January 2016
Homeplace & Community

A Joyful Transformation


Huntsville Animal Services department is making a difference for area pets.

The City of Huntsville’s Animal Services department has experienced a joyful transformation in the past six years, one committed to saving lives and partnering with pet owners in need. Thanks to the leadership of Mayor Tommy Battle, and through the outstanding work of our employees and community volunteers, our live-release rate is anticipated to be 90 percent for the year of 2015 which means nine out of 10 pets got out ALIVE! We would like to be in mid-90s percentage save rate! Every improved percentage point translates into a lot of community support, networking, longer housing, etc.

Our Shelter is responsible for housing all stray and owner-surrendered pets in Huntsville and most of Madison County. For many years, the daunting volume of animals entering our Shelter led to high rates of euthanasia. No more. We have committed to a new mission, dedicated to finding homes or foster families for every healthy, treatable and adoptable pet. In addition, we work proactively with families in need who can no longer care for their pets or who might be experiencing behavior problems with their animals that could be corrected with training and support.

This transformation has been steady and rewarding. We focus on programs and policy changes that create the greatest lifesaving capacities. Our first major shift came in 2008 with the start of a low-income spay-and-neuter assistance program. This investment helped reduce the annual intake from an all-time high of 10,000 dogs and cats to 5,331 in 2014.

A second critical shift occurred after the Shelter brought in Target Zero, a highly regarded animal-service consulting firm, to review every aspect of our operations. Target Zero provides free assistance to open admission, municipal shelters dedicated to life-saving policies and procedures. Their recommended changes have had the greatest lifesaving impact on our Shelter. Highlights include:

- The foster-home program grew by 300 percent, allowing more open kennels in the shelter and reducing shelter disease in our most critical population of puppies and kittens;

- A dynamic photography volunteer team posts pet faces online for the public;

- A lost-and-found application with pet photos and map locations is posted on the Animal Services’ website;

- Dogs diagnosed with the deadly heartworm disease are treated in-house;

- Fees charged to our rescue partners are waived;

- Lives of all healthy cats are saved, even if they are unsocial or feral;

- The Shelter’s dog adoption area grew from 20 to 54 kennels as we learned to "fast track" pets into our adoption program by allowing potential adopters to see more available pets;

- Pet adoption fees are subsidized and lowered to $5-$50 with monthly promotions and specials;

- Large off-site adoption events with outside rescue partners are scheduled regularly;

- All pets being reclaimed by their owners are offered tempting programs to have their pets spayed or neutered prior to leaving the shelter;

- Owners reclaiming their spayed or neutered pets are allowed to reclaim their pets for free, supporting responsible pet ownership;

- People surrendering infant kittens are required to bring the mother into the shelter to be spayed;

- People surrendering any dog, cat, puppy or kitten are asked to foster their own pet until we have an open kennel spot in our adoption program;

- We ask the community to help us save lives when a pet’s future is in danger due to poor behavior, a health issue or simply failure to thrive in a shelter setting; and

- We ask the community to help when we do not have any open kennels for incoming strays.

The community response has been overwhelmingly positive, but challenges remain for us to reach our goal of adopting or fostering every healthy or treatable pet.

We must increase our ability to communicate with citizens if we are going to meet the needs and requests coming in from field-services operations and phone calls. A new volunteer coordinator position has recently been created to help provide additional support. This individual will develop specific programs and train volunteers to improve care to both our human and pet customers.

Another challenge we face is the capacity and design of our Shelter that is inadequate for our programs and the volume of pets about 70 percent of the year. The long-term solution would cost millions for new facilities, but, in the interim, we are working to increase the quality of our housing situation so we are not forced to warehouse pets with inappropriate resources. Our foster families have been instrumental in helping us bridge this gap.

For those passionate about our community’s homeless animals, please visit us at huntsvilleal.gov and join our Friends of Animal Services Facebook page. We have information about adopting and fostering or helping the Shelter through monetary donations to our low-income spay/neuter program or by donating supplies such as dog leashes, beach towel-sized fleece blankets for cat and dog bedding, and small bags of puppy and kitten food (Pedigree and Purina). We are always looking for foster homes and we cover the medical costs; the fosters just add the love!

With the help and support of our community partners, Huntsville is on its way to becoming a national leader in the effort to spay/neuter pets and to find loving homes for our homeless animals.

Dr. Karen Sheppard is the director of Huntsville Animal Services.