Shelter in Focus: Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Humane Society
“This place belongs to the community; everything in here, including the animals, belongs to the community,” Nancy told us when we arrived at the Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Humane Society.
Nancy Chambliss is the Animal Care Assistant (although after spending some time with her that title simply does not describe the remarkable work she does). She is all about involving the community and making it clear that the shelter is their responsibility. She encourages everyone to come to the shelter, volunteer, visit the animals, and treat the building, the supplies, and the animals with the same care they would their own.
This attitude is key to the success of any shelter. If the community views the shelter as a resource and its animals as the collective responsibility of that community, funding, volunteers, and improvements to the shelter will follow. Without it, shelters will be subject to the changing attitudes of local leadership, the rise/fall of the economy, and the apathy or enthusiasm of the general public.
The Fitzgerald-Ben Hill shelter was bustling with staff, volunteers, potential adopters, someone wanting to drop off sick kittens, and even a reporter there to cover our visit. The lobby is bright and colorful with pictures of staff, a selection of gently used pet supplies available for a donation, information for adopters, and some adorable kittens in a soft-sided crate.
In the lobby, we met three young tween/teen volunteers. One was there to earn community service hours, but the other two regularly spend their days at the shelter. Chloe is twelve and shows up every day during the hours the shelter is open to the public, and Becca, who is sixteen is there from early in the morning when the staff arrives until they close. Nancy assured me that they both can do anything she can do, and the place wouldn’t run without them.
All I could think was– This is how we change the narrative in this country. And change is surely happening at this shelter.
The other person bringing change to this shelter is Libby Nelms, whose title is office manager, but once again that didn’t seem to suffice. I would call her rescue coordinator, kitten wrangler, worker of miracles.
In 2019, the shelter took in about 1500 animals and euthanized 421 dogs and 494 cats. In 2020 (after Libby was on board fulltime), they took in 1178 animals and euthanized just 50 dogs and 74 cats, and in 2021 they took in about 950 animals and euthanized just 35 dogs and 54 cats.
This staff is working hard to save these animals by instituting smart practices, networking to rescues, and empowering their volunteers to make real contributions to the work of the shelter.
For instance, they’ve begun using clicker training to train the dogs to sit quietly at the front of their kennels, instead of barking in a frenzy when people visit. The volunteers all walk through kennels with a clicker and a pouch full of treats rewarding the dogs for coming to the front of the kennel and sitting quietly. We were shocked to open the door to one run of kennels to find the dogs all sitting quietly awaiting our arrival.
Nancy customizes the care for dogs who need it—placing them in a kennel setting that is best for them. One high-energy dog, Chase, who spent his days chasing his tail in a manic circle when he was in one of the smaller inside kennels, was moved outside to a large corner pen with plenty of room and was instantly transformed. Another dog had a blanket covering the front of his kennel, probably to alleviate stress. Another needed an end unit so that he wasn’t surrounded by other dogs.
The staff prefill all the dogs’ bowls and load them on a cart, so that they can feed all the dogs at once, instead of pulling a cart full of food along the row filling one bowl at a time causing an uproar and panic in the dogs who have to wait to be fed.
Their 58 dogs are housed in kennels inside separate wings, plus a few outside. We were impressed at how nice the dogs we visited were- accepting treats gently, many sitting for attention. Even the one dog who was there for a bite hold (a bite to another dog) was a sweetie-pie.
Nancy says that this place belongs to the community not only because technically it’s true, but also because so much of what they have – food, supplies, toys, dog beds, etc., was donated by the community. They use everything they’re given and when one resident donated a huge number of eggs, the staff cooked up a gigantic omelet, cut it into pieces, and fed it to the dogs.
The shelter would love to find more rescue partners. Currently, they adopt out about 20% of their animals and the rest are rehomed, go to rescue, or have to be euthanized. While the numbers have been reduced dramatically, there is still the need to euthanize, even for space.
The city has breed-specific laws so the shelter cannot adopt out bully breeds in the city. This makes it harder to find homes for pit bulls, and rescues that will pull them are also hard to find.
FBHHS was full of large dogs and many bully breeds. The only small and small-medium dogs were all tagged already for rescue. This is an ongoing challenge for every shelter. Most rescues want to pull puppies and small dogs. It’s much harder to find rescue for the big dogs.
They’d love to have a new building with more modern sheltering conditions, but first they need to find land to build on (and of course, raise a whole heck of a lot of money).
The shelter struggles with the same issues as so many rural shelters—backyard breeders, neglect, and lack of access to low-cost veterinary care.
The challenges are many, but Nancy and Libby, along with an incredible core of adult and teen volunteers, are ready to take them on. It will be exciting to see the shelter continue to evolve and we plan to support them along the way and share their successes.
I checked in with Libby to see how things are going since we visited. She told me they’ve had a string of big medical cases and their medical fund is running out. If you’d like to contribute to that fund, you can do so via paypal.
Until each one has a home,