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A Glimpse of the Reality in Our Rural Animal Shelters

By Cara Sue Achterberg, November 2018, Updated January 2022
rescue dog

It wasn’t the noise that surprised me or the presence of so much poop. It wasn’t the rows of sad faces, the callused elbows, the defeated and desperate postures of dog after dog. I expected visiting shelters in the rural south to be hard.

What I hadn’t expected were the people. People with giant hearts who have sacrificed their lives for these animals. The Shelter Directors and Rescue Coordinators I met spend their days playing an endless shellgame to keep animals alive. Moving dogs out through rescues, doubling and tripling up kennels, finding room where there is none.

As a foster mom for an all-breed rescue, I’ve sheltered 130 of these dogs now. I’ve seen the scars, both external and internal that mark these dogs. I’d traveled here to see for myself where the endless stream of homeless dogs originated. To me, it seemed a tide that was never ending.

I visited nine shelters in ten days, squeezing them in between stops on the book tour for my new release, Another Good Dog: One Family and Fifty Foster Dogs. I’d rented a cargo van, stuffed it with donations for the shelters and dragged my best friend along to act as my publicist. We left with high spirits for our great adventure.


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Between signings at bookstores in major cities in the southeast, we planned to pop in to deliver donations to the shelters where my dogs have been come from. I was excited to meet the people I only knew through email and Facebook. The ones who had saved my dogs and so many more. I pushed to the back of my mind the fact that these same people had to make some of the hardest decisions—the kind that leave scars of their own. Maybe I didn’t really believe it – not in this great country of ours. We couldn’t possibly be euthanizing good dogs for no good reason.

At our first shelter stop, I watched huge roaches crawl across the floor in the restroom and squished as many as I could, before joining the rescue coordinator for our tour. We poked our heads inside the puppy room, cat room, sick room, quarantine area. Every kennel was full and we paused beside one to note the tiny puppies that had been born the night before. The hallways were lined with crates full of cats and kittens.

“We’re not allowed to have these crates in the hall like this, but there’s nowhere else to put them,” explained the rescue coordinator.

Photo by Neon Tommy

Which meant that the shelter director was knowingly breaking fire code because it was the only way to avoid euthanizing for space. I’d heard that term before, but squeezing past the stack of crates, it became clear. Dogs and cats were dying not because they weren’t adoptable – they weren’t sick or aggressive or elderly—there simply wasn’t enough room for them. This was my first brush with the reality of euthanizing for space, but I encountered it at each one of our stops. From what I could see it’s the leading killer of animals in shelters—lack of space to house them.

Next we toured the adult dog kennels. These dogs were housed outdoors in all weather. There was some protection offered on one side for the kennels that backed against the building, but the freestanding kennels had a simple roof and no sides. The emergency kennels (where animal control can drop off animals at all hours) didn’t even have a roof. Every kennel held between one and three dogs and even the emergency kennels were full.

We ran our hands over the fences, trying to touch the dogs that were desperate for any kind of attention. Some lunged and barked, others sat quietly and watched our progression. Some cowered in corners avoiding our eyes. So many dogs.

While I silently grappled with the fact that it was much worse than I expected, an Animal Control Truck pulled in and unloaded two additional dogs. I wondered what kind of magic the director would perform to find a place for them. She ran the microchip wand over them—no chip. No tags. No collars. Two more. Bringing the intake for the month to 102 dogs. I asked how many had been adopted. Three. That left ninety-nine others.

The rescue coordinator said she hoped to get as many as she could out through rescues. “That’s their only way out of here,” she told me.

After our tour, we sat with the shelter director in the tiny patch of shade alongside the building. There was a small table and a few plastic chairs—effectively, the staff break room. It was the only bit of lawn surrounding the shelter that backed up to a brush-filled woody area. We’d driven past a swamp on our way to the shelter. I looked across the road to the train tracks. I didn’t ask if the dogs ever got outside for walks.

I was embarrassed to only have food and cleaning supplies to give them, when they needed so much more. I asked the young director what else she needed. She shook her head and bit her lip and whispered, “Everything?”

The county shelter budget provided food and minimal medical attention. Nothing more. No flea treatment or preventative. No dewormers, and no heartworm preventative in an area of the south surrounded by mosquito-ridden swampland. No toys. No treats. No bedding. Nothing besides the absolute necessities.

I hadn’t thought to ask for treats when I was collecting donations, but the women explained that treats were critical. Not only did they brighten a dog’s day, but they helped teach them to come to the front of their kennels and to be happy to see people—two things that could help them get adopted or pulled by a rescue.

Our next stop was a private rescue operation two hours away that pulls dogs literally hours before they are euthanized at nearby rural county shelter. The rescue director who has been in rescue for decades, introduced us to an emaciated, elderly dog with sores and growths covering his body. He wagged his tail and rushed the side of the kennel with a happy greeting and I noted that he was intact, which meant he likely had hundreds, if not thousands of progenies scattered across that county. His family had dropped him off at the county shelter and taken home a kitten instead. “They’re allowed to do that?” I asked, incredulous.

The director shook her head and muttered, “People…”

Lisa and I headed for our hotel that night, numbed by what we’d seen. This was not going to be our ‘Thelma and Louise’ trip in which we’d hope to make great memories between stopping to drop off donations and pet a few dogs. This was soul-shaking stuff. We drove in silence alone with our thoughts. Every now and again, one of us would say, “This just isn’t right.” Or “I can’t believe…”

The next day we visited another shelter on our way to a signing in Charlotte, North Carolina. Once again, the shelter was crammed with dogs. I met a big, white and black dog named Oreo who stood quietly at his kennel fence. When I placed my hand on the fence, he lifted a paw to touch it and then moved closer and pressed the side of his face against my hand. I think if I’d been able to stand there all day, he wouldn’t have moved. He was starved for human touch.

Like every shelter, this one had a handful of people bustling around cleaning and feeding. With so many animals, so few employees, and only a handful of volunteers, these animals had very little human contact beyond the person who moved them to clean their kennel. There was no time to love on these animals or take them for a walk. Everyone was simply trying to keep them alive until they found a rescue ride, which would make room for another dog.

I asked about Oreo and the director told me he’d been with them a year and that miraculously he’d been adopted out locally twice, but he’d been returned twice for running away. Both times he’d been kept outside and neither of the families had him neutered. In fact, none of the animals that left the shelter were neutered or spayed. Beyond the fact that it isn’t in their budget, there is no access to a lowcost spay and neuter clinic.

I asked about the veterinary practice right next door. Surely those vets did pro bono work. Nope. The veterinarian there gave them little discount, made them wait sometimes up to three weeks for an appointment and grumbled that the dogs they brought him were ‘Yankee Dogs’ as most times the bills were being paid by a rescue from the north.

We visited six more shelters on our trip, each in a similar situation—filled to capacity, hopeful that rescues would take more dogs because local adoptions were few and far between.

And at every shelter and rescue we encountered on this trip we met remarkable people who have given up personal lives, financial security, and for many, relationships, in order to save dogs. They spend every waking moment simply trying to keep dogs alive. Driving hundreds of hours in personal vehicles to meet rescue transports, taking home bottle-fed kittens, combing the internet, working the phones, begging rescues to take dogs. These remarkable people absorb countless stories of abuse and neglect, and even abject horror, and instead of breaking down or giving up, they pocket their emotions, put their heads down and work harder.

I think sometimes we think that the shelter workers are the bad guys – killing dogs and cats or keeping them in desperate conditions. This could not be further from the truth. These people are heroes and the only hope of so many animals. They are given an enormous, impossible task and then not given the funds, staff, building, or support to do it.

And yet they do. They perform miracles on a daily basis.

When we live in a community where most pets are valued and loved (and spayed or neutered), it’s easy to say the problem is that people don’t spay and neuter their pets and dismiss it at that, but that is a simplistic answer and not even very helpful. The issues are so much deeper.

One of the shelters we visited offered a glimmer of hope. Two years ago, Anderson County PAWS in Anderson, South Carolina was a high-kill, high-intake facility. Now, they are a managed intake shelter that only euthanizes for aggression. Run by a remarkable veterinarian, Kim Sanders, Anderson County PAWS has been able to turnaround their situation despite being in poor, rural area.

PAWS stands for ‘Pets Are Worth Saving’ and that little moniker is the key. Yes, spay and neuter education is important for stemming the tide, but what’s more important is changing the attitudes that are deeply ingrained in rural culture.

You and I may consider our ‘furbabies’ members of our family, but not so in the culture of poor rural communities. They simply can’t fathom spending hundreds of dollars to spay and neuter or give their dog heartworm preventatives because the animals are expendable. The adoption fees at all the rural shelters we visited ranged from free to $25 because in many rural areas people either won’t or can’t spend money on pets. The median household income in the rural south is $46,891. Judging from the communities we drove through, that’s optimistic. Lisa and I laughed at how there seemed to pass a Dollar General just before we reached every shelter, but my guess is that’s the only grocery store many can afford in those parts.

At the shelters, we heard story after story of people dropping off their pets before leaving for vacation or simply leaving them behind when they move. In the hierarchy of dog euthanasia, owner surrenders are the first dogs to be euthanized. There is a legal ‘stray hold’ period required by law for strays to give their family time to find them. Holiday weekends are many times the worst for open-intake shelters where they are forced by the sheer numbers to make tough decisions. There were large red X’s scrawled across kennel cards for some of the dogs at one of the shelters we toured. That shelter takes in 500 dogs in a month and the mark lets animal control officers know which dogs are expendable when new strays arrive.

Even at Anderson where they’ve been able to avoid euthanizing for space, the director told me that she loses sleep worrying that animal control could show up tomorrow with a hoarding case and then what would she do? They are at capacity since Sanders takes dogs from the counties north and south of them to save them from being euthanized. She’s discovered that becoming a ‘no-kill’ shelter has been a Catch-22 in that some of the rescues no longer pull from Anderson because of their new status, but that very fact could force them back to previous practices.

There is much to learn from Anderson. They are a model to be studied. They’ve demanded new spay and neuter laws and that the shelter be changed from an open intake shelter (where anyone can drop off a pet for any reason and they are legally obligated to take it) to a managed intake (residents must make appointments and be counseled before they can surrender their pet). Applying for grants, changes in management practices, and working with rescues to move the bigger dogs have also made the difference. Plus, it certainly helps that they have a veterinarian at the helm who does ‘forty surgeries forty days a week.’

I was encouraged by what I saw at Anderson but figuring out how to transfer their success to some of the smaller, poorer shelters I toured was hard to imagine. I wrote my book because I believe that fostering will save lives and lead to better adoption matches, but on my tour I realized that’s only one piece of the solution. Shelters do need rescues and foster homes, but what they need even more is their communities to invest in them. Change needs to happen locally, politically, economically. My world shifted during those ten days, and even now, months later, the faces of so many dogs still haunt me. I said it again and again on my tour, and I believe it with all my heart – “People need to know. It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they don’t know.”

People need to know what is happening in our rural animal shelters.

We need to tell them.

Photo by Leo Rodman

Cara Sue Achterberg is author of Another Good Dog: One Family and Fifty Foster Dogs (Pegasus Books). She is also a novelist, blogger and rescue-dog foster mom who lives on a hillside farm in Pennsylvania.