For the Love of Dogs (and Cats)

The Flathead County Animal Shelter has transitioned from a facility with a high kill rate to one with a 97 percent live release rate in the last 20 years

By Molly Priddy
Scout, a five-year-old hound mix at the Flathead County Animal Shelter on March 8, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

SOUTH KALISPELL — There’s a car coming down Cemetery Road. Scout just knows it. He stands next to the fence, straining his floppy ears for the sound of tires on pavement.

He hears the motor, and he’s off, sprinting the length of the fence at the Flathead County Animal Shelter to race or chase the cars and trucks — it’s hard to tell which.

But what’s easy to see is how happy Scout is when he’s running, and how much the shelter staff loves to see him do it. As the longest canine tenant at the shelter, Scout, a hound mix with a sweet disposition, is still looking for his forever home.

He’s been here since Feb. 4, when he was taken in as a stray. Staff estimates he’s about 5 years old, given the graying muzzle, but no one has come to claim him. So he waits in his kennel, week after week, for his turn.

If the past is any indication, Scout’s turn will happen soon. The average wait time for a dog at the animal shelter is about a week, according to Cliff Bennett, the shelter’s executive director. That’s 10 days shorter than the average stay at any other Montana shelter, and two weeks faster than the national average.

“It’s pretty amazing to look at the history,” Bennett said. “It’s gruesome to think about the way it was before.”

Had Scout turned up at the animal shelter in the 1980s or 1990s, he would have typically gotten three days for an owner to turn up or to be adopted. If he wasn’t, he would have been euthanized.

In 1983, 73 percent of the cats and dogs at the animal shelter were killed. There were 5,470 of them at the time, meaning 3,991 were put down.

In 2006, one year before the Flathead City-County Health Department assumed oversight of the shelter, the euthanasia rate was 35.3 percent. One year after the health department took over, it was down to 12.4 percent. It also helped tremendously that in 2000, the Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force began operations.

Joe Russell, the county health officer who oversaw the animal shelter’s transition to his department, said the change was one born of mercy and compassion.

“When I first took over, I literally would go down to the shelter, and would look at the kennels. I’d notice these big yellow Xs (on some of the dogs’ kennels),” Russell said. “And then I’d come back the next day and the dogs were gone. I just basically said, ‘I don’t want to see another damn yellow X on a card unless you talk to me first.'”

Russell said they totally revamped the shelter’s staff with people who deeply cared about the animals’ welfare while in the county’s care, including Bennett.

“He understood from the bottom up that we are all about taking care of animals and getting them out of here,” Russell said of Bennett.

Then Russell mandated that general public health concepts would apply to the shelter: Every animal brought in would be vaccinated, there would be better sanitation standards at the shelter, and there would be infection control.

He remembers losing whole litters of puppies to parvovirus, a disease that can attack the intestines as well as the heart. He walked in after one such loss and saw the whole staff crying, and he knew it couldn’t go on like that.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to see you guys crying anymore, not when there’s something we can do about it,'” Russell said.

The shelter will have been in its current location on Cemetery Road for 20 years in 2018, and it has made leaps and bounds of progress in that time. The live release rate for all the animals is 97.25 percent, and the facility adopted out more than 1,400 cats and dogs in 2016.

While it is a no-kill shelter, it’s not a never-kill shelter, Russell noted. Animals that are too sick to treat or are behavioral threats are euthanized.

“If there’s an animal that’s a risk, it’s going to be put down. I’m not going to put the community at risk,” he said.

Russell is proud of the work done at the shelter and said credit should be given to many people.

“It’s not the leadership, it’s the staff. They do it because they know we’re doing something amazing down there,” he said. “Put us against any municipal shelter, we are at the top of the top.”

The shelter has seen renovations and additions in the last decade, including more space for dog kennels, new cat enclosures, better air exchange systems, and air conditioning, to name a few. On the west end stands the pièce de résistance, the shelter’s new veterinary clinic.

It’s a state-of-the-art facility, paid for through donations and designed by the resident veterinarian, Dr. Meg Gordon. Bennett said it came into being one day after a couple, both retired physicians, toured the facility and wrote a donation check.

He always personally thanks all donors, whether in person or in a card, so Bennett got ready to talk to them. Then he looked at the check.

“We’ve gotten $10,000 checks before, but this one had another zero,” he said.

The couple’s $100,000 donation got the clinic going, and they asked to remain anonymous despite Bennett wanting to name it after them.

When he tells the story, his eyes tear up.

“If I need a lift, I walk around here and pinch myself,” he said.

Flathead Shelter Friends, an organization supporting the shelter from the get-go, raised enough money to fix the roof on the old clinic trailer, which is now an emergency response clinic that can be taken to evacuation zones or wildfires.

Bennett is encouraged to attend conferences on best practices every year, and Russell said his own health department employees can be found volunteering at the shelter.

Both Russell and Bennett said it was integral to have city and county support for the shelter, as well as the community’s.

“It’s nice to be encouraged and supported,” Bennett said. “It’s humbling.”

Russell attributes the community’s generosity to the general spirit of giving and helping those who can’t help themselves that is prevalent in the valley, but he also believes the shelter transitioning to a no-kill facility caught the community’s attention.

“I think it all starts with the fact that we don’t kill animals indiscriminately,” Russell said. “I just didn’t want anything to do with a shelter run like that.”

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