Donations, Dedication Push Flathead County Animal Shelter to New Heights

As intakes dip to unprecedented lows amid pandemic, shelter prepares to make yet another facility improvement funded primarily without taxpayer dollars

By Andy Viano
Lazlo, an 8-year-old cat looking for a new home, relaxes in Lisa Gooch's arms at the Flathead County Animal Shelter in Kalispell on Dec. 18, 2020. Hunter D'Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The long, narrow hallways of the Flathead County Animal Shelter, flanked by kennel after kennel of howling, baying, jumping and cage-rattling canines, are typically — depending on whether you’re a dog person or not — a symphony of soon-to-be best friends angling for their forever home or an ear-splitting reminder that cats can’t bark.

But on Thursday, Dec. 17, a strange thing happened, something no one had seen, or heard, for at least the last 10 years: all 56 dog kennels were empty and the shelter was silent.

The staff and volunteers who make the Flathead County Animal Shelter run have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic just like everyone else, and in a year when people are searching for silver linings, the shelter is one of the few places where almost all of the impacts of the virus have been positive. Intakes are down, adoptions are up and the downsides are hard to find. Even having fewer pets available for adoption has been a good thing, with picky potential owners now forced to choose from a limited and in-demand supply of dogs and cats.

“Most of the dogs that come in here are 40 to 80 pounds, and most people are looking for a 10- to 20-pounder,” Cliff Bennett, the shelter’s director, said. “But when there’s not 100 dogs in here, then people have a little more urgency on adoption.”

A decade ago, when Bennett was first named to the shelter’s top job, 100 dogs was not an exaggeration. The 56 kennels frequently housed two dogs each, and the process of matching pooches with appropriate kennel-mates was an endless challenge. And there could be a day when every kennel fills again.

By Monday, Dec. 21, five dogs were at the facility, and the unprecedented low numbers have only been so in the last month, Bennett said. He surmised fewer animals were arriving at the shelter because owners were more frequently around the house — allowing fewer opportunities for escape and more opportunities for pet engagement — and more readily available to pick up an animal that was corralled by animal control. That will change, probably, when the world returns closer to normal, and if it means more dogs and cats in the shelter, Bennett and his team are hoping to have at least one more indoor space at their disposal.

The shelter came under the umbrella of the Flathead City-County Health Department in 2007, and Bennett said he and county health officer Joe Russell expect to meet after the first of the year to discuss the latest facility improvement to the former county parks and recreation building in south Kalispell. Bennett has plans for a 40-by-24-foot temperature-controlled indoor space to host animal meet-and-greets, allow volunteers to train with untamed dogs, host educational events and serve as emergency overflow space, all far away from the raucous main building.

The project, Bennett said, was made possible by hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of donations from a generous public that has for years allowed the shelter to thrive despite a modest budget provided by the county government. An estate donation totaling several hundred thousand dollars was made to the shelter in 2019, and years of support have allowed the team to do work “above and beyond” operational and staffing costs, much of it with the support of the now inactive nonprofit Flathead Shelter Friends that raised at least $250,000 for the shelter in the last several years.

Since Bennett’s arrival in 2010, the shelter has added “patios” for dogs that can be accessed from their kennels, a full and state-of-the-art veterinary clinic, a wing for cats with spacious new kennels and other upgrades that have earned the facility high praise, all funded primarily by donations.

“The changes that (Bennett) and his staff have made are nothing short of extraordinary,” Dr. Cynthia Karsten, an outreach veterinarian from the University of California at Davis, wrote to county leaders recently after visiting the facility. “To have a director who is so willing to constantly seek improvement; government leadership that is supportive and trusting (and not obstructive); a community that understands the role of the animal shelter (and with such generosity); and a staff that is committed not only to animal care but the well-being of their colleagues is sadly a rarity in this industry. However, Flathead Co(unty) has it all.”

The shelter’s current reputation is all the more impressive considering its history. When it was located at the Flathead County Landfill in the early 1980s, Bennett called the operation “gruesome,” and in 1983 the shelter euthanized 73% of its population, a total of almost 4,000 animals.

The foundation of the shelter’s turnaround came under Bennett’s predecessor, Kirsten Holland, and the kill rate has been steadily declining for two decades, with just 2.5% of dogs and 3.7% of cats put down in 2019, primarily for health or behavioral reasons, and those rates are even lower in 2020. Animals that arrive are held for three days, then spayed or neutered (if needed), given a full round of vaccinations, micro chipped, registered to the county and put up for adoption.

The medical treatment, in conjunction with the work of the nonprofit Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force, and licensing are part of a well-designed and highly successful system that works in tandem to keep animals out of the shelter. Spaying and neutering keep the populations down, and micro chipping and licensing — which is required by the county and conducted by the shelter — reconnects lost pets to their owners more quickly. Through November 2020, the average stay of a dog at the shelter has been less than six days this year, and a cat’s average stay is under two weeks.

While no dogs are available for adoption as of Dec. 21, there are several cats ready to find their forever home. Visits to the shelter are currently by appointment only because of COVID-19. To schedule an appointment or make a donation, call (406) 752-1310. More information is available at flathead.mt.gov/animal.

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