PAWS 'Empty the Shelter' event hailed as a success, cleanup and new procedures begin

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH —  The ever present barking emanating from the kennels at the rear of the Okaloosa Panhandle Animal Welfare Society property on Lovejoy Road was a little kinder on the ears Monday than it had been in the past.

This was due in no small part to the fact that many of those kennels, which for years had housed two or even three dogs at a time, stood empty, offering indisputable evidence of the success of the PAWS "Empty the Shelter" event. 

PAWS shelter 'not a boarding facility or dumping ground,' works to reduce its population

PAWS takes urgent action to empty the shelter of all animals by mid-March

The agency embarked March 3 upon its effort to create needed space within its facility by waiving adoption fees and applications and extending hours of operation. Aggressive steps were also taken to find rescues willing to take on shelter animals. 

By Monday, the last day of "Empty the Shelter," the number of animals in PAWS care had been reduced from approximately 300 to 172, with 89 of the 172 animals committed to a "foster to adopt" program that will eventually remove them from confinement into homes or rescues while new full-time owners are sought.

"When you walk through and see how many empty kennels there are, it's pretty exciting," said Colleen Cobb, PAWS  director of animal operations. "It's encouraging to walk through and see."

Colleen Cobb, director of animal operations at the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society, stands in the nearly empty trailer that houses the adoptable cats. During its recent "Empty the Shelter" event, PAWS was able to adopt out or pass on to local rescue groups most of the cats in the shlter.

And it hasn't been just canines being adopted or accepted by rescues. Two rooms in the double-wide trailer known as the "cat house" that once housed eight felines each now stand empty, and a third has just a single resident. 

Throughout the entire building, rooms and hallways once lined with occupied cages have been cleared. With plans to maintain a greatly reduced population of animals going forward, PAWS staff will expand cage size and move those that will be occupied to areas of the facility where they will be less stressed by the bustle of humans.

Clearing the facility was step one of a multi-phase strategy to make PAWS a resource, rather than a collection agency for strays and unwanted pets, according to Executive Director Tracey Williams. 

"Part two will be to clean and restructure things," Williams said. 

Tracey Williams, executive director at the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society, looks at a listing of some of the approximately 125 animals that were adopted during PAWS's recent "Empty the Shelter" adoption event.

For years, PAWS had functioned as a holding area, where animal intake far outpaced the rate of adoption or euthanization. The goal now is, while performing its contracted work of animal control, to pursue all means necessary to diminish the role of the shelter.

"The shelter is the last place we want animals to go," Williams said. 

Williams said she had initially expected staff resistance to the new way of thinking, but she has been surprised to see how quickly personnel have adapted to change.

"Our new business model is already working. I thought it would take months," she said. "The staff is catching on real quick." 

Cobb said the enthusiasm and willingness to change has also brought back volunteers who had left PAWS. Animal rescues and local veterinarians have likewise agreed to work with the new management headed by Cobb and Williams, who took charge last year.

Williams has also resolved to educate the public on the revised role of PAWS and to communicate with city and county leaders the importance of her proposals for ordinance changes that would free the agency up to implement new policies. 

Among the new policies is one under which stray cats brought to PAWS would be spayed or neutered and then released back into the area where they came from. 

Current ordinances would not allow for sterilizing cats and putting them back "where they want to be," said Cobb, though leading experts contend it is the best way to control populations and reduce strain on local shelters.

"I think people think we're going to take cats and put them somewhere else, but cats aren't lost. They know where they are and they know what they're doing," Williams said. "I just have to walk the halls (of government) and talk to folks."

Did you know? PAWS confiscates 77 severely neglected animals

And:Cat house kerfuffle involving rumored 150 cats in trailer focuses attention on PAWS