FORT WALTON BEACH — As the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society looks to the future, staff members have a goal of making it a no-kill shelter by the year 2020.

“No-kill,” in shelter speak, means less than 10 percent of the animals who come in to the shelter are euthanized. It’s a lofty goal but one that shelter director Dee Thompson is confident can be met.

 

“We’re striving to find a way to lower our (euthanasia) numbers,” she said. “In two years we’d like to have it so that no adoptable animal is euthanized … which means working in a lot of programs.”

PAWS announced in May that a generous donation of land from a local bank executive will allow the facility to move toward its goal of becoming a no-kill shelter.

Plans for the $4 million facility, which will be located on a 16-acre plot of land directly across from PAWS’s currently facility on Lovejoy Road, will be called the Peggy Qualls Animal Sanctuary. It’ll be named after the late Peggy Qualls, a longtime Okaloosa County resident and animal lover whose family donated the land to the shelter to honor their late mother.

Thompson said the new shelter will have individual bungalows for the dogs and cats, as well as a bird aviary, horse barn and pasture and veterinary clinic. She says the shelter will be able to lower euthanasia rates in part because the new facility will be more open-air, allowing the animals to be less stressed and the public to have better interactions with potential pets.

“The new facility will be built with the animals in mind and will be a much more fresh-air environment,” she said. “We can try to minimize the stress these animals go through and also make it more comfortable for the general public to walk in … they can see (the animals) in a more relaxed environment.”

New shelter, new strategy

But just having a bigger, better facility isn’t necessarily going to get to the root of the problem — more space, in effect, doesn’t mean that the amount of dogs and cats coming in will decrease. As a county animal shelter that can’t hang a “No Vacancy” sign on its door, PAWS will always be at or over capacity unless there’s a fundamental shift in the number of animals that are actually brought in.

Enter Sara Pizano. She’s a former shelter veterinarian and shelter director who now owns a consulting firm called Team Shelter USA, which goes across the country to evaluate county animal shelters and animal control programs. Pizano said she can figure out ways to decrease the amount of animals turned into shelters and, by extension, euthanasia rates.

Pizano came to Fort Walton Beach the first week of October to meet with Thompson, the staff at PAWS and other local animal rescue groups. She laid out a plan for ways the shelter can lower their euthanasia rate below 10 percent, the magic “no-kill” number.

Step one, she said, is to transform the animal control program from “punitive” to “community-minded.”

That means “reserving punitive action for true public and animal safety issues,” she said.

Second is to take a fresh look at the owner surrender process. When someone brings in a dog or cat to surrender, Pizano said, don’t automatically assume they’re a bad person who doesn’t care about their pet. She said it’s critical for staffers and volunteers to work with a person surrendering their pet and find out if they’re simply lacking resources that, if they had access to, could enable them to keep their pet.

“It’s not talking people out of it,” she said. “It’s saying, what can we do … what resources can we give you to allow you to keep your pet?”

Third is removing policies that encourage a free flow of animals into the shelter but make it difficult for them to leave. Pizano said PAWS should require people to set up an appointment to come and surrender their animal, instead of being able to drop them off 24/7. She also said PAWS should lower its adoption fee from $100 or $125 to below $50 and not do as stringent background checks on potential adopters, eliminating qualifications that she said haven’t been proven to make people bad pet parents.

Finally, Pizano said it’s time to rework county ordinances that she said negatively affect animals and PAWS. For example, she said the county currently requires PAWS to hold a stray animal for five days in order to give the owner time to retrieve the animal. If the owner doesn’t come in five days, the animal can be euthanized or placed for adoption.

Thompson said PAWS currently holds animals for seven days. She wants to shorten that time period to 72 hours.

Spay and neuter your pets

Many animal professionals agree that the biggest problem concerning animal issues is the lack of low-cost spay and neuter programs in Okaloosa County.

PAWS offers low-cost spay/neuter at its Fort Walton Beach facility, charging between $102 and $142 per procedure, depending on the size of the animal. But other than that, there is only a scattering of limited services offered locally.

Most veterinarians charge upwards of $300 for the procedure.

Bay County has a low-cost spay/neuter option as part of its “Operation Spay Bay,” offering spays and neuters between $35 and $100. Saving With Soul Pet Rescue and A HOPE for Santa Rosa County offer bi-monthly trips to Bay County for locals wanting to get their pets fixed there.

At its new facility, PAWS hopes to be able to offer a larger spay/neuter operation to be able to serve more citizens in Okaloosa County.

Jennifer Hagedorn runs Saving With Soul Pet Rescue, an Okaloosa County pet rescue group that pulls dogs and cats from PAWS and fosters them to allow PAWS to take in more animals. She said she moved to Northwest Florida from Denver, which had stringent spay/neuter laws and no pet overpopulation crisis.

“When you come down here from other places where this isn’t an issue, you say, ‘What do we have to do to change the culture?’ ” she said. “It’s not the laws. The laws would change if the culture was different. In other parts of the country, you just don’t let your pets reproduce. What do we have to do to make that happen here?”

Lisa Bruning runs My Safe Place Pet Rescue and Minn Pins and Muts, another foster-based rescue group serving the county. She said a big part of what she does, in addition to saving animals, is educating people about the importance of spaying and neutering their pets.

“The biggest problem we have in this area, especially in the northern part of Okaloosa County, is a lot of people not wanting to spay or neuter their dogs,” she said. “Men are like, ‘We don’t want to take his testicles away.’ The whole mentality, that’s what we’re fighting at the moment.”