Separate Shelters in the Same Building

August 3, 2023

We often wonder at the rationality of having separate shelters in each municipality – every city, every county. In Coffee County, the county and city shelters are literally in the same building.

Different staff, different budget, different policies, same building serving the community that sits a little over an hour southeast of Nashville. The back two-thirds of the traditional cinderblock shelter with inside/outside kennels separated by guillotine doors is the Coffee County, TN Animal Control Shelter and the front third is Manchester City Animal Control Shelter.

County ACO/shelter director Craig and ACO Nikita met us at the shelter on a Sunday morning, which right there tells you something about their commitment to helping their animals. Craig has worked at the shelter for nine years and Nikita has been at the shelter for a year.

Craig is resourceful and committed to the dogs; he works hard to network them to rescues and advocate for the shelter and the animals. Nikita used to be a vet tech, but took the job at the shelter because she felt there was more of a need. She absolutely loves her job, she told me.

These are the kind of people you want caring for dogs. They try to make what is a stressful environment better for their dogs, but they’re limited by the set up. Fence fighting is a challenge as the dogs are side by side and like many traditional shelter buildings, they are lined up facing each other across an aisle. The county does not allow volunteers because of liability concerns, so all the work at the shelter is left to these two individuals, in addition to running animal control calls.

The county has twenty-two kennels. We walked through to see all the dogs, stopping at the fence gate that separates the city section from the county section. It was like an unsecured border between two countries and my heart went out to the dogs on the city side who don’t receive the same quality of care and attention that the county dogs do. I imagine that fact weighs on the hearts of both Craig and Nikita.

All the kennels were occupied with beautiful dogs of every shape and size. The county dogs will move out relatively quickly to rescues, but the city dogs will be there for months. The current city ACO is not as motivated to market his dogs to rescues (and at adoption events) like Craig is. Craig works with several rescues like @RUFF and @RARE. We were there with Britt who tags dogs for CASA who told us that WAGS would be pulling dogs from the shelter this week. Residents and rescues struggle to reach the city ACO, so those dogs trickle out very slowly and the kennels remain full.

The shelter building is on the grounds of the county maintenance which is surrounded by a fence and accessed by a gate. The shelter hours for the public are 7am – 3pm weekdays, which makes it hard to get foot traffic in to see dogs.

The county’s live release rate is 95.5%, which is impressive considering the situation. Craig works with rescues to move almost all of their dogs out, but they do sometimes have local adoptions. All of the dogs are vaccinated on intake, treated for flea/ticks, and heartworm tested. They are spayed/neutered before they leave. Craig has an excellent budget for spay/neuter and medical thanks to a new mayor who is ‘100% a dog person’. In fact, all the talk of the county getting a real shelter building is finally coming to fruition and plans are being made to design a first-class facility and hopefully, fold the city animal control into the county animal control.

The shelter is not an open-intake shelter. Craig said he doesn’t believe in open-intake. As he explained it, if he tells someone no, he won’t take their dog, that will make them realize a dog is not something you simply toss away when you don’t want it anymore. “Maybe it will make them think before they get another one,” he said. I asked if he sees the same dogs he turns away show up as strays. And he said, yes that does happen sometimes. But I think even if they do, he’s made his point. It was a new way of looking at it for me, and one that makes sense. Even so, Craig believes the community is getting better in their attitude towards animals.

The shelter handled 532 dogs and 40-something cats (even though they don’t take cats) last year. In his nine years in animal control, Craig says he’s seen the number of animals in need only grow and it spiked significantly post pandemic. Between the county shelter, RUFF, and HSUS, there is affordable access to spay/neuter. In fact, if someone contacts Craig and is willing to take their animal to be altered, it can be done for free. A local veterinarian uses interns to increase the number of surgeries they can do and recently the interns did surgeries on six shelter dogs for free. Another smart practice.

They are doing so much at this small municipal shelter because they have excellent leadership and affordable, accessible veterinary care. Once they have a real shelter building, they’ll be able to engage their community and it’s exciting to think how many animals’ lives will be saved through their efforts. But more than that, I think with someone like Craig at the helm, they will be able to affect change in attitudes. And maybe that change will be contagious—leading the way for other municipalities to follow their example. They are truly a bright spot in Tennessee.

We unloaded peanut butter boards, treats, busy bones, benebones, dental treats, food, and toys (one of which Nakita promptly gave to a busy dog who pounced on it and never stopped squeaking it while we were there). If you’d like to support the shelter and the incredible work that Craig and Nikita are doing, you can shop their Amazon wishlist.

You might also want to follow their Facebook page to see their story unfold, and maybe send them a message of thanks and encouragement.

Until each one has a home,


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Learn more about what is happening in our southern shelters and rescues in the book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, 2020). It’s the story of a challenging foster dog who inspired me to travel south to find out where all the dogs were coming from. It tells the story of how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. Find it anywhere books are sold. A portion of the proceeds of every book sold go to help unwanted animals in the south.

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