It's been interesting watching the evolution of animal welfare in Hall County over the years. Bessie Vickers began our humane society, spent her money and time caring for the homeless animals of the region, and later donated the family land she had used to start her mission. After stringent interview sessions, "Miss Bessie" placed many dogs and cats with prospective adopters. Due to space limitations, many had to be euthanized.
Later, Hall County began helping out financially. Still later, the county hired its first animal control officer who could go out into the community to help with problem cases. The staff is currently nine.
It seems our local entities are planning to sever the partnership that has endured for decades. Why? Apparently finances. Hall County states there had been an annual 8 percent increase in funding, but that the society asked for a 26 percent increase. The county contends it has been overcharged.
The Humane Society tells us the county wanted to decrease its financial support. We know statistics can be used a lot of ways to make one's point. Here is a look at some of the 2007 numbers as I understand them:
- Animal Control Officers picked up 4,359 animals.
- Residents brought in 3,413 strays.
- Hall County owners surrendered 3,757 pets.
- Out of county strays brought in numbered 948.
- Out of county owned animals turned in totaled 585.
The Animal Control budget for fiscal year 2009 is $546,261. This is for salaries, vehicles, and equipment. A total of $681,700 was allocated to pay for sheltering at the Humane Society.
The county tells us that Douglas County impounded 4,400 animals on a budget of $549,419 ($124.87 per animal). It also tells us it is paying $285.57 per animal now. It added shelter plus animal control costs and then divided by only the 4,300 animals picked up by officers.
It is very reasonable to add in the Hall County strays brought in. The total then is 7,772. Divide that into the $681,700 paid the society for sheltering and you get $87.71 per animal. How do you handle owner-surrendered animals?
Most counties that have arrangements similar to ours pay quite a bit more than ours. Dawson County pays its humane society $120 per animal. Hall County thinks it will save money with a separate facility, which is highly unlikely.
Animal control expenses will continue no matter what, but will increase dramatically with a $2 million shelter and the cost for the 10-12 additional employees needed to support it. Proposed inmate labor comes with its own set of problems. Other counties that have tried this found problems with friends or family bringing in drugs and weapons for inmates.
The Humane Society of the United States feels there needs to be a shelter in every community whose doors are open to all homeless animals, strays or owner-surrendered.
Because our society is going to convert to a "selective admission shelter," space at the privately-funded new society will be limited to some of the animals deemed adoptable.
This doesn't feel right to many of us who are concerned about what will happen to the rest of the animals. People will be referred to the Animal Control facility. Many will think that releasing to that agency will be a death sentence.
As a result, too many pets will be dropped off along roadways, in neighborhoods and near dumpsters to fend for themselves. Their fates will include suffering due to traffic injuries, starvation, disease, poisonings, abuse and severe weather. Packs of strays will attack livestock, owned pets and people.
Rabies is prevalent in our county, and more dogs and cats roaming unvaccinated will also increase the public's risk.
The HSUS believes that "humane euthanasia of homeless animals is preferable to the poor quality of life they will most likely endure without the companionship and care of a loving, responsible home environment." Of course the overall goal is to have fewer homeless.
Both the Humane Society of Hall County and the Hall County commission need to minimize undesirable results. Working together, as partners or as colleagues from separate shelters, maximal benefit should be the goal. Following the society's example of educating the public about pet overpopulation will help. More education about animal welfare in general, especially in the school system, will make an enormous difference over time.
A county-run shelter or humane society should place the emphasis on "humane" to make it more palatable. Encouraging volunteerism is possible (but our society cannot get enough volunteers).
However, having two organizations seems poor from a fiscal standpoint as well as a resource standpoint. Adoption fees at both facilities will be higher; the society may well have trouble soliciting enough funds to make up for the shortfall when it loses county aid, especially if it turns away a potentially generous donor due to their rules. At the current adoption rate of about 3,200 per year at $70 per animal, there will be quite a gap to fill. The taxpayers of Hall will see a giant increase in animal control- related costs. Enlarging the current shelter and increased financial support would probably benefit all.
If there are conflicts of personalities or agendas, these should be resolved. Time is growing short. Let's hope whatever changes occur will provide positive results for the animals and citizens of Hall County. Just please, don't forget the animals in need.
John C. Sundstrom is a Gainesville veterinarian and a board member of the Humane Society of Hall County.