Quiet. Patient. Calm.
Those are the qualities an animal control officer must exhibit every day on the job, no matter how difficult the task at hand.
“Hey, pumpkin. Here you go. Come here sweetie,” said Samantha Lehman, crooning to a frightened dog.
A squeaky toy, which quickly caught the attention of a German shepherd, was not so effective on his frightened black Lab companion, who had to be coaxed into cooperation by the Liberty animal control officer. The dogs had escaped from a chained and reinforced kennel and were on a tour around the town.
Lehman had already been out that morning to pick up a raccoon wandering in the daytime on campus at William Jewell College and had to humanely kill a deer that was hit and injured on Missouri 291.
It was just past noon.
These are the type of rescue missions that have come to define the Liberty Animal Shelter, a place that was in recent years known for high kill rates and an outdated facility. Animal control officers still work out of the outdated facility, but they’re working hard to save the lives of the hundreds of animals who come into their care each year.
Their efforts mirror those of animal advocates across the Northland. In fact, rescue groups, which in the past may have been less than supportive of municipal shelters, say working together is turning into a better way to ensure that healthy animals have a chance at finding a decent home.
Lehman takes the animals to the shelter not only because it is her job as an animal control officer in the city of Liberty, but also because she believes it is safer for stray animals to be there than to be running loose.
“It’s so much better than being outside and all the things that could happen to them,” Lehman said. “There are a lot of dangers outside. It’s nice to be able to bring them in here so they are warm and they are comfortable and they have toys and bedding and people who care about them.”
Five years ago, the story for animals that came into the Liberty Animal Shelter was very different. In 2010, the kill rate at the shelter was 47 percent. While some of those animals were sick or badly injured, many healthy animals faced euthanasia.
Lehman and her colleague, animal control officer Meredith Weaver, have both been on the job just a couple of years. They faced a number of challenges from the beginning.
The current facility was built in 1974 when the population of Liberty was about half of what it is today.
The facility has only 12 spots for dogs and 12 spots for cats. Cats have to be carried through the dog area to get to their space — which leads to stressed animals.
They have to store food in a bathtub in order to keep it up off the floor and in compliance with licensing regulations. Lehman and Weaver often face hostility from owners, angry at having to pick up their pet. Their telephone line often goes out, and with it the Internet.
The Internet problem is a reminder that a year ago, they saw the potential for all of these problems to be fixed by a sales tax that would have applied to large Internet purchases. In November 2014, Liberty voters were asked to approve a use tax to fund a new shelter.
That tax would have added a sales tax to transactions where sales tax is not normally collected, most often catalog sales, Internet sales and other kinds of direct marketing sales. The tax did not pass; 58 percent of voters said no.
Lehman and Weaver began to look for ways to work with the resources they had available.
“When I started working here September of 2013, I knew that our euthanasia rates were kind of high here, and I wanted to change that,” Lehman said.
The officers say the challenges they face could be remedied if the shelter gained a partner volunteer organization. Other municipal shelters have such organizations to help foster animals, promote adoptions and raise funds. In Parkville, the Friends of Parkville Animal Shelter partners directly with the Parkville shelter to help foster and provide medical care for animals, raise money to care for animals and find them homes.
Rescue groups had not focused on the Liberty Animal Shelter for several reasons. The hours of the Liberty Animal Shelter are limited because staffing is low. Other shelters also tended to get more attention from rescue groups because they take in more animals, which means a higher number of animals potentially facing euthanasia.
Since rescue groups are generally limited in the number of animals they can take based on the number of foster homes available, they cannot take every animal. When animals get adopted, there’s room for other adoptable animals. Since animals were not getting pulled from their shelter, Weaver started looking at numbers.
“In the last few years, I’ve taken it upon myself I look at our statistics, how many we took in, how many were adopted, how many were euthanized,” Weaver said.
For Weaver, Lehman and their part-time shelter attendant Heather Stewart, the biggest problem was low adoption numbers. Their answer has come in building relationships with rescue groups, as well as building an online presence for the pets available for adoption.
The shelter now has a Facebook page where it posts pictures and bios of the pets. The city of Liberty has started a #wagwednesdays feature to promote available pets on the city’s website. Every available pet also gets posted to petfinder.com.
While they seek out potential rescue groups from across the country, the officers have also experienced solid partnerships with two rescue groups in the Northland: Kitty Cat Connection and Second Chance Pet Adoptions. These rescue groups both have transferred animals from the shelter into their care in order to give them a better chance at adoption.
Sharon Jones, vice president of the Kitty Cat Connection, reports the group has taken 141 cats from Liberty since they started a new partnership with the shelter in the summer of 2014.
Before then, the group did not get a lot of animals from Liberty because they were required to pay full adoption fees. Now they operate with an altered fee structure. That is important for most small rescue groups, as limited funds are reserved for food and litter.
Kitty Cat Connection volunteers take kittens and adult cats into their homes. They get to know the personalities of the felines and the people who may adopt them, which Jones says can make a big difference in making the process work.
“We’re really interested in the connection of the people with the right animal,” Jones said. “We want people to get the right kitty. The advantage of adopting from a rescue group is that we know these kitties. These cats live in our home. We know if they get along with other cats, if they don’t get along with other cats, if they are lap cats, or more active.”
Kitty Cat Connection also puts all cats in their care on petfinder.com. The group has a partnership with the Tiffany Springs PetSmart, which keeps rescue cats up for adoption at the facility. They do weekly Saturday pet adoption events, bringing in about 15 cats to the store. Usually, there are at least a couple of cats that have come through the Liberty Animal Shelter.
Kitty Cat Connection president and co-founder Sandy Coffman said it has been a good partnership.
“We’re proud of what we’ve been able to do because it’s saved lives,” Coffman said.
The opportunity to be in a volunteer’s home can be an important step for cats or dogs going through the adoption process. It helps lower stress for the animals and makes them better able to adapt.
The rescue group Second Chance Pet Adoptions has been using this model for 18 years. In that time, director Deanna Clark says, the group has rescued more than 24,000 animals. Currently they help mostly small dogs in the Northland. She says the realities of the rescue industry have changed greatly over that time.
Through the years, Second Chance Pets has had a shelter, a mobile unit and foster homes. Although the group doesn’t now have a facility and instead uses foster homes, Clark is raising money for a facility that would allow the dogs of seniors to live in trust if their owner dies.
“That’s the worst call I get,” Clark said. “That someone’s mom has just died and they left an animal behind. Those animals are virtually unadoptable, and that’s sad.”
Clark says education is an important part of the rescue world. She is very careful to only adopt out animals that are already spayed or neutered. She also requires potential pet owners to visit with animals at least twice before they adopt. Clark says people either hate this practice or love them for it. For Clark it is to the benefit of the animals, which they have only a 1 percent return rate on.
Clark has two senior dogs in her own home who are foster dogs picked up from the Liberty Animal Shelter. “It’s one of the nicest shelters I deal with,” Clark said. “I realize the facility is older, but I’ve been in a lot worse. The animals are not sick and it is clean.”
The numbers show these kinds of partnerships have been successful in Liberty. Lehman and Weaver have been able to reduced kill rates at the Liberty Animal shelter by more than 35 percentage points, bringing their numbers within reach of “no-kill” status.
The officers point out that “no-kill” percentages are always going to be a little intangible because even if they are committed to finding every healthy animal a chance for adoption, there will always be animals that cannot be saved. If an animal is too sick or injured, euthanasia remains the most humane treatment for the animal.
Despite these factors, Weaver said they were able to bring their kill rates from that 47 percent all the way down to around 15 percent in 2014 and expect it to be lower this year. In 2014, only one animal at the Liberty Animal Shelter was euthanized based on the need for extra space.
“Really, those are numbers to be proud of,” Weaver said. “I’m quite happy with those numbers.”
Those who work at the Liberty Animal Shelter stress their belief that all healthy animals should be given a best chance for a “forever home.”
They will keep that perspective, with or without a new shelter, they say.
Both officers say a new shelter would have been a big help, solving a lot of inconveniences and making it easier for them to do their jobs and keep the animals out of stress and danger. But Lehman points out that no shelter is a good solution for an animal.
“I don’t believe animal shelters are places for animals to live long-term,” Lehman said. “That’s why I work so closely with the rescue groups to try to get them into home-based programs and adopted as quickly as possible.”
Above all, Lehman wants people to know one thing about what they do every day.
“We aren’t the bad guy. We pick up your animals because we want to keep them safe.”
Holiday adoption tips
A new kitten or dog under the tree for the kids, or as a surprise for a special someone, may seem like a great plan, but the people who take in pets and try to find them new homes say it is important to think through the decision. Here are some tips from the experts:
▪ Is this really the right time? The nostalgic idea of a puppy bounding out of a box under the Christmas tree seems like a picture-perfect holiday moment. The reality of making that moment happen is difficult. A new animal is usually stressed when it has moved from shelter, to foster to adoption in a short period of time.
▪ Is this really the right pet? Choosing a pet by looks is not always the best choice. Research breeds. Think about what kind of lifestyle you have, how often the pet will be alone and who else, including other animals, will be sharing the home with that pet.
▪ Think about after the holidays: After all the excitement of the holidays, that puppy or kitten will still have to be trained. Consider the care plan for after Christmas break is over.
▪ Make sure the people you adopt from are responsible: That photo advertising a pet on craigslist, or the local online swap shop might be from a good home, but also might not. When you go look at the puppy or kitten, look for the parent animals to be on site. See if they are well cared for. Also check out a posting to see if it is a repeat poster. Those posters may be fronting for a puppy mill.
▪ Consider that older pet: Older cats and dogs are a good choice because it is easier to understand if their personality will fit your home and lifestyle. Rescue groups have had these animals living in their homes. They can help guide you to the best pet for your personality, but puppies and kittens are often unknowns.