Columbia County officials hope recent changes to Animal Services will streamline the department and improve its public image.
Policy and personnel changes went into effect Jan. 1 and are expected to reduce the number of animals brought into the shelter and the number euthanized; smooth relations with area animal-rescue groups; and promote positive awareness about the shelter, said Deputy Administrator Scott Johnson.
January was a good time to institute changes because the department already is in transition preparing for the opening of the new Animal Services facility scheduled to open early next year on Chamblin Road, Johnson said.
"Basically, we were just looking at taking Animal (Services) in a different direction," Johnson said. "We wanted to get them out of the enforcement business and get them more in the customer-service business. Also, we want to make it a little more kinder and friendlier."
One way to do that is taking enforcement out of the hands of Animal Services officers.
"They are not trained for that," Johnson said.
The department was merged with Code Enforcement, where personnel are trained on county ordinance violations and on presenting cases in court.
The department was moved from the Emergency and Operations Division to Johnson's purview. The direct supervisor is now Code Enforcement head Linda Glasscock. Former manager Linda Fulmer was reassigned to the Emergency and Operations Division as an operations officer.
"Linda Fulmer, she's a long time employee," Johnson said. "She's done a good job while she's been here. It wasn't anything she specifically did that got her removed, so to speak, from this position. It was just time to make some changes and we had to see where we could make those changes."
Even though the number of animals entering the shelter and euthanizations grew in 2009, the changes are already making a difference, Glasscock said.
In 2009, 4,231 live animals entered the shelter, about 500 more than in 2008.
Nearly 360 animals entered Animals Services in January and almost as many entered last month. In 2009, an average of 517 animals were brought into the shelter each month.
Fewer animals coming in to the shelter also means fewer are destroyed.
The number of euthanized animals rose from 2,244 in 2008 to 2,712 in 2009 -- a monthly average of 226. That number has since been below that average, Glasscock said, with 132 destroyed in January, and 143 in February.
Glasscock said she attributes the drop partially to a policy change allowing officers to look for an animal's owner before transporting it to the shelter.
"(Previously) all animals would have been brought back to Animal Services," Glasscock said. "They were required to do that."
Now, officers are encouraged to check for micro-chips on the scene and seek out owners and return the pet.
Johnson said he also hopes the changes will help smooth rocky relationships with area animal rescue groups.
Happy Tails Rescue has worked with Animal Services for several years and pulled 361 animals out of the shelter in 2009. But the relationship between the shelter and rescue groups has always been strained, said Barbara Gleitsmann, Happy Tails founder and president.
"Everything in the past was a challenge," Gleitsmann said.
Previously, she didn't feel commonsense efforts to promote the shelter were undertaken and contended Animal Services personnel were not open to suggestions.
But that has changed this year, she said.
"I feel like we have a positive working relationship for the first time," Gleitsmann said. "The change is totally different and positive."
Glasscock said other changes at the shelter include more training for the staff, including specialized training regarding horses and livestock, kennel needs and breed differentiation.
Officials are exploring alternative methods of adoption and promoting responsible pet ownership through Internet resources such as Facebook, Glasscock said she hopes to see more awareness about the shelter and community involvement. Animal Services staff likely will begin giving presentations at schools and promoting responsible pet ownership.
Glasscock said that adding more awareness hopefully will lead to more adoptions.
"We're not just a pound," she said. "We are a group of people that care about animals and want to do what is best for them."
Officials are hoping to have an active volunteer program by the time the new facility is completed early next year.
"As we continue to shrink our staff sizes due to the budget cuts, we definitely want to look at ways to be able to still get the job done," Johnson said. "One of the ways to do that is definitely through volunteers."
BY THE NUMBERS
Impounded animals: 5,703 (1,915 dead)
Euthanized animals: 2,244
Animals returned to owners: 466
Impounded animals: 6,207 (1,976 dead)
Euthanized animals: 2,712
Animals returned to owners: 462
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