Rebecca, a sparkly-eyed young woman with a ready smile, is the rescue coordinator/everything-that-needs-to-be-done person at PAWS (Public Animal Welfare Services) in Floyd County, Georgia. She started in March 2020, so she has yet to know what life at the shelter is really like without the challenge of a worldwide pandemic.
PAWS is a great model (imho) of the future of animal sheltering because it is a public county shelter that encompasses both Animal Control and Animal Care/adoption in the same building under the same leadership.
And what a building it is! The huge, gorgeous facility is only four years old. It’s bright and airy, with big glass windows to showcase cats, large kennel areas for dogs and puppies, rooms for intake, medical, grooming, stray hold, meet and greets, even a conference room, plus offices for staff, and Animal control. There is even a rescued snake living in a large aquarium in the lobby.
PAWS is technically an open-intake facility, handling as many as 4000 animals a year. They attempt to manage their intake by requiring residents who wish to surrender animals make an appointment. This is a trend in so many places and it’s a smart one. Not only does it give staff time to make room for new arrivals, it also gives them a chance to keep an animal in its home by offering food, crates, veterinary care or advice. Sometimes this waiting period results in people changing their minds and keeping the animal or rehoming it themselves. Either way it keeps the animal out of the shelter.
Sometimes, though, it results in animals being dumped. We’ve heard the story before—an owner shows up with a dog, but rather than wait for their appointment day and accept help in the meantime, the dog turns up as a ‘stray’ a few hours later. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation with no good solution.
Like all Animal Control facilities, the county houses dogs held on cruelty cases. This can mean a dog lives at the shelter for years awaiting the outcome of its owner’s case. We met two dogs who had literally grown up at the shelter. Their case had finally been tried and they were released.
Living in a shelter for a short period is hard, but growing up there? Both dogs were emotionally stressed and somewhat reactive. Finding adopters or rescue for them will be very difficult. These are the cases that break a heart. We walked through the room where the cruelty holds were and I wondered what fate awaited those dogs and wished there was a better solution. Legally, it’s impossible for the dogs to go to a foster home or be released to their owners (who are often in prison), so the only option is to hold them at the shelter indefinitely.
The 100 kennels at PAWS are cleaned and maintained by inmate labor. Nearly every kennel was full. I spent some extra time with a sweet blue pitbull who leaned on the fence and sighed contentedly as I scratched his ears. I tossed treats to timid dogs who hovered in the back of their kennel at my approach, and requested a sit from eager dogs looking for treats. There were so many beautiful dogs. I couldn’t imagine the responsibility of finding a place for each of them.
Rebecca works hard to find rescue for as many dogs as she can. Local adoptions aren’t very plentiful (last year 160 local adoptions and 2700 rescue transfers), so she depends on rescue to get the dogs out. There is a beautiful veterinary suite at PAWS, complete with operating room, but for now, they have the services of a veterinarian only one day a week (they dream of having a veterinarian on staff someday).
They do have a vet tech on staff, so dogs are vaccinated on intake, dewormed, treated for fleas, and heartworm tested (but not given preventative – it’s not affordable). This makes it challenging to get dogs out – none can travel over state lines without a health certificate (which requires a vet) and most rescues want a dog to be spayed/neutered. Rebecca lamented that sometimes she feels she is in a ‘bidding war’ as she tries to get rescues to take her dogs over other shelters’ dogs (shelters who can provide spayed/neutered, HW-, younger, smaller dogs).
And it is a war she is fighting. The week before our visit, the shelter had to euthanize for space. These soul-crushing decisions fall on Rebecca. There is not enough room, there are too many dogs, there is not enough help, there are not enough homes. This has nothing to do with loving dogs… or maybe it does. Being strong enough to love so many dogs and save so many dogs takes enormous strength. Deciding which to let go in order to save the others, well, that takes something more. And it is something no one, especially someone who loves animals like Rebecca, should ever have to do.
Rebecca moved to Georgia from New Jersey to work with animals, to save lives. I tried to imagine how difficult it must be to balance the help with the hurt in her heart. And I wondered how long she will last. The day we visited, she had just returned from a marathon drive by herself to New York to deliver dogs to a rescue. She hadn’t yet had time to clean out the van.
There are very few volunteers or fosters at PAWS. Rebecca doesn’t know whether this is the way it is because of COVID or whether locals simply don’t want to get involved. Her sunny disposition belies what must be an incredibly difficult job. She is effusive when talking about the staff, affectionate when speaking of the animals, and ever hopeful when talking about the rescues she depends on. Spending just an hour or so with her, I wanted to move down there and become the most devoted volunteer.
Things will undoubtedly get worse before they get better. The county has just enacted a new supervised tethering law (dogs can’t be left outside on chains without supervision), which will likely result in an uptick in intakes. Rebecca accepts this because in the long term it is good for the shelter – fewer cruelty cases, a public that understands having a dog means bringing it inside, and probably fewer litters of puppies (conceived while unsterilized dogs are left unattended on chains outside). The next bill on the agenda is a mandatory spay/neuter law for the county (with the exception of those with breeder licenses). Good animal laws and the enforcement of those laws will eventually lead to change, but meanwhile, it will not be easy.
We walked around downtown Rome before we went to the shelter. Rome appeared prosperous; nice restaurants and trendy shops line its adorable main street, with water bowls set out for passing dogs. So it came as a bit of a shock that this same community does not step forward to help their shelter save all their adoptable dogs.
I see so much potential here—if people would just take a chance on their new shelter with its new rescue coordinator. Rebecca is ready to rescue, what she needs it a community that wants all their animals—the mixed breeds, the pit bulls, the heartworm positive, the elderly—to be rescued. Luckily, Floyd has a smart, passionate, determined woman in their corner.
I checked in with Rebecca before writing this post, and she said the shelter is in need of airline crates for transports, and right now is running low on kitten food (wet and dry). If you’d like to help, you can shop their Amazon wishlist. They are also busy securing fence panels and fencing for residents who are trying to comply with the new anti-tethering law rather than surrender their pets.
Until each one has a home,
The mission of Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is to raise awareness and resources for homeless dogs and the heroes who fight for them.
You can 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.
Amber’s Halfway Home is our short documentary film we produced in partnership with Farnival Films. It follows the work of a remarkable woman and one day of rescue in western Tennessee. Selected for fifteen film festivals (to date), it’s won eight awards (including Best Short Doc, Best Soundtrack, Best of Fest, and Audience Choice), and was nominated for an Emmy! It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, inspiring story we hope will compel viewers to work for change. Please watch it and share it far and wide.