Shelter from the Storm
The Greater Birmingham Humane Society has a new state-of-the-art facility, but old problems—such as pet over-population and irresponsible pet owners—remain.
“I hope somebody loves you as much as you ought to be loved,” the woman cooed sweetly as she and her husband surrendered a box of puppies to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. Like so many others who bring animals to this shelter, they had an explanation: Their male mixed lab had gotten into the fenced area where their female purebred Husky was kept. Pointing to one black pup, the husband said, “He’s going to make somebody a beautiful dog; I’d love to keep them if they stayed this size.”
The litter was the fifth delivered to the shelter in two days. The couple promised the clinic worker who was receiving the puppies that their male dog would be neutered. As a clinic technician named Tonya took the puppies to the isolation room for medical procedures and observation, she gloomily predicted that the onset of spring and summer will drastically increase the number of puppies and kittens brought to the shelter.
The Greater Birmingham Humane Society has existed in one form or another since 1883. Originally known as the Birmingham Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Animals, it was the first such facility in the South and the 12th humane society founded in the United States. In 1926 it relocated near the state fairgrounds on Lomb Avenue. Some 50 years later, it moved to another building in the same vicinity. In November 2004, GBHS’s years of fundraising happily resulted in the construction of a state-of-the-art shelter on Snow Drive in the West Oxmoor area. The new facility is considered one of the finest in the United States.
There were 27,000 animals surrendered to the GBHS in 1977, with 20 percent of those adopted out and the others euthanized. The number of animals turned in during 2004 totaled 10,321. Of those, 8,186 were euthanized, while 2,057 were placed in homes. Adoptions, however, are up nearly 20 percent since the move to the new facility. “That’s the result of educating the public,” says GBHS public relations director Melissa Hull. “It’s all about education. If the pet owners are educated, we don’t have to be here . . . People don’t get it. They show up saying, ‘We’re bringing you a donation,’ but instead of money, it’s a dozen black lab, mixed-breed puppies.”
According to Jacque Meyer, a transplanted New Yorker who took over as executive director of GBHS seven years ago, black dogs are the most common at the shelter. A head count indicated 22 black adult canines and 20 others of varying combinations of browns, whites, tans, and grays. “It’s harder to find homes for black dogs. People seem scared of them. It’s a stupid perception,” says Meyer. The reluctance to adopt black dogs means that their color makes them a liability. There is only so much space available, and that has to go to the more adoptable dogs. Dogs weighing less than 20 pounds are the easiest to find homes for. Terrier (usually pit bull) and shepherd mixed breeds are difficult to adopt out because they often end up with prospective owners who are simply interested in transforming their pet into a vicious trophy animal. GBHS adoption counselors try to avoid such scenarios when screening prospective owners. “We don’t strive to be a pet store,” says one adoption counselor. “We’re not looking to send them out the door with just anybody.”
The Greater Birmingham Humane Society receives no government funding. It depends on donations, including funds raised by the annual Do Dah Day festivities each spring. The shelter only takes in animals that have owners; strays go to Birmingham-Jefferson County Animal Control. On any given Saturday, the busiest day of the week, as many as 120 animals may be brought to the shelter. Receiving Supervisor Ann Haden, who has worked at GBHS for seven years, is the first person to see the surrendered animal. She has the toughest job because she has to deal with the public more than anyone else at the facility, but Haden is not shy about being direct with irresponsible pet owners. “It’s never an animal issue. It’s always a human issue,” she says. “An animal is not a lawn ornament. It is not an alarm system.”
A dog named Ruby was brought in earlier that day. Her friendly demeanor was replaced by a menacing growl after she was placed in the isolation kennels. After going through medical procedures and observation for 24 hours, Ruby will face a temperament test. “It depends on how well she adjusts and how much space we’ve got,” Haden explained about Ruby’s chances of survival. Space is a valued commodity at GBHS. Not all dogs can adjust to kennel life while waiting for adoption, which means they’re not likely to be adopted.
The new GBHS facility is designed to keep both kennel stress and the spread of disease to a minimum. Only staff members are allowed into the actual kennel areas for direct contact with the dogs and cats. Glass partitions allow the public to see all animals available for adoption without getting the animal overly excited. Spay and neutering surgeries can be observed through glass windows for educational purposes. A washing machine and dryers whir in the clinic area of the facility, keeping stacks of blankets and freshly washed stuffed animals available for new arrivals. Cages are constantly being cleaned. Dogs are walked daily. Two vets currently perform spaying and neutering procedures. Dr. Miguel Cruden, who worked at the Lomb Avenue location while in school, flies down from Virginia twice a month. Dr. Vaughn Walker, a local veterinarian who makes house calls, comes in two days a week.
Marty Patock, clinic supervisor, is about to begin a series of temperament tests. If an animal reacts with aggression, it is euthanized. Once it is placed on the adoption floor—GBHS tries to put dogs on the floor within three days of surrender—the animal will stay there until it is adopted or shows signs of kennel stress. Ruby is the first dog tested. She quickly tries to bite Patock when he pinches between her toes, one of the primary test procedures. The aggressive behavior leaves Patock with no option other than to mark an “X” on the placard on Ruby’s kennel pen to indicate that she will be put to sleep. (Each dog has a card that gives the name, age, reason for surrender, and various personality characteristics.)
Ruby is led from her kennel to the euthanasia room after several mange-infested puppies have been put down. As many as 100 animals may be euthanized in a week, with up to 60 sometimes put to sleep on Saturdays during the summer when large numbers are surrendered. “It’s hard on the staff. Some days we never leave the euthanasia room,” says Patock. “It’s often because of lack of space, and that’s the worst reason to do it.” Ruby is surprisingly friendly for a dog that growls menacingly at all who come near her cage. “A terrible waste,” says Patock as he injects sodium pentobarbital into a vein in Ruby’s leg. The dog is unconscious within 10 seconds. A minute later, Patock confirms with a stethoscope that her heart has stopped beating. “It enables an animal to leave this word in a responsible way,” he says as he shakes his head. &
The Greater Birmingham Humane Society is located at 300 Snow Drive. The shelter is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and Sunday from noon to 4:30 p.m. GBHS adoption centers are located at Pet Supplies Plus, (1928 Highway 31 South) Southgate Village, and Pet Supplies Plus (4606 Highway 280, near Super Target). Adoption costs for dogs and cats are $75 for any spayed or neutered pet, and $65 for any unaltered pet, plus a refundable $65 spay/neuter deposit. For more information, call 205-780-7281 or visit www.gbhs.org.