Only an hour from Corinth where they are struggling to raise money for the shelter by sitting outside the supermarket collecting donations is a beautiful, brand-new 2 million dollar shelter teeming with staff and resources.
Tupelo-Lee Humane Society is blessed with a local community that generously values and invests in its shelter. The new shelter was built literally in the nick of time, the roof caving in one of their kennel areas days after they had moved into their new building in October of 2018.
The building is bright and airy, filled with beautiful paintings and rooms for every possible use. Their director, Rachel, is smart and resourceful and obviously a strong, natural leader. Last year she focused on increasing adoptions and reclaims and the results were strong. A board in the lobby showed how many adoptions they’d had in February.
While we talked with Rachel, her recent foster-fail, Peach listened intently. Peach is a beautiful dog with bulldog heritage.
In Tupelo, every pit bull and rottweiler must be registered as a dangerous dog and its owner must pay a $75 registration fee. I asked Rachel how they know a dog is a pit bull since there is no such “breed.” She grimaced and said, “Square heads.” TLHS assigns the breed and this is something Rachel has her sights set on—changing the perceptions and the required registrations.
“We don’t have any more behavior problems with pit bulls than we have with any other breed, so it’s unfair.”
TLHS handles about two thousand animals a year. They have 22 full-time staff members, including a veterinarian, plus a few part-time people to help, especially on the weekend. They have their own in-house veterinary clinic; we encountered their vet as she was taking a lunch break from an extensive hours-long surgery on one of their dogs. At TLHS, all of their animals, and any stray or lost dog that turns up, is immediately microchipped and vaccinated on intake, and then subsequently spayed or neutered after its stray-hold is up.
TLHS wasn’t always saving all the dogs. As recently as 2011 they were killing 55% of the animals that came in, and in 2014 that number dropped to 35%. Now they work hard to find a home, rescue or reclaim for every dog that comes in. Almost all of their adult dogs who come in are heartworm positive, but the shelter has the funds and the veterinarian to treat heartworm and works to educate the public about the dangers of heartworm and how to prevent it. They are blessed with a dog-loving public and adopt out most of their dogs, only sending about 10% out through rescue.
The shelter is considered a limited intake shelter, but Rachel tries to be more of a managed intake, placing owner surrenders on a waitlist when necessary, and making space by asking people who find strays to consider fostering the dog while the shelter looks for a home for it, providing that dog with veterinary care and support while it is in foster care.
She also partners with local students, allowing them to foster a dog or puppy for a school project or community service hours; this gives her the opportunity to educate, not just a student, but a family. Many of these same kids return to volunteer or foster after their project or service hours are completed, simply because they want to help.
These are smart moves because keeping a dog out of a shelter environment, even one as nice as this with an enrichment coordinator whose job it is to keep the dogs emotionally and mentally healthy is always a good thing.
Developing a transport program that can help TLHS and the surrounding rescues and shelters move dogs out of the area, is another of Rachel’s goals. Rachel has been with TLHS for six years, two and a half of those as the director. She is young, articulate, and motivated, taking advantage of training through Austin Pets Alive, and implementing lots of programs to increase adoptions and advocate for her dogs. TLHS and Rachel are inspiring. This is what a committed, passionate shelter director can do when she has the resources she needs.
We walked through a storage area where 15 palates of donated cat litter were stacked—enough cat litter for the entire year. We visited with the dogs and handed out treats. On each kennel card, instead of simply listing each dogs stats, the dogs ‘stories’ were posted. Sometimes it’s those stories that can get a dog adopted – pulling at the heartstrings.
Rachel didn’t have a hand in designing the building and admitted they have more rooms than they know what to do with, so they are experimenting with usage and trying to figure out what to do with their space.
I only spent an hour or two with Rachel, but I’m pretty certain she’ll figure out the smartest way to set up that shelter. I also believe that if she has set her sights on righting the backward breed-specific laws in Tupelo that make life even harder for a misunderstood and mislabeled breed, she will make that happen too. TLHS is a bright and hopeful star in an area of the country that sorely needs it.
For the sake of all the animals in northern Mississippi, here’s hoping their light reaches the places like Ripley Market and Jackson, where we next visited a shelter that could sorely use these resources and hope.
Until every cage is empty,
Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is an initiative of Operation Paws for Homes. If you’d like to contribute to our work, we encourage you to click on the how to help link above and give directly to a shelter. You can also donate to our work via OPH’s donation page by designating Who Will Let the Dogs Out in your comments.
My upcoming book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, July 7, 2020) tells the story of not only our foster experience but how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. It is available for preorder now and a portion of proceeds of every book sold will go to help unwanted animals in the south.