Updated Mon, Jul 22, 2013 2:38 pm
In recent years there has been a dramatic decline in the number of dogs euthanized at the Athens County Dog Shelter, a fact noted by the county commissioners in a resolution last week thanking Friends of the Shelter Dogs for the volunteer group’s efforts.
“They were significantly involved in improving those percentages,” Commissioner Chris Chmiel said. The resolution noted that 7 percent of the dogs that passed through the shelter in 2011 were euthanized, compared to 85 percent a decade ago.
Asked to attach a percentage to the degree to which he believes Friends of the Shelter Dogs is responsible for the dramatic drop in euthanasia, Commission President Lenny Eliason said 80 percent.
While the county has taken some actions — altering the shelter’s operating hours, for example — Eliason said that the Friends have played “a big role.”
Friends of the Shelter Dogs was formed in 2007 by local residents with the specific goal of reducing the rate of euthanasia at the shelter. They’ve done it by promoting adoption of dogs, and sending shelter dogs to out-of-county rescue programs.
Anne Cornwell, a member of the Friends, credits the formation of the group to Lynda Andrews.
“She was the start of it,” Cornwell said.
In May of 2007, Andrews, who grew up in Glouster and works as a wildlife biologist, began photographing dogs at the shelter and putting them on Petfinder, an online site where people interested in getting a dog can check those available at the shelter.
“That site is really paramount to saving the dogs,” Cornwell said.
Andrews said Petfinder not only made the dogs more visible, it also raised public awareness of the shelter, which led to people wanting to volunteer and, ultimately, to creation of Friends of the Shelter Dogs.
Andrews said that the Athens County Humane Society had used Petfinder to some degree, but she has been photographing the dogs and updating the website on a regular basis for six years.
“I never thought I’d last this long,” Andrews said. “It’s very rewarding, and very heartbreaking at times.”
That heartbreak comes, for example, when someone decides, because of a change in their circumstances, to leave their dog at the shelter.
“As they walk out the door, that dog is looking at them,” Andrews said.
Photographs by Andrews of dogs available for adoption are also used in a weekly ad published in The Messenger. Friends of the Shelter Dogs also has a Facebook page.
“Facebook, I feel, has really had a large impact on adoptions,” Cornwell said, as well as on reuniting lost pets with their owners.
Friends of the Shelter also operates the Shelter Shot Program, which provides a parvo combination vaccination to every dog coming into the shelter, and operates a dog foster network.
Volunteers go to the shelter and spend time with the dogs to get an impression of their nature. Cornwell said the information is not only important to the adoption program, but also to sending dogs into rescue.
“In order to make space at the shelter, we ask for help from outside rescue groups,” Cornwell said. Volunteer drivers take dogs to Columbus at least once a week.
According to the Friends, in 2012 there were 1,231 dogs at the shelter and 113 were euthanized, meaning that 9 percent of the dogs were put down. (The Messenger looked at records and came up with somewhat different figures and a lower euthanasia rate.)
Cornwell said it’s the shelter employees who care for the animals, deal with the public and actually adopt out the dogs.
“It is a joint effort. We do this together,” she said.
Dog Warden Jeff Koons said that whenever you have a government operation and a volunteer organization, differences are going to arise.
“You just have to work out the differences and get on with it,” Koons said. “They do a lot for the shelter.”
Cornwell said that the success in reducing the number of dogs euthanized has had an unintended consequence — some people feel more comfortable using the shelter to get rid of their dogs.
“The purpose of the shelter is to house stray dogs, not to dump a dog at the shelter because you don’t want it anymore,” Cornwell said Friday. “This has been a terrible week, with dogs and puppies coming in at an alarming rate.”
“I think people use the shelter too easily,” Andrews said.
Cornwell has mentioned on more than one occasion that she is also concerned that the Friends volunteers can’t keep up their current pace. The group only has six to eight active members.
“You can burn out at this very easy,” Andrews agreed. “It can be all-consuming if you let it be.”
Both said the ultimate solution is increased spaying and neutering of pets to reduce the number of dogs coming into the shelter.
The county commissioners are in the process of hiring a kennel keeper for the dog shelter, and the job description includes, among other things, overseeing adoption, rescue and foster programs.
Eliason said he doesn’t see the kennel keeper taking over the tasks performed by Friend of the Shelter Dogs.
“I think it may help coordinate the things they do,” Eliason said.