- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - When Shadow arrived at the Cumberland County Animal Control shelter, workers weren’t even sure what type of dog it was.

Shelter Manager Jennifer Hutchinson-Tracy said Shadow had so much matted hair that he went from 35 pounds to 26 when the workers shaved him. They could tell then that he was terribly underweight and could hardly walk because his nails were overgrown.

Hutchinson-Tracy said that’s when she took Shadow outside, and the joy he took in being able to move freely brought tears to her eyes.

“He was still nervous but after some gentle coaxing, he let me pet him,” she said. “I started lightly scratching his irritated skin, and he just about melted with pleasure.”

Shadow soon became “a complete love bug” with the shelter staff. A rescue group took him in and is prepared to keep him for the rest of his life if needed, Hutchinson-Tracy said.

“While this was an extreme case, this is not a rare occurrence,” she said.

In each situation, the shelter workers do whatever they can to ensure that every animal coming in has an opportunity to be adopted, said Dr. John Lauby, director of Cumberland County Animal Control.

Lauby said about 45 to 50 animals were being adopted from the shelter a month when he became director in 2010. Now, 200 to 250 animals are adopted each month, he said.

The higher adoptions are part of an overall turnaround in the Animal Control department over the past five years. Lauby credits the staff for making needed changes.

When Lauby became director, the shelter’s reputation was suffering. The department had halted adoptions for a month in early 2010 because of an outbreak of distemper, a highly contagious and often fatal disease.

That year, county officials said, the shelter euthanized 80 percent of the animals that were taken in. Now, Lauby said, about half of the 12,000 animals that come through the shelter each year are adopted, sent to rescue groups or placed with foster families.

Lauby said not all of the animals can be adopted, because some are sick or have behavior problems that can’t be corrected. The shelter’s goal, he said, is to make the others adoptable.

The department has a partnership with Pet Smart, where cats are taken on Saturdays so people who might want to adopt them can see them.

Lauby said that when he became director, new Animal Control officers were trained by riding with another officer for a week to 10 days. Now, all officers go through four months of training and have to pass a checklist of qualifications, he said.

Every member of the Animal Control staff also has to undergo certification processes in their fields, Lauby said. A standard operating procedure manual that is updated frequently governs the department.

But the workers’ love for animals is the factor that makes the difference, Lauby said.

Shelter workers see a lot of heartbreak but know they’re having a positive impact, Hutchinson-Tracy said.

“You may not be able to save them all, but the ones you can save is what keeps you coming back,” she said.

Kristin Otero has been the rescue foster volunteer coordinator for a few weeks and has worked at the shelter for about five years. She said workers consider it a calling and have a genuine concern for the animals.

Hutchinson-Tracy demonstrated that concern when she found a company to donate a wheelchair for a border collie named Scooter that couldn’t use his back legs, Otero said.

“She went out of her way,” Otero said.

Scooter, who is featured in a framed photograph on the shelter wall, was adopted by a woman who takes him to hospitals and nursing homes as therapy to patients, Otero said.

She said she wishes the shelter could stay open longer so families that want to adopt an animal would have a better chance to come by and look at their options.

“Every little bit helps when it comes to saving animals,” Otero said.

Hutchinson-Tracy started working at the shelter a few weeks before Lauby became director. At that time, she said, a lot of decisions about the animals were being made when they first arrived. Some breeds were automatically put to sleep, and sick animals were almost immediately euthanized, she said.

Now, workers try to help even “iffy” animals, Hutchinson-Tracy said.

She said a volunteer program is building ambassadors for the animals. The shelter will improve even more as the community learns about its efforts, she said.

“People love to help,” she said. “You just have to let them know.”

The shelter also has software that puts pictures of adoptable animals online, Hutchinson-Tracy said.

“There’s more exposure for the animals,” she said. “People who are looking are looking because they want to adopt.”

Hutchinson-Tracy said the shelter can still improve but has come a long way.

“Sometimes I have to remind myself where we were when I started,” she said.

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Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, http://www.fayobserver.com

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