One Paw Out the Door

Retirement awaits Flathead County Animal Shelter Director Cliff Bennett, who first took over the shelter in February 2010

By Mike Kordenbrock
Cliff Bennett, director of the Flathead County Animal Shelter visits with dogs in the shelter on Jan. 25, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After a 13-year run, Flathead County Animal Shelter Director Cliff Bennett is ready to put his paws up for a rest.

Having reached a point in his life he describes as “on the wrong side of 70,” Bennett announced in November that he intended to retire from the shelter after his replacement is found. A few months later, Bennett is still waiting to go to his forever home. To his credit, however, Bennett isn’t overtly perturbed about the situation, even if he is thinking about a retired life of travel plans and visits to see his kids. Of course, patience and accepting that life doesn’t always match up with one’s immediate plans is part of how the shelter’s human inhabitants keep up with a job in which established routines can be disrupted at any moment.

There’s little that can be done to predict how many animals might arrive on any given day. Routine tasks can offer some sense of consistency. Jobs like cleaning enclosures, vaccinating animals, feeding and caring for animals, washing dishes, laundering bedding, and changing out litter boxes don’t disappear on a day-to-day basis. There’s also a regular need for staff to deal with people in situations that can be tense, or upsetting, or uplifting.

A dog peers through his kennel at the Flathead County Animal Shelter in Kalispell on Jan. 25, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

But there’s little that can be done to predict when stray or seized animals might start showing up in quick succession. In more extreme circumstances, law enforcement investigations into hoarding and animal abuse can yield dozens of animals, sometimes with many in a poor state of health. Each year, the shelter fields around 17,000 phone calls.

One of the things Bennett takes the most pride in is that the shelter under his management, stretching back to his start in 2010, has largely maintained single-digit euthanization rates for the cats and dogs that come into its care. The only exception is the 12.8% cat-euthanization rate in Bennett’s first year. These days, the shelter euthanizes animals if there are quality of life concerns, or safety concerns, but not because of space concerns. Bennett sees himself and the shelter during his tenure in the context of the broader history of the county animal shelter, which came under the management of the Flathead City-County Health Department in 2008. Efforts to prevent the spread of certain communicable diseases like rabies made taking over the shelter something of interest to the health department, according to former health officer Joe Russell.

A framed, wall-mounted poster near the front entrance to the shelter lays out that story in a chart showing statistics for intakes, live outcomes, euthanizations, and euthanization percentages from 1983 through 2022. The early 80s saw the shelter euthanizing 64.5% of its dogs and 83% of its cats. The year before Bennett took over in 2010, the shelter had an 8.7% euthanization rate for dogs and a 16.3% euthanization rate for cats. Statistics from 2022 show that the shelter euthanized just 2% of its dogs and 3.8% of cats. Those percentages are drawn from intakes of 907 dogs and 444 cats.

Tuna the kitten peers through her crate at the Flathead County Animal Shelter in Kalispell on Jan. 25, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“One of the things I’m proudest of is by following these industry guidelines we have a really short length of stay, and a really high live release rate. Usually those things are mutually exclusive,” Bennett said.

One thing that’s changed since the onset of the pandemic, in terms of animal placement, is the shelter has put more emphasis on encouraging people to look at available animals on the shelter website before coming down to check them out. In the case of dogs, it limits the amount of stress on the animals, some of whom can get worked up any time a stranger passes by. Of course, people can still come down and look at the animals, which can amount to a revolving exhibit of the human heart. Sometimes a person and an animal just click, and bonds that could last for years begin to form. In other cases, Bennett said people who are grieving the loss of a pet may come through and find that they simply aren’t ready yet. There are also the times where an owner is surrendering an animal not because they dislike it, but because life circumstances have made keeping their pet untenable. In particular, Bennett said the shelter has seen an increase in recent years in surrenders caused by people who have been unable to find housing that will accept a pet.

Myni Ferguson, a member of the nonprofit Flathead Shelter Friends, has been volunteering at the county shelter since the 1970s. She doesn’t remember those early days with much fondness, recalling that, without a dedicated spay and neuter program in place, animals that survived the shelter would go on to produce more animals that would one day wind up back in its custody. Ferguson said she knows many people avoid volunteering at shelters because they think it’s a sad place for the animals to be. She acknowledged that it can be upsetting for some animals, usually older ones, but it’s generally for the best.

“They could be out there running around in the woods getting shot, or being hit by a car. At least they’re safe, they’re fed, they’re warm, they’re taken care of,” she said.

An unabashed animal lover, Ferguson was on the panel that first interviewed Bennett. She remembered him coming across as friendly, competent and having business savvy, as well as displaying a genuine affection for the animals.

Flathead County Animal Shelter Director Cliff Bennett in Kalispell on Jan. 25, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“And he was willing to learn hard and fast,” she said. “People don’t understand how complicated animal sheltering is. It’s not so much the animals. It’s the people that complicate things very often.”

Bennett, a former fifth-generation farmer whose second career saw him working in business before taking the shelter director job, admitted that he came into the job with limited knowledge about the world of animal shelters. To compensate, he said he committed to educating himself by listening to experts, studying industry standards, and familiarizing himself with literature from industry leaders. He credited Russell, the former health officer, and the county in general, with supporting him in his efforts to learn from experts in the field in order to improve the standards of the shelter.

Since taking over, Bennett was in the first class of shelter management fellows for a program started by the University of Wisconsin Veterinary School. The shelter was also among the first to test PetPoint, a widely used data tracking software program in the shelter world. They’ve also been active participants in the Million Cat Challenge, an effort that began in 2014 to save the lives of one million cats in North America over five years. The challenge is run by the University of California-Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, and the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida.

“Cliff kind of brought the shelter into this century,” Health Officer Jennifer Rankosky said. “He’s attended conferences, he’s met with people all over the country, to really try to make the shelter the best for the health and wellness of the animals.”

Flathead County Animal Shelter’s veterinary clinic area in Kalispell on Jan. 25, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Current and former officials with the health department, as well as Bennett himself, will say that to his credit, he’s run the agency like a business. At a recent Board of Health meeting during which he discussed the shelter’s budget being in the black, Bennett joked that he’d dressed in black that day for a symbolic reason.

Under his tenure, the shelter has improved operations on numerous fronts. In one example, Bennett pointed to the “portaling” that’s been accomplished to expand the size of cat enclosures. A contractor was hired to cut holes between the metal walls of enclosures and install a short length of piping, broad enough for a cat to climb through. The change effectively doubled the space of cat enclosures. It’s a move that was done to keep up with industry standards, which are intended to reduce the risk of disease spread between animals and improve their health. On top of that, the shelter has also expanded its cat wing. Improvements to HVAC systems also went a long way in cutting down on disease spread. Flathead Shelter Friends also helped round up funding for a patio that shelter dogs can use.

Perhaps the crown jewel for Bennett, though, is the clinic’s veterinary medicine wing, which was made possible by an anonymous $100,000 donation. Up to that point, the shelter used a trailer in the parking lot outfitted with veterinary equipment. The suite, which opened in 2017, has allowed the shelter to improve the quality of care it offers for animals during the regular visits veterinarians pay to the facility. Bennett says it’s almost unheard of for shelters the size of Flathead County’s to have this kind of facility. Ferguson said her own veterinarian admitted being jealous of the shelter’s suite and its high-quality equipment. Donors, as Bennett noted, have been critical to helping the shelter continue to improve its operations over the years.

Flathead County Animal Shelter’s veterinary clinic area in Kalispell on Jan. 25, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On a recent Wednesday, Bennett reported that the shelter was caring for 37 dogs and 18 cats. That’s excluding Gigantor, a large, aging gray cat with poor eyesight and a Trick-or-Treat t-shirt who has become the office cat. As he rubbed his shoulder on Bennett’s legs, the shelter director explained that Gigantor’s so friendly that he’s become something of a mascot for the shelter.

 Stepping into the dog enclosure during a walk through the premises, Bennett noticed that Cuddles was having some trouble in her kennel space. A medium-sized, 1-year-old stray mix with light brown-yellow eyes and a slightly shy demeanor, Cuddles had managed to get her doggie door flap that leads to an outside dog recreation area stuck at an awkward angle, and her bedding was overturned. Though her tail was wagging, Cuddles appeared just a little nervous as Bennett popped in to help her sort things out. As he tidied up, Bennett began to talk her through her problems, telling her gently that she must have gone barreling through her door flap. Does the shelter director always talk to the animals?

“I’ve been known to sing to them,” Bennett said. “Something soft and slow, like a Nat King Cole song. I have a little stool in there that (for) the barkiest, most nervous scared dogs, I’ll come in and sit down and try not to look them straight in the eye and sing them Mona Lisa or something like that.”

As for when Bennett may sing his final song at the shelter, Rankosky, the county health officer, recently told the Beacon that the search for his replacement is ongoing.

“We’re hopeful to find somebody that has the same passion as Cliff,” Rankosky said. “I appreciate everything about what he’s done over the years.”