now he was shutting down from shelter stress. Houdini was down to about 26 pounds, although he probably should weigh forty.
Kay brought Houdini out to see us in the entryway and we made a quick video. Then we hung out with him for another twenty minutes, feeding him treats and petting his thin frame while talking to Kara and Kay about the situation in Walker County.
Like so many of the places we have visited this week, Walker/RUFF tries very hard to send all their puppies north, hoping for a better life for them. 75% of the dogs at the shelter get out through rescue and the rest are adopted locally. I asked about whether they had to destroy dogs for space as their shelter was full to bursting.
Kay said, “I’m certified to do it, but I don’t even have the drugs in the building.” She is determined not to euthanize any adoptable dogs. But she couldn’t do it without the help of RUFF.
Kay desperately needs volunteers to join her. She’s been at Walker less than a year and is working hard to re-write the story of this place. Even so, most locals assume the worst because of the history Walker has of killing dogs, so finding volunteers willing to help isn’t easy.
The current staff is Kay and one other full-time employee. They do everything for 75-90 dogs and 20-40 cats including feeding, watering, administering medications, cleaning the kennels, getting dogs to the vet for spay/neuter, handling adoptions, plus answering the phones and handling visitors. In addition, Kay has to do all the paperwork.
As of now, Walker County has no adoption fee, so all the dogs are free. I puzzled at this because even in the poorest counties we’ve visited, there’s usually at least a nominal fee of twenty-five dollars or so (which doesn’t even come close to covering the expenses of sheltering a dog).
Which brings me to an issue that I’ve begun to see as critical to animal sheltering—fiscal responsibility. It is the county’s responsibility to take care of these dogs. In the old days (and still in many rural places in this country), animals are kept in pounds – literally ‘impounded’ for a set number of days (the ‘stray hold’) and then destroyed if no one comes to claim them. That’s what I saw when I visited the Huntingdon Pound in June in Carroll County, TN.
Thankfully, most places have evolved and communities don’t want their tax dollars used to simply hold and then kill dogs. They want the animals ‘sheltered’ in a humane way, and then adopted out. But that costs money. Sure, some of that money should come from the tax base, as shelters are performing a community service, but a portion of it should come from the citizens (or rescues) that are utilizing their services. In other words, there should be adoption fees and pull fees. Any county shelter operating without adoption fees is simply fiscally irresponsible. Nevermind that giving dogs away for free devalues the animal and inspires people to treat them as such.
But I digress, back to Kay and RUFF. They are working hand in hand to save all of the 1500 animals that come through the shelter doors each year. They do it with help from rescues and by facing every challenge—medical or financial with the attitude of ‘we’ll figure it out.’
They are overcoming a tough history and working hard for change. After a distemper outbreak, the county finally began including vaccinations in the shelter budget. Without the five-thousand-dollar grant (which will eventually run out) that RUFF helped Walker get from Maddie’s Fund, the dogs would go out the door without being spayed or neutered.
RUFF helps tremendously not only by helping them with the spay/neuter grant, securing rescue commitments for the dogs, offering foster care, covering veterinary expenses not covered in the budget, but also by collecting and donating much needed supplies (you can help too by shopping from RUFF’s amazon wishlist). Because Walker is a county-owned/run facility they can’t ask for or accept monetary donations (but RUFF can!).
We’ve met literally thousands of dogs this week. Sad dogs, depressed dogs, bored dogs, and happy-despite-my-circumstances dogs, but none in such rough shape as Houdini. He has been passed up again and again by rescues, so I pushed hard for OPH to pull him, absolutely sure that if he didn’t get out of the shelter immediately he would soon quite literally die from being there.
I committed to fostering him, hoping I could scoop him up and bring him north with us, as we had room in the Jeep. OPH sent him to the vet the next morning via RUFF. He was deemed too ill to travel and too weak for neuter surgery. All of RUFF’s foster homes are full, so Kay volunteered to bring him to her house and foster him for the next month in the hopes that he will recover and be strong enough to come north to OPH in October. Meanwhile, I sent Kay a care package for Houdini and I’ll be looking for a foster home for him. (If you’re an OPH foster or would like to be and want to foster him, let me know!)
There are miracles happening in Walker County thanks to these remarkable women. Kay and Kara (and Marsha who I didn’t get to meet but heard much about) are holding back the tide, but they need help. They desperately need people in their area to step up and do what they can. They need funding, support, and more foster homes, but they also need volunteers at the shelter to help in any way they can – walking dogs, socializing animals, or answering the phones, anything to lighten the impossible load that surely would break the back of mere mortals.
Everyone can do something to help. That is absolutely clear. These animals have no voice beyond ours. Please use yours to spread this message—it is time to let the dogs out. There is no excuse for animals suffering and dying for lack of a home or a simple vaccine. That is on us—all of us.