Animal shelters in Walton, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties — along with hundreds of others across the country — are making changes after inviting a group of consultants to give an outside perspective on their facilities.

In late 2018, consultants from the University of Florida’s Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program visited the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society, Walton County Animal Shelter and Santa Rosa County Animal Services to perform the pro bono assessments aimed at improving their operation and keeping euthanasia rates down.

Each report is more than 60 pages long and includes crisis action steps and tips on improving animal intake, sanitation, enrichment and use of technology.

Every shelter differs, but there are several similar issues highlighted in the assessments. PAWS received the bleakest report of the three, which Dee Thompson, the shelter's director, addressed immediately.

“In the beginning, it was shocking. It was hard on all of us. I felt personally responsible because of my position,” Thompson said. “But we are making great strides.”

All three shelters implemented a handful of changes right away. But others will take more time, money and approval from the governments that oversee the shelters.

PAWS has already started a new program for owner surrenders and will start training volunteers on better cleaning practices. Santa Rosa County's shelter is reaching out to local partners to start a spay and neuter program. And in Walton County, a new foster program will soon begin.

PANHANDLE ANIMAL WELFARE SOCIETY (OKALOOSA)

Consultants who visited PAWS during the first week of October found the shelter "unacceptable for many reasons," including lack of proactive surrender prevention and a high-risk environment about four times the suggested capacity, the report said.

As a result of these issues, only 46 percent of animals were saved in the past year, the assessment said.

“It was hard on everybody — the board of directors, the staff, the volunteers,” Thompson said of the report. “But it was also really eye opening, where I think sometimes we just come in here every day and you just don’t see it.”

Some of the issues outlined in the assessment were in the shelter’s “cat house.” The report said the litter boxes were full of feces and urine and the food dishes were empty at 4:30 p.m.

According to Thompson, the woman in charge of the cat house leaves at 6 p.m. every day and always takes care of those things before she leaves.

Another major issue was overcrowding. Thompson says she realizes this is one of their biggest problems.

“Do we know that we’re overcrowded? Yes,” she said. “I can tell you that the very first thing we immediately addressed was our cat house.”

The cat house is now restricted to six cats per room, with three cages for cats that do not get along with others. PAWS has also lowered the cat adoption fee to $25.

“I know that they suggested free, but I can’t go straight to free and still keeps the lights on,” Thompson said.

A local rescue group took about 100 cats from PAWS before Hurricane Michael — the week after the assessment was complete. According to Thompson, this helped with overcrowding. In total, about 400 animals have been saved by rescues across the country since the hurricane.

“We’ve tackled the things we can quickly do and are working on the others,” Thompson said.

The day after the assessment, the shelter took out carpeting or anything that can’t be sanitized properly, she said. Staff will soon be trained on better cleaning practices.

PAWS has implemented daily rounds, with at least one volunteer interacting with each animal every single day. However, staffing is an ongoing issue because of the low pay, Thompson said.

The assessment suggested that PAWS stop accepting owner surrenders, but they have not done that yet and there are no future plans to do so. Thompson said they are working on the intake process by trying to get people to make appointments to surrender their animals so shelter staff can speak with them first.

PAWS recently executed a new program called Commit to Keep. Through the program, staff will meet with people surrendering animals and ask them why they decided to leave their pet. If they need help with medical bills or buying food, PAWS will step in. They may also refer them to local rescues.

The consultants also suggested PAWS discontinue its public spay and neuter program. Thompson said they have not done that either. PAWS recently received a grant for a low cost spay and neuter program.

Thompson said they are working on getting a full-time and part-time veterinarian. They are still making appointments to fix dogs and cats outside of the shelter at a lower cost, but are not behind on the animals within the shelter, she said.

PAWS will continue to administer a flu vaccination for incoming canines despite a recommendation from the consultants. Thompson said they talked with several local vets and they all agreed it was risky to stop giving the vaccine.

Other improvements will include updating their webpage with adoptable pets more often, saturating every venue for adoption event advertising and continuing to grow their foster program.

PAWS also recently started staying open later in the day and being open on Sundays, which Thompson said has improved adoption rates.

SANTA ROSA COUNTY ANIMAL SERVICES

Consultants assessed Santa Rosa County's animal shelter in early November. They compiled a list of recommendations including waiving a stray hold for cats and young dogs, reducing a stray hold for older dogs, and returning sterilized cats to the location they were found.

“There are some things we’re not going to tackle right now,” said Brad Baker, director of Santa Rosa County emergency services, who also oversees animal services.

“We want to make sure that we are still looking out for the welfare of the animals,” he continued. “It’s a big list, so we can only absorb so much at a time.”

The report recommends the shelter waive the stray hold for cats and puppies, as well reducing the hold for adult dogs to three days.

The assessment also suggested increasing the spay and neuter capacity at the shelter, which was one of the biggest issues they have begun to address.

“We have reached out and are trying to build some more partnerships, such as the Pensacola Humane Society,” Baker said. “We’re going to ask the board for some money to do a low-cost spay and neuter (program) through them.”

Baker said the Santa Rosa County shelter takes in about 20 cats a day. The shelter is going to ask the Board of County Commissioners how they feel about returning the cats to the location they were found after they are vaccinated and fixed.

“We are just trying to figure out more ways to get animals spayed or neutered, because obviously the less animals that we have the better off that we’re going to be,” he said.

The shelter is working with the different rescue groups to keep the capacity down, as recommended by the consultants. They are also changing the vaccination protocol and vaccinating on intake.

They recently hired a part-time vet and will soon initiate a foster program and a volunteer program, Baker said.

“We’re starting to push either rescues or adoptions as hard as we can,” he said. “That’s really the only way to decrease our (euthanasia) number is to get it to where we’re not taking in as many pets, have a better adoption rate and a better rescue rate.”

WALTON COUNTY ANIMAL SHELTER

Consultants came to Walton County to assess the shelter in mid-September. Their report was the shortest of the three counties, but included suggestions to improve spaying and neutering, stray hold protocol and humane housing.

The shelter is run by the Sheriff’s Office and follows ordinances put in place by the Board of County Commissioners. Captain Michael Gainey, Emergency Services Bureau Chief, said he and shelter staff have compiled a list of changes they will ask the board to make at a future meeting.

 

They will ask the board to approve a trap/neuter/release program, change the stray hold ordinance and agree to lower or waive adoption fees.

Shelter Manager Tina Barker said they received the assessment in October and the fiscal budget was already approved, which made some of the changes difficult to implement.

The consultants’ biggest concerns were in the cat rooms. The cats are currently housed in garage-type rooms with large fans, heaters and the ability to open the garage doors. However, the consultants recommended installing an air conditioning system.

“It wasn’t budgeted, so we have to find the money for that,” Barker said.

The cats are in 93 stainless steel cages. The report suggests turning two kennels into one to give the cats more room by installing port holes in the interior walls. The problem with that, Barker said, is that it will cost a minimum of $5,000 for the equipment and cut their capacity in half.

“They will get full faster, and everyone knows what that means if they’re full,” Gainey said.

To help keep the capacity down in the shelter, Barker said they looking to start a foster program.

The process for becoming a volunteer right now is rather involved and includes a background check, she said. For the foster program, they are looking at a less invasive process, that is still safe but quicker.

It was also suggested that the shelter create a program to transport animals to local low-cost spay and neuter clinics. This is something the board of county commissioners will also need to approve, Barker said.

It will be difficult to implement because of their small staff and it will cost them money to drive the animals to clinics in either Panama City, Pensacola or Dothan.