Animal Sheltering Poles Apart in the Gulf Coast

By on October 10, 2007 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

It doesn’t take much insight to recognize that animal sheltering resources are not evenly apportioned around the country. Some communities have robust privately or publicly funded shelters, while some communities have dismal operations, or none at all. And of course, there are many in between.

Pit bull dog at Louisiana SPCA
© The HSUS/Petros
A Louisiana SPCA resident.

Yesterday in Louisiana was a study in contrasts for me and my colleagues, as we traveled to two shelters whose fortunes seem very different.

In New Orleans, The HSUS and Maddie’s Fund, a California-based pet welfare foundation that is working hard to reduce euthanasia rates around the nation, announced grants of $10,000 to $20,000 to 31 Louisiana animal sheltering agencies—both private and public agencies who had come from as far away as Lake Charles in southwest Louisiana to Monroe in the state’s northeast reaches. Representatives from 20 of those agencies joined us for an uplifting day at the very modern Louisiana SPCA campus. Thanks in part to a $4.5 million capital campaign gift by The HSUS, the 22,000-square-foot animal care center opened just a few months ago, and it is a symbol of the rebuilding efforts.

At the ceremony, the Louisiana shelter leaders expressed their gratitude for the support and we had a feeling of togetherness in fighting pet overpopulation, promoting spaying and neutering, and reducing euthanasia rates. These folks, all of them, have tough jobs, and I greatly admire them and their dedication.

One shelter director—pretty new on the job in St. Landry Parish—said that when she came in the shelter had an adoption rate of 3 percent—an abysmal and unacceptable rate. That means the animal control facility was euthanizing the rest. Now, she says the adoption rate is more than 60 percent. The difference is that she is bringing animals out into the community, mainly at the local Wal-Mart, and adoptions have surged. Encouraging news indeed.

Also included among the grantees was St. Bernard Parish Animal Control. Our HSUS and Maddie’s Fund delegation headed over there after our time at the LA SPCA. It’s just about a 40-minute drive from New Orleans, but it seems a world away. As you cross the Mississippi River and enter into St. Bernard Parish, there is marshland on both sides and it doesn’t seem like you are even an inch above sea level. Water surrounds you in the parish. Levees matter in a place like this.

We took a sharp turn to the right, pulling onto muddy terrain just behind a levee and came upon the animal control facility wedged between some trailers and dilapidated buildings. Even parish officials concede it’s a run-down and inadequate facility. When the water surged during Katrina, the parish found itself under 8 feet of water. The concrete blocks of the shelter withstood the surge, but not much else did.

The facility does have running water, but we had to ask to make sure. There was a giant fan running in the main room of the shelter, which was aimed in the direction of the 30 dog kennels there. The kennels were full of mostly medium-sized dogs, who made a racket as we looked in and reached our fingers through the mesh gates that held them. There was also a small cat room, and the cat cages were full of kittens and adults. Between these rooms was a small room, cluttered with materials, and that’s where euthanasia is said to occur. The other room is a small surgery suite, where a vet occasionally comes in to do spay and neuter and to treat sick animals. None of the rooms had doors between them.

Black and tan dog at Louisiana SPCA
© The HSUS/Petros
A dog at St. Bernard Parish Animal Control.

In the back of the building, there were a few new outdoor runs for the dogs. But with no real cover to shield the animals from the hot sun, the runs were empty. It’s very rare when people come in to adopt animals. Frankly, it was an extremely sad sight even for the seasoned sheltering professionals in our group. We were heavy-hearted as we drove away.

Tina Bernard runs the operation. She and one other person make up the staff for the shelter, and she said it’s a seven-day-a-week job.

The HSUS and the ASPCA have agreed to fund a position for a shelter manager at this facility for the next three years, with leadership assistance from the LA SPCA. In order to have a good shelter, you must have a strong and dedicated leader.

But this public operation faces many challenges. With only 25,000 people having returned to St. Bernard Parish—down from the 67,000 who lived here before the hurricane—is there a tax base to support the shelter? And what of the more directed forms of public support, such as volunteers, adoptions and the like. That support seems almost entirely lacking. It seems more like a holding and euthanasia facility, not a true shelter with any movement of live animals in and out.

And how do you attract quality staff to a run-down and depressing facility that offers low pay? And do you rebuild on a site that seems highly vulnerable to another major hurricane should it strike the Gulf?

These are the questions we face as we look to extend our work in the Gulf Coast.

Today, we have an event in Gulfport, Miss., at the new home of the Humane Society of South Mississippi. Here we’ll distribute checks to 23 animal sheltering organizations in the state and visit with some of them.

Our movement is making progress, but the problems in many communities are acute and not easily solved. Major challenges lie ahead for us, and there is no room for complacency.

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