‘Understaffed and Overcrowded,’ County Shelter Faces Challenges

By Beacon Staff

The barking, meowing and drooling never stops. In fact, walking into the Flathead County Animal Shelter, one has to wonder how shelter director Cliff Bennett can even think with all the noise.

Located just south of Kalispell, the county shelter takes in hundreds of unwanted or stray pets every year and Bennett says space is at a premium. On average, the shelter houses 60 dogs and 70 cats, more than what the county-owned facility was built for. And those animals require a lot of attention.

“This is a 24 hours a day, seven days a week facility,” Bennett said. “We haven’t been able to get the dogs and cats to take a day off yet.”

Every day, someone must feed the animals and clean out their kennels – even on Christmas. Bennett begins most of his days at 8 a.m., with a walkthrough of the facility. Although the shelter is open to the public from noon until 6 p.m., it takes most of the morning to make it presentable.

Bennett has been director for three years and took the job at the urging of a friend. Prior to that, he worked as a farmer and had some experience with livestock and animals.

“I was looking for something challenging to do,” he said. “I didn’t know it’d be this challenging.”

With the population of Flathead County growing, Bennett says facilities like the shelter need to grow as well. Plans are currently in the works for an expansion of the cat area in the shelter, which will cost upwards of $130,000. Because of the lack of space, Bennett said the shelter has had to turn away felines in recent months.

The shelter’s annual budget is about $400,000, part of which is from the county’s general fund. Bennett says about $125,000 of it comes from license fees, adoptions and donations. Some of those donations come from the Flathead Shelter Friends, a nonprofit support group. Cindie Jobe is a board member and said one of the group’s biggest projects will be to raise funds for the expansion of the cat area. Jobe has been a volunteer at the shelter for four years.

“It just breaks my heart to see these animals in the shelter and not having a home,” she said.

Cindy Perkins reprimands an antsy cat at the Flathead County Animal Shelter while cleaning out its kennel. Perkins works with both dogs and cats and has been at the shelter for almost five years. – Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon.

Last year, the shelter took in more than 2,000 dogs and cats. Bennett said only 124 were euthanized, a significant drop from years past. In the early 1980s, it was common for 70 percent of the animals taken in by the shelter to be put down. Bennett says that practice has changed and only animals that are too sick or vicious are euthanized now.

A big factor in the drop in animals being euthanized is the Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force that has helped perform over 25,000 surgeries on dogs and cats in the last decade. Those operations have helped the number of pets that show up on the shelter’s doorstep drop in half in the last three decades. And about 95 percent of the animals at the shelter do find homes.

“It reminds me how far we’ve come,” he said, looking at stats from the last few decades.

But Bennett says there is still more work to do. Because space is limited, on occasion, he must turn away new animals, which he said is heartbreaking.

“I feel bad, but I have a shelter to run that is overcrowded and understaffed,” he said. “But we’re proud of the job we’re doing.”

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