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Barking up the right tree
Animal welfare organizations are trying to end misunderstandings and increase adoptions
Artist's rendering of the new state-of-the-art Animal Control facility.

Some big changes are underway along Sallie Mood Drive. Both the Humane Society and the Metro Police Department’s Animal Control unit are taking action to help improve animal welfare as well as upgrading their services and facilities.

Although the two organizations are neighbors, and the area’s only two animal shelters, they actually have nothing to do with each other. But their proximity causes some confusion.

“We’re what’s called an open admission shelter,” explains Lynn Gensamer, Executive Director of the Humane Society for Greater Savannah. “We’ll accept any companion animal that’s owned. If you find a stray, then we’ll direct you around the corner to Animal Control.”

What’s in a name?

Up until last month, the Humane Society for Greater Savannah (HSGS) had been known as the Humane Society of Savannah/Chatham, the name it had gone by for nearly 50 years. The HSGS is a nonprofit organization that takes pets relinquished by their owners and tries to find new homes for them.

However, it’s not government funded.

In 1961, the volunteers who helped found the Humane Society of Savannah/Chatham moved from their original location off Ogeechee Road to Sallie Mood, and the land that their building still occupies is actually land that is owned by the county.

“That began the confusion, because we are on county land and Animal Control is right next door,” says Gensamer. “That confusion makes people assume that we receive funding from the county, and we don’t. We’re a 501c3 raising its own funds to serve the community.”

Currently, the shelter deals with more than 3,500 animals per year, which far outpaces the demand for adoptions.

“The biggest issue is adopters,” Gensamer says. “We want people to adopt an animal instead of going to the flea market or a backyard breeder because those kinds of situations promote the breeding of animals, when there are plenty of animals available without doing that.”

A new beginning

Behind the Humane Society sits Animal Control. While the Humane Society takes animals once owned, Animal Control deals with the rest.

They’re called for strays or for violations of animal-related ordinances. If your dog is missing, you should call Animal Control, not the Humane Society.

Their building has seen better days. The offices are housed in a trailer partly surrounded by chainlink fence. In comparison to the HSGS building with its colorful mural of happy people and their animal companions, there’s nothing particularly welcoming about Animal Control.

“The old facility was built in the ‘70s,” says Lt. Brenda Boulware, the Unit Commander for Animal Control. “It accommodated Chatham at the time, but we’ve outgrown it.”

Last year, the Animal Control Unit impounded 2,352 dogs, 2792 cats and 374 other wildlife (including a lot of raccoons).
The area surrounding the old facilities is a broad stretch of dirt marked with tire tracks from trucks and heavy equipment, but that isn’t a bad thing. A new, state-of-the art facility is under construction and is expected to be completed toward the end of May this year.

“It’ll be a healthier environment for everybody,” says Boulware. “It’ll improve working conditions for staff as well as a more humane and comfortable setting for the animals.”

The new facility will include administrative offices and an expanded kennel with a medical facility and exam room, temperature controlled floors, an automatic watering system, improved storage, better ventilation, concrete dividers between kennels (which help prevent the spread of disease and protect animals from each other), and an isolation area for bite cases.

For Boulware, who’s led the unit for a decade, the new building represents an opportunity to completely overhaul Animal Control and its reputation, including playing a more public role in rescuing animals.

“The perception needs to be changed,” she says. “People think we like to catch and kill dogs. That’s not true.”

Because of the old facility’s limited space, Animal Control was also limited in what it could do to help animals. The new facility will triple the available number of kennels, allowing them to hold dogs longer while they try to find them homes.
“We do what we can to save their lives,” Boulware says, while trying to convince this writer that he needed to go meet a big friendly dog, and then give him a home.

Once the new facility has opened, Boulware would also like to see the unit take a greater role in helping get dogs adopted. At the moment, Animal Control relies almost exclusively on rescue agencies like Coastal Pet Rescue, Save–A–Life, Pound Pups and HSGS.

She’d also like to see them doing more to treat the animals, as well as offer spay and neutering. That will take more help, something Animal Control hasn’t had much of in recent years.

Helping hand

Melissa Burkholder has been involved with the welfare of homeless animals for years, and she has several dogs of her own. A few years ago, her house burned down, and her dogs got loose.

Although she recovered two, she found the other pair down at Animal Control. That was when she first became aware of a problem.

“Seeing the lack of staff they have, I got a different feel, realizing that was really what the problem was,” Burkholder says.

She had a friend who had started to volunteer at Animal Control, helping to walk and care for dogs, so she began to organize a group of volunteers to assist Animal Control staff with a variety of day-to-day tasks to help improve the quality of life for the animals.

“All of a sudden a bunch of people got together that were all interested in trying to get the community involved,” says Burkholder. “We’re gonna have a building, let’s see if we can get a system in place that’ll match the building.”

At a lunch meeting two weeks ago, the corps of volunteers began solidifying its role in the revitalization of Animal Control, including assigning duties to four committees that will help recruit foster homes, organize special events, assist with dogwalking and care and help with public education.

The volunteers’ first project has been to help acquire pet beds for the animals, and in just a few weeks, they’ve managed to get 25 beds donated. This was just a warm-up for their first event designed to help raise public awareness about the plight of homeless animals.

By coincidence one afternoon, Burkholder met Cindy Tower. Both women are beagle devotees, and they became friends. Tower is a visiting artist teaching students about the importance of how art can impact community, and the shelter seemed like a worthy cause.

On Saturday, Feb. 20, Tower’s students will exhibit paintings they’ve been working on featuring the animals in their cages. During this “Day of the Dog,” interested pet owners will be able to commission the painters for pet portraits in exchange for donations to help the volunteers’ cause. There will also be information about ways to get involved with the shelter.

“We’ll have paintings. We’ll have opportunities for people to adopt dogs. We’ll be getting the community involved in volunteering,” says Burkholder. “I’m sure it’s going to be a visual feast.”

Day of the Dog

When: At 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20

Where: Oglethorpe Square

Info: Call Melissa Burkholder, (912) 844–4524