Between 1,800 and 2,000 animals are adopted each year from the La Plata County Humane Society (LPCHS). If you’ve never hit up the joint, it’s tucked away on the other side of the street from Payless Shoes, by Walmart. When you stop by, be prepared to fall in love with at least two cats, one dog, and a rat – or at least that’s what happened to DGO when we went in to chat with Chris Nelson, director of animal services. Nelson has been at the LPCHS for 16 years and director for 11.
Here’s an inside view of hardships and heartwarming moments at the La Plata County Humane Society viewed through director Nelson’s time there:
Why do you do this job?It is extremely rewarding. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when dealing with the public or people’s emotions can be awful, but the good that you see – like right now we have eight dogs on a cruelty case – when you see those animals near death from lack of care and then they come here, get love and food, they gain 30 pounds in six weeks, thrive, and are about to get adopted. That is why I do this job.
What’s a mega uplifting part of your job?When you see a little kid say, “I don’t want birthday presents, I want people to give me money to give to the animals.” That’s pretty cool.
Seeing animals recover from lack of care, and getting justice for those animals is really very gratifying.
What’s a hard situation you’ve seen an animal in?This is the latest that I’ve gotten furious over. [Shows picture of a dog whose mouth is taped shut]. Left in a car, during the summer, with tape over its mouth. Didn’t get the justice I wanted for that.
What’s truly egregious about that situation is that, dogs cool down by panting, and if you take away the ability to pant, you are creating so many problems. The owner did that so the dog wouldn’t eat things and throw up in the car.
When a pet owner needs helpDo people being cruel to animals know that they are being cruel? I think that a lot of people have great intentions and don’t know when to admit that things are slipping out of control.
Then there are the cases where, I think, people take care of their own needs – maybe drugs, alcohol, or what have you – when they should be spending that money on their animals. Then, they shouldn’t have those animals or they should learn to tap out (knocks on desk) and say, “I need help here.”
People do stuff with the best of intentions, but the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. A lot of these folks that spiral out of control, I don’t think they notice that they are feeding an animal less. Maybe they kinda know it is not enough, but they are with the animal every day so they don’t notice the decline as rapidly as someone driving by the house who sees your starving horses.
If someone needs help, what assistance does the LPCHS offer?For one thing, we get donated food all the time. We don’t use most of it for our own animals. We like to keep them on a fairly strict diet. I don’t have room for all the donated food, so I’ll give it away. People can always come and ask for food. I instituted a policy of asking people to do community service to get it. A trade.
Also, if you can’t care for your animals, we’ll take them.
Humane Society donations running lowA lot of attention has been directed at national causes in 2017. Has that focus affected the Humane Society?A direct effect on the humane society is that our direct public contributions are down about $30,000 this year. Why are people not donating? I think people are numb. I think this summer in particular, people have a lot of donation fatigue, compassion fatigue. If you go through the list, it’s pretty much been since the election that people have been, “We’re all going to die. The world sucks,” and everyone’s freaking out. There were hurricanes. Earthquakes. The whole of the northwest was on fire – 6,000 homes burned from that, maybe more. It’s a big deal. The shootings. So much terrible stuff.
What happens when the LPCHS takes a monetary hit like that? It makes us have to work harder at what we’re doing. We sometimes have to cut staff. We have to make decisions like, can we do an orthopedic surgery on a dog that needs it or do we amputate that dog’s leg? If the difference is $100 worth of my vet’s time plus rehabilitation or $1,900 for a knee surgery – we haven’t had to make a tough decision like that yet, but it could be one we face ... Right now, we’re looking at the budget for next year. We have to start planning and not counting on that missing $30,000 to pay for stuff.
The beauty and responsibility of a petWhat are some joyful moments you’ve had on the job?There’s so many. We just adopted a dog named Diamond, a pit bull. Diamond first came to us this time last year and was here for a couple months, then her owner showed up – he had gotten out of jail or something – took her back, but he went back to jail a few weeks later so Diamond came back to us and we put her up for adoption again. Her owner gets out, came back, and I said, “Alright, you get one more chance.” He promised a lot of things and a month or so goes by and she’s back. This time when he came out, I said, “I’m not going to release her to you. I’m going to find her a better home.” I made that choice. That was two months into her six-month stay. She wasn’t thriving. She was losing weight. She loved playing ball. She sat back for months and no one looked at her and finally someone just took her home.
There’s a dog named Champ who wasn’t here for very long, but while he was here, he was super thunder-phobic and since we have a gun range right behind us, that made it tough on him ... A family came in this weekend and adopted him.
We had a Vietnam veteran who was in the homeless shelter for a while and we held his dog. We do courtesy holds for people who go in the homeless shelter. Usually, it’s for a few weeks. This one went on for months, but he was finally able to get housing and get his dog back. That was really cool.
What should people know about the process of adopting an animal?This is not your grandpa’s animal shelter. I mean, just because an animal is here doesn’t mean it is getting euthanized. In fact, at our shelter, it’s likely not to. We do euthanize some – it’s only 2 percent of our total population per year and most of those are medical. There are some that are behavioral, animals that bite multiple people or will kill other dogs or cats. As far as the process goes, don’t think you have to come here and save something, (to) rescue it. The building isn’t on fire.
What you need is to make sure you have the commitment. I’d rather a dog stay here, like Diamond, for six months, and go to the right home than having someone randomly come in and say, “I want a pit bull.”
I was at a local store one day and I was in line and it was a Saturday and this young woman, a college student, was in front of me. She had a pit bull puppy in her hand. It was cute and she was in love and she said to the woman cashing her out, “I had no idea when I woke up this morning that I would own a pit bull.” A few months later, that woman surrendered that dog here. My point is that you should never wake up in the morning not knowing that you’re going to own anything, let alone an animal, and spontaneously buy it off a guy on a street corner. You have committed yourself to food bills and pet sitting and medical bills and training and, “How am I going to find a place to rent?”
Wait till the time is right and think out having a pet.
Do you see patterns in the animals that come to the shelter and stay there?The most common age where we get animals surrendered or that come in as strays is 14 months till two years. Lack of being spayed or neutered can be a problem. Lack of socialization is the big one. Someone got this animal as a puppy and everything was cool and super cute and it wasn’t a big deal when the dog peed on the floor or chewed up socks. You were busy. The family was busy. There was no basic obedience training or puppy classes. Maybe you bought him when he was six weeks old from a private breeder and the animal was taken away from their siblings too young. They don’t learn bite inhibition or how to socialize with other dogs. Then the dog, as it starts to grow, the things it’s destroying are bigger and it needs a lot of exercise and the cycle continues, and by the time he’s 18 months, the family goes to walk him somewhere and he’s pulling them all over the place and busts loose and attacks another dog and they get scared and surrender the dog to us.
Who gets to adopt a pet?Is there anyone you won’t adopt to?Oh yeah. There are people who have a history with us, but what a person tells us on an application matters, too. Lying about owning a house, lying about landlords is common.
There’s one particular person who has surrendered about 20 animals to us. I’ll never adopt an animal to that person. I don’t care what they say. There are people who come in here and want to adopt two or three animals and we’ll say, “No, sorry,” depending on their reasoning. Maybe it’s where you live. You tell me you live in the middle of the northern Arizona desert and you’re going to chain that dog up, I’m not going to give you the dog. I have a dog back there that survived being chained up two years of its life. He’s crazy. He’s bit one person. We are doing everything we can to rehabilitate him and I don’t know if we can save him. To send another dog to that? I’m gonna say no. If you have a bunch of unneutered animals running around, I might say no to you. You are not contributing to the overall good of the animal population.
What’s an adoption story that’s one of your favorites?Daisy. Daisy is an Anatolian shepherd mix and a former co-worker from the thrift store, her mom was looking for a dog. Her mom is in her 70s, on oxygen, fighting cancer, and I did not feel like the dog was a good fit, but she was persistent with me. I went ahead and did the adoption and that dog has changed her mother’s life. It gives her a reason to get up. She has come in and told me that. The dog nursemaids her and has gotten her through so much medical stuff. Walks alongside her. Keeps her active. That’s a really good story.
Do you work with veterans at all?We have a program, Pets for Vets. I work with folks from the Veterans’ Administration. If there’s a guy or gal who needs an animal for companionship and they come through that program, I’ll give them a dog for free.
Are they trained dogs?Most of these dogs haven’t gone on to be true service dogs. That requires a lot of training. Some are just for companionship. The dog can be someone to talk to, someone who is there, a purpose in life for someone struggling with PTSD.
Breeders, gifting animals, and euthanizing petsWhat don’t people know about buying a “new” pet from a breeder?For one thing, I think when people buy from a breeder, a lot of times, they are buying the breed and not doing due diligence. The eight starving dogs? They’re from a breeder. They had 26 dogs at that house, at one point, trying to create a silver lab.
I could be down at the flea market or at the parking lot at Walmart with my tailgate down and a box full of puppies that say AKC labradors. People go, “The shelter never has labradors!” Boom. They buy one. Maybe they don’t know that that person’s AKC status has been taken away or there’s been massive health problems with all their dogs.
You don’t necessarily know the health of a shelter animal either, but if it is a kitten or puppy here, you can count on the fact that it is already fixed, it has had vaccines, it’s been checked out by a veterinarian, it’s got a microchip, it’s relatively healthy, and when you adopt from here, you get 30 days of free health insurance for the animal and post-adoption counseling and reduced-rate training opportunities. You’re not going to get that when you buy from a breeder, and they will be more expensive.
What do you want people to know about adopting animals around the holidays? Don’t get an animal for someone who doesn’t know they are getting it unless it’s your own child and you are willing to be the one responsible for taking care of it. That’s the main thing.
I used to be very anti-holiday pet-giving, but studies have shown that those animals tend to stay in a home and have a lower return rate than animals adopted at any other time of the year.
One thing that bugs me around the holidays is that a lot of people surrender animals right before the holidays. Old dogs and cats, it’s the end of the year, people elect to have them euthanized. They’re in bad health, but it is an end-of-the-year phenomenon. We do more owner-requested euthanizations in December than any other month in the year.
Are there animals you’ll refuse to euthanize?If a person comes in and says, “My dog is throwing up and I can’t afford the vet,” I might make them sign it over for euthanasia as well as owner-surrender, but when we check it out medically, if we find out the animal is OK, I won’t euthanize it.
There was once a rottweiler who was 3 years old and she needed knee surgery and the guy wanted her put down. I said no and he got angry at me and all, “Who the hell are you to tell me when my dog can die,” and, “I don’t want you to fix it and give it to someone else.”
He would rather it die than get well and get adopted?Yup. He accosted me at City Market one night because I refused to do it. It ended up being surrendered to us, though.
Added joy through animal adoptionWhy should folks consider adopting a pet? Pets can change your life. They get you off the couch. They listen to you when nobody else will. If you have a bad day, they’re still happy to see you. If you have a good day, they’re still happy to see you. They lower your blood pressure. They make you laugh. I have four dogs, I laugh at them several times a day. That is bonus laughter you might not get anywhere else.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity.Patty Templeton