From death sentence to safe haven: Haywood County Animal Shelter celebrates five years

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From death sentence to safe haven: Haywood County Animal Shelter celebrates five years

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From a humble cinderblock building with high kill-rates, to an astonishing facility with an established 95% live release rate — the Haywood County Animal Shelter has come a long way over the past five years.

What was once a death sentence for wandering and lost animals in Haywood County has become a safe haven. The shelter now offers life and opportunity thanks to residents in Haywood County and Friends of the Haywood County Animal Shelter.

Since the doors opened on April 25, 2018, the shelter has facilitated adoption for 3,089 dogs and 3,321 cats. Another 1,793 animals have been returned to their owners.

The old shelter was built to house 14 dogs, a few “bite cases” and a small room that could hold 40 cats — simply not enough room for the amount of animals brought in.

“The old shelter was falling apart,” said Connie Hewitt, board member of Friends of the Animal Shelter and long-time shelter volunteer.

Hewitt said she simply couldn’t handle Tuesdays and Thursdays at the old shelter, however, as those were kill days.

“I would make sure and say goodbye to the animals as I left each day,” said Hewitt. “I just never knew if they would be there when I came back. It was horrible.”

Though euthanasia does occur in rare cases at the facility, the 95% live release rate gives the facility the “no-kill” status.

“It’s important to educate the community that we are no longer a kill shelter,” said Teresa Smith, president of the Friends board and animal lover. “That was the first milestone of getting the shelter open.”

Shelter Manager Holli Burris transitioned with the shelter from the old facility and has witnessed a dramatic increase in the wellbeing of animals through the new facility.

From barn cats — working cats, specifically rodent control — to house cats, from litters of puppies to the older dogs with longing eyes, Adoption/Intake Counselor Kelli Miller loves them all.

“I know they are safe. They are warm, they are dry, they’re fed,” said Miller. “We don’t know what their situation was before they came here, but while they are here, we do the best that we can until they find their forever home.”

Miller started with the shelter as a volunteer with newborn animals — bottle feeding them to health — eventually accepting the role of adoption/intake counselor.

Friends of Haywood County Animal Shelter

Friends has been a rock-solid ally for the shelter since the beginning. The group contributed $500,000 toward the $3.3 million price tag for the animal shelter.

Friends was an instrumental part of the planning process for the new animal shelter, advocating for the facility until its dream came to fruition. Community pushback became an issue, however, with opponents and some commissioners complaining about the cost of the new facility and why that money was being spent on animals instead of people.

“If you had to sit through those commissioner meetings back then, you would know why this is a great milestone for the shelter,” said Hewitt. “We had people saying it was a waste of money, just take ‘em out and shoot ‘em.”

Hewitt said the journey to this day — though tough at times — has been worth it. The shelter, along with Friends has made a remarkable difference for animals in the county and will continue for many years to come.

“I feel like I’ve done something worthwhile,” said Hewitt. “I think the shelter is a benefit to the community, and I hope people have pride in their shelter.”

Friends has continued to be a driving force for animal advocacy in the county.

The Friends’ constant fundraising has paid for additions like the education center — used for introduction in the adoption process — equipment, a plethora of additional items along with medications and food for the animals at the facility.

“The county will pay to keep them comfortable, but we provide services above and beyond what the county will provide,” said Smith.

A new leash on life

The newness of the animal shelter has not yet worn off the five-year-old animal shelter. Toys galore, bathing areas for animals, intake rooms, laundry room — with brand new washing machines provided by the Friends — the new facility has it all.

A new surgery room was added in January — with funds from the county shelter and help from the Friends — in an effort to reduce the shelter’s dependence on outside services to spay and neuter shelter animals prior to adoption. A backlog in spaying and neutering since the pandemic has limited adoptions, which the new in-house surgery space aimed to solve.

The Friends covers the cost of surgeries needed by shelter animals to become adoptable.

“We do a lot of treatment and a lot of surgeries in-house now,” said Burris. “Our nonprofit does pay for some of those above and beyond procedures as well, like dental work and more involved surgeries the shelter couldn’t normally pay for.”

Miller says the previous facility didn’t have adequate spacing and ventilation needed to prevent disease from spreading.

The ventilation, plumbing, drainage and separate air handling systems throughout the building, along with stainless steel, prevent the spread of disease.

“Everything gets sanitized every single day,” said Miller. “We are very conscious of diseases like kennel cough and Parvo here.”

An outside space with outdoor carpeting for easy cleaning and canopies for shading, allows visitors and volunteers a chance to play with animals, one on one and one at a time.

The shelter works with rescue partners, both local and non-local, to help curb the population. A dedicated transport section of the facility houses animals on their way to adoption locations elsewhere — even Canada — thanks to a partnership with Shelter Dog Transport Alliance.

“They do a run to Ontario once a month,” said Miller. “There are rescues up there that are accepting dogs, and we are just one of nine shelters from the area sending them up this month. If it wasn’t for our partners, we would be overrun very easily.”

The shelter also works with local groups like Sarge’s Animal Rescue, another instrumental relationship for adopting out the animals.

Haywood County Animal Services Director Howard Martin emphasized the importance of micro-chipping pets and collars with identification to ensure lost pets return home.

“Getting a micro-chip, and maintaining up-to-date information is important,” said Martin. “All of our officers carry a reader on them and they will contact the owner if the micro-chip is current.”

Obtaining a microchip for a pet can be done through a veterinarian or animal services groups like the ASPCA.

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