Two cats can produce a litter which, over the next six years, can reach 70,000 offspring if none of them are neutered or neutered. It’s part of the battle facing animal shelters across Alabama, including Shelby Humane in Columbiana.
The 43-person staff awaits the annual spring influx of puppies and kittens, when the facility could grow to 600 animals requiring health care and boarding until adoption. Shelby Humane is a “no-kill” haven, with a live release rate of 97% in 2021.
Recently, about 30 feral cats and kittens were brought in by Shelby County animal control officers who seized the animals in a near-stocking situation, which is quite common, said Bill Rowley, director of operations at Shelby Humane. When owners fail to spay or neuter their pets, a few cats can quickly spiral out of control. In the past, the only option for these animals was euthanasia, but now confiscated cats can be modified and sent outside for rodent control.
It costs more than $6,100 a day to run Shelby Humane, where, on average, staff and volunteers care for 100 to 300 animals. Puppies, dogs, kittens and cats eat an average of over 250 pounds of food each day. Many residents require medical treatment, ranging from vaccinations and flea preventatives to treatment for respiratory infections, ringworm, scabies and emergency wounds. Sterilization requires frequent transportation to and from veterinary clinics. (Alabama is the only state that doesn’t allow shelters to hire veterinarians on staff; vets can only work for licensed veterinary practices.)
“It’s a challenge,” said Rowley, who took on the post of director in 2021 after years leading educational and religious organizations. “The inability of pet owners to neuter their animals is a huge and persistent problem.”
A visitor to the 8,523-square-foot shelter across from the Shelby County Jail will find wall-to-wall animals of all sizes, ages, genders and breeds, most rushing past their enclosures clamoring for attention. There are isolation rooms for new arrivals to prevent the spread of disease. There are special rooms for kittens and puppies, where they are often kept with littermates for added comfort. There’s a room for small dogs, where some enclosures have blue tags to indicate they’ve already been adopted.
The largest area of the 21-year-old shelter is reserved for large dogs who live in fenced 3ft by 5ft and 3ft by 6ft enclosures, each with a bed and bowls for water and food. Containers with treats hang outside the enclosures, and the calm is often broken as employees approach each area and dogs stand up for a special handout. The enclosures lining the exterior walls have sliding doors that open to larger running areas. Each employee walks at least one dog a day – some walk up to 10.
Beneath a large outdoor shed, parks await the dogs while their indoor enclosures are cleaned each morning. A large fenced area provides a place for recreation, where dogs can run around and play with others. The area is also used for behavior training. Further out on the facility grounds are three small covered enclosed areas, each with a picnic table and benches where employees and potential adopters can interact with the animals.
“Adoptions are very fluid during the holidays, when we have our biggest influx of visitors,” Rowley said. “Other days we’ll have hardly anyone showing up.”
Rowley said Shelby Humane is making ends meet through funding from Shelby County, receiving grants, and with donations from people in the community. Nearly 200 volunteers, including around 70 active staff, provide additional support to staff that would otherwise be costly. Volunteers do laundry, post photos on social media, walk dogs, feed animals, participate in fundraisers and help with adoption, among other efforts.
“We have great staff here, so I’m able to focus on how we’re improving the shelter, rather than focusing on individual animal welfare issues,” he said.
Rowley would like to keep the number of animals at Shelby Humane at around 100, rather than seeing it reach current — or seasonal — levels that stress staff, animals and facilities. He understands there may still be a few pets like “Velvet,” who has been terminally ill for two years, after vets expected she had just months to live. In such cases, staff are always on the lookout for an adopter who can provide a “healthy and loving environment” for the final days of a dying dog or cat. Otherwise, employees want to find a “permanent home” for each animal in the shelter.
Other Shelby Humane programs are reducing the number of strays in the county and increasing the adoption rate for dogs and cats. In March, the shelter transport program had its most successful trip ever, moving 87 animals overnight in two vans to New Jersey and New York. These states lack adoptable animals and all of Shelby Humane were immediately adopted. More than 400 pets were adopted in 2021 through the transportation program, which is looking for more drivers.
In conjunction with Irondale’s Alabama Spay Neuter Clinic and local veterinarians, Shelby Humane operates public clinics for vaccinations and alteration surgeries. Rabies shots cost $15; sterilization costs $45 for cats, $75 for dogs; sterilization $45 for cats and $60 for dogs. Around 50 animals are treated under the project each week. (Contact [email protected] for an appointment or information.)
In 2021, the Shelby Humane foster program placed 1,419 newborn pets, puppies and kittens, medical cases and some requiring behavior training, into private homes. Rowley said foster care is a major need to maintain the shelter’s no-kill status.
Shelby Humane is the only shelter in Alabama to offer the Safe Pet program, which helps victims of domestic violence keep their dogs and cats with free, anonymous boarding beyond the animal shelter. Funded by a national grant, residents of Shelby, Blount, Clay, Coosa, Jefferson, St. Clair and Walker counties are being helped, Rowley said. The program is expanding next year to other counties to provide veterinary and pet care for up to 60 days.
“Our goal is to help survivors get the help they need without worrying about the safety and care of the pet,” Rowley said. “Victims who can keep their pets are more likely not to return to a domestic violence situation. Typically, the aggressor will pursue the animal if he cannot reach his domestic victim.
Meanwhile, inside Shelby Humane, employees and volunteers are continually touched — physically and emotionally — by the animals in their care.
“I think everyone here has either fostered or adopted a dog or a cat,” Rowley said. “It’s really common to take your work home with you.”
Adoption hours are Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. at 381 McDow Road, Columbiana 35051. Animals available for adoption can be viewed on the website at www.shelbyhumane.org. Call 205-669-3916 to adopt, donate, volunteer or for more information.