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Looking back, looking ahead for animal shelter

            In light of the Pickens Animal Shelter’s director’s recent resignation, we’d like to take a moment to reflect on the shelter’s history, which has been tumultuous at times with no shortage of turnover in leadership. Change is an opportunity to reevaluate what works and what doesn’t.

            During the 2008 election Pickens County Sheriff Donnie Craig and then sole Pickens Commissioner Rob Jones identified animal control as one of the most pervasive issues for voters. There was no county animal control at the time, and people with animal complaints or issues had little recourse. There was one unofficial “animal control” employee in the city of Jasper who wore many other hats, but no facility for unwanted animals. Following the elections, Craig and Jones brainstormed ways to develop an animal control ordinance, install animal control officers, and construct a shelter.

            Commissioner Jones signed the animal control ordinance into effect on July 1, 2009, and installed two full-time animal control officers. Initial plans were to construct a new shelter near the Pickens County Adult Detention Center, but officials thought a ground-up facility would be too costly. They decided to renovate a building on Camp Road used by county EMS and fire and to use inmate labor for the renovation to cut costs. Jones, an electrician before he ran for office, even pitched in to keep the price low.

            The shelter opened on March 1, 2011. The sheriff’s office ran the facility at first, but control was eventually turned over to Pickens County government.

            Over the years the facility has had at least five directors we can recall, some left in less-than-favorable circumstances. There have also been several incidents that created rifts between the shelter and animal advocate non-profits, animal lovers, and members of the public who disagreed with how the facility was run.

            We recall a kennel-wide illness that caused every animal to have to be put down; animal rights advocates protesting what they argued were discriminatory bans on adoptions for certain dog breeds; animal non-profits who decided to pull back from working with the shelter and ongoing complaints about shelter conditions (including some that have been verified and are hard for animal lovers to hear). 

            Every county and municipal department has issues they grapple with, but animal shelters seem to come with more drama than most. Shelters are stressful environments by nature, housing unwanted animals in varying conditions. They’re historically overcrowded and underfunded and have low pay for long hours of hard work and there is the emotional aspect of trying to find loving homes for dogs that have been dumped off — some of which may be cute and others hard to handle as they are frightened or had been mistreated. You really do need a heart for the job but we’d argue not to the extent it affects practical decision-making.

            With the county now on the hunt for a new shelter director, we wonder what can be done to keep the turnover of shelter employees low and strengthen the relationship between shelter leaders, local advocacy groups, and the public. What if there was a shelter advisory board comprised of shelter leaders, members of animal non-profits and rescues, and maybe someone with solid business background? With the right people and work, they might satisfy both the diehard animal lovers and those who simply want an efficient government office.

            Adding more community involvement days or well-advertised volunteer opportunities would also polish the existing operation.

            Our shelter has helped a lot of dogs and cats over the years and we’re happy to have the resource. Even non-animal-lovers surely recognize there needs to be someone to call when a loose dog causes problems.

            While our shelter does euthanize some animals, those instances are few and far between and for extenuating circumstances. We’re excited to see the newly-developed standard operating procedures and hope to see them used with a stable staff going forward. We’d love to see the right person take on that leadership role and encourage the community to get involved to see the shelter move in the right direction.

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