Attorney Red Wilkins’ turning point came on a freezing December night a little more than a decade ago. He raised and trained bird dogs for 40 years, but didn’t think much about strays or mutts until he was walking his dog in his Bay Minette neighborhood one evening and noticed one across the street, shivering in the cold.
“It wouldn’t come to me. I saw a collar had grown into its neck and I knew somebody had just dropped it off in town,” Wilkins said last week. “I went back to my warm house and it started bothering me, so I got in my truck and rode all around Bay Minette and I couldn’t find that little dog.”
The next day he went to two veterinary clinics in town; one told him the dog had been turned in and euthanized.
His law firm, Wilkins, Bankester, Biles & Wynne represented the city of Fairhope. Within weeks, he learned all he could about The Haven animal shelter in Fairhope and the county shelter, which, at the time, was operated by the state health department. Then he decided to open his own shelter.
Using relationships he maintained throughout his law career, Wilkins and others raised nearly $1 million in cash and in-kind donations to build the North Baldwin Animal Shelter, a no-kill facility that houses more than 140 dogs today.
“We’re the largest shelter in the county and nonprofit, and it takes about $225,000 per year to operate,” he said. “We take in animals from all over Baldwin County and it’s been a heartwarming experience. People who have adopted contribute to us all the time. We have dozens of sponsorships, and people we’ve never met come in to volunteer or send in donations. There are so many people in this county that love their animals, and they are our supporters.”
During a tour last week, the facility was crawling with adoptable pets. Visitors were greeted by small dogs roaming the lobby and most kennels around the back housed two dogs each. There were also at least two dozen cats lounging on tree stands in one of the three rooms dedicated for felines.
“You’ll notice there [are animals] everywhere — the bathrooms, the break room,” said Wilkins’ wife, Judy Wilkins, executive director of the shelter. “We use all of the space we have to house and care for these animals. We try to take in as many as we can, but we don’t have an unlimited capacity because we don’t euthanize for space. Sometimes we have to turn some away and that is very difficult to do.”
Judy Wilkins said dogs that are “obviously aggressive” are not admitted, as a precaution for the safety of staff and other animals. Otherwise, “they can stay here as long as they need to, and sometimes they are here for their whole life.”
Indeed, in the furthest corner of the shelter are two female black Labs, Holly and Molly, who have lived there for the past eight years. They arrived at the shelter as younger and more active dogs, but now their snouts are dusted with gray hairs.
“These two are great,” Judy Wilkins said. “They are very friendly and relaxed, but a lot of people want to adopt smaller and younger dogs and, for one reason or another, they’ve been passed up.”
Next to the Labs were a pair of large hounds who have also spent several years at the shelter. They jumped on the gates as people walked by, eager for attention. Only a few of the dogs appeared timid or reserved.
“We’ve adopted out 2,600 animals to good homes,” Red Wilkins said. “If we had twice as much space we could fill it, but we want to find homes for these animals, not keep them. Whatever anyone can do to help — whether it’s our shelter or another one — we support any effort to take better care of stray animals.”
In Fairhope, the city partners with nonprofit organization The Haven to shelter and adopt strays. Stephanie Calhoun, president of The Haven’s board of directors, said the organization has had a contract with the city for 20 years.
“We are a no-kill shelter, which means that any animals in our care are not euthanized but placed into good homes,” she said. “We get them adopted.”
The city owns the shelter facility and provides some funding and in-kind donations, but the board is working on plans to build its own facility.
“At any given point in time we can take up to 80 dogs and some cats, and we accept some from other municipal shelters to be rehabbed and rehomed,” she said. “Over the past five years our capacity has not changed, but we’re having to find creative ways to deal with increased numbers of animals that come in, and having the different shelters work with each other and be creative with funding and raising money to maintain the level of care we give animals.”
The Haven’s biggest fundraiser is the Mystic Mutts of Revelry Mardi Gras parade, which is scheduled for Feb. 15 in Fairhope. Registration is currently open on The Haven’s website. It also operates a resale shop and hosts smaller fundraising campaigns throughout the year, but “we depend on the goodness of the people of Baldwin County and all over the country who donate,” Calhoun said.
The Haven’s funding varies from year to year, according to reports filed with the IRS, from a high of $432,750 in 2014 to just $162,880 in 2017. In 2017, it also listed $373,671 in expenses.
Yet on paper, The Haven lists more than $2.7 million in assets, including more than $2.4 million in publicly traded securities.
Calhoun explained the investment account was established by a gift from the estate of Doris Chanelle, a Fairhope philanthropist who died in 2008 and directed the money be used only for a brick-and-mortar shelter facility, not operations.
“It was an incredibly generous gift,” she said. “We have that invested and it’s growing for the building. It is still in the planning stages but we don’t want to build it until we know we can operate it too … Baldwin County has grown exponentially, as has the need for more shelter space and services.”
In neighboring Daphne, the city animal shelter was the topic of discussion at a Public Safety Committee meeting in November. There, the animal shelter is funded in the police department’s budget and managed by animal control staff. The city is considering building a new facility, but it likely won’t be funded until 2021.
At the meeting, resident Rebecca Gardner complained about a lack of space, cleanliness and transparency at the shelter, where she suspected animals were being euthanized unscrupulously, but Lt. Reggie Ardis told Councilman Ron Scott his department maintains monthly and annual reports about animal intakes, adoptions, transfers and euthanizations — but he had never been asked to provide them.
Lagniappe filed a request for Daphne’s records late last week, but as of press time, they had not been provided. This story will be updated online upon receipt.
Meanwhile, animal control officers Linda Mathews and Rhonda Jones were both given the opportunity to speak on behalf of the animal shelter and Mathews reported in their 24 years at the shelter, “we have been keeping stats from the day we started. Every animal that comes into that shelter is logged in, given a number [and] they are then looked at to see if something is wrong with them. Now, we did not have the funds until just recently to take them to the vet if it was needed to get them checked over, which we have been doing now that those funds have been given to us … The shelter did not have adoption prior to us. Those dogs were not given a chance, and it was us that decided to give these dogs a chance in starting an adoption process with our shelter. We have an 85 percent adoption rate out of that shelter.”
Jones chimed in, stating the city shelter has just nine functional kennels for dogs and both she and Mathews have come in during nights and weekends to clean the shelter and care for animals.
“We have limited funds along with limited space,” she said. “We do the best that we can do. We cannot save everything … We give these animals the very best care that we can possibly give them. Never in an angry situation would I ever put a dog down because it is irritating me because it is barking or for some other reason. To this day, 24 years later, there are dogs that I still cry over and get upset [about] …. We have to do the dirty work that nobody else wants to or can do. It is not fair to point at us and say you put down a dog or a cat because you just don’t want to deal with it.”
Scott blamed the city government, including himself, for not taking more initiative on the shelter in the past, but encouraged Gardner and others to submit ideas and recommendations for Daphne’s shelter operations going forward.
Councilman Robin Lejeune also pledged to take a more active role, stating, “This is one of the core things the Council has been tackling because of the need and desire to have a better facility … currently our facility and what we run is closer to a pound and animal control facility than that of a nonprofit, no-kill animal shelter. We are diving in to how we can transform what we are doing into more of a shelter …. We are trying now to say if we are making this transition into a new facility, how can we actually change, address and correct some of the things you are talking about. We all want the same thing and we all want to move forward and we want to work on this together.”
Baldwin County Animal Shelter
Baldwin County currently has a patchwork of animal shelters, but most are managed by municipalities and primarily funded by taxpayers. Last month, animal advocates from Foley, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach announced they were banding together to create Safe Harbor Animal Coalition (SHAC), with the goal of building a facility in South Baldwin County “where local veterinarians and other volunteers can provide care and shelter for abandoned animals.”
“Safe Harbor will accomplish its initiatives through public and private sponsorships, national partnerships and individual donors,” according to a news release from organizer Stephanie Christie, who later told Lagniappe: “We’ve been talking to folks and talking about land options, and investigating how we can make this happen as far as funding, operation costs and building costs.”
In 2017, the Baldwin County Commission took over the Alabama Department of Public Health’s shelter in Summerdale. It operates at a deficit — with revenues of only $16,356 last year and expenditures of $1.4 million provided by a 0.5 mill health tax — but officials and staff members say the county is better equipped than the state to respond to, prevent and mitigate animal control issues. In its 2020 budget, the commission allocated $800,000 for the construction of a new intake facility, which is currently in the design phase.
“Dogs are in the intake for seven days and on the eighth day they are available for adoption,” Director Kim Peacock explained. “Right now, when they are coming in, they are coming into these small pens, essentially brick-walled cells.”
Temporarily housed in spaces of only about 3-by-6 feet, new arrivals to the county shelter are weighed and vaccinated for distemper, parvovirus and bordetella, and then dewormed. All dogs are spayed or neutered before they leave.
“When a dog is in these pens for seven to eight days, they become a little stir-crazy. It can cause a lot of stress,” Peacock said, adding the new facility will have larger intake kennels, a covered area where visitors can bring their own dogs for interactions with potential adoptees, a quarantine area and improved facilities for medical exams, treatments, along with administrative and maintenance purposes.
Last week, the county shelter housed 75 animals, which was down from 115 in August. There are 60 adoption kennels, and the county tries not to put more than one dog in a kennel to prevent stress and behavioral issues. The county employs three animal control officers, each of whom patrol unincorporated areas as well as municipalities with fewer than 5,000 residents.
“We are considered a low-kill shelter,” Peacock said. “The only ones we put to sleep are dogs that don’t pass our many assessments; that’s typically being aggressive or if there is a dog that has a major medical issue.”
According to year-end data provided by the county, the Summerdale shelter received a total of 1,245 animals in 2019. Six hundred and seventeen of those were adopted, 308 were passed to partner rescue organizations, 159 were returned to their owners, 152 were euthanized, eight died and one was lost.
Christie Davis, who served as the shelter’s interim director before Peacock’s appointment late last year, said, “We have an 89 percent live-release rate …. We do not euthanize for space, and that is the biggest thing.
“When this was the state’s facility, one room over there was a gas chamber,” she said. “The state was required to hold animals for seven days, and afterward they put everything down. The biggest change I’ve seen in shelters recently in general is rescue programs. Since June of 2018, we’ve had almost 500 dogs go to rescue.”
The county provided a list of 26 rescue organizations it partners with to rehome animals, including local veterinarians, the Baldwin Humane Society, Third Coast Animal Rescue and The Haven.
“We would have to euthanize for space if it wasn’t for these organizations,” Davis said.
Several rescue organization transport dogs to some Northern states, where strict laws have been enacted to regulate pet ownership and have resulted in a shortage of adoptable stray pets. The county also has an air-conditioned adoption trailer, which it can set up at events as requested and showcase animals at sites outside Summerdale. It also works with retail outlets like PetSmart, Petco and Pet Supermarket to host adoption events.
County Administrator Wayne Dyess said the county’s model is working well.
“The county is growing, as we all know, and just like the infrastructure for roads and schools, we have to keep up with the animal population,” he said. “I think the commission recognizes the need and I’m proud they stepped up to the plate and the commissioners see value in a new intake facility and they are kept updated on the numbers and the progress.”
In 2017 the commission also formed the 11-member Animal Control Advisory Board, which meets monthly and makes recommendations to the commission. Currently they are considering microchipping all adopted animals, but they also get regular reports on the county’s trap-neuter-release (TNR) program, which Davis said has had a significant impact in the feral cat population.
Further, the county accepts donations of pet food and supplies, which it can pass along to owners in financial distress.
“From my perspective as [county] administrator, I’m very proud of the direction the shelter is going and I’m very excited for [Director] Kim [Peacock] and what the future holds here,” Dyess said. “I see a lot of people dedicated to what they’re doing and that trickles down to the staff and the volunteers and ultimately to the animals.”
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