When looking just at the statistics, the Burlington Pet Adoption Center is doing better than ever.
Animal intake was reduced by 14 percent from 2014 to 2015, and euthanasia was reduced by 48 percent, according to Burlington Animal Services reports. Intake and euthanasia overall have dropped sharply since 2009, and the number of yearly adoptions has nearly doubled.
But those involved with the Haw River-based animal shelter say major renovations are necessary to keep up with the amount of intakes, especially during the high-volume summer months. Renovations include new facilities, medical and grooming areas, an expanded intake area and improved infrastructure — all to the tune of an estimated $5.25 million by the recently found Shelter Replacement Committee.
“The current adoption center is old, outdated and not up to the standards of today,” said Laura Michel, Burlington Animal Services’ program coordinator. “So we’ve started a big initiative that’s going to entirely renovate what we have here.”
Through discussions with Alamance County commissioners and city councils, Michel, the rest of the animal services department and multiple private animal welfare organizations in the area have made an agreement with the county to renovate the 55-year-old animal shelter in late 2017.
The expanded shelter is expected to sustain Alamance County and take care of the stray pet population for the next 20-plus years, according to Michel. Construction will target problem areas of the current shelter, such as the limited holding capacity, the layout of the shelter — which places cats and dogs in adjacent rooms — and the lack of ventilation where the cats are held.
“The truth of the matter is that there are more stray animals than there are people willing to adopt them,” said senior Clare Farrow, a member of Elon’s Animal Protection Alliance who has volunteered at the shelter since her freshman year. “The shelter is very often at capacity, and by expanding, they can take in more animals and avoid euthanizing them.”
During the winter months, the shelter is typically able to keep the number of animals near the state-required capacity. But once the summer comes, strays begin to breed more frequently, and a battle for space in the shelter begins.
Wrestling capacity limits is not exclusive to Burlington Animal Services. Kelly Ronnow, director of the Humane Society of Alamance County, said more foster homes are needed for the stray animals the organization picks up, which totaled 255 in 2015.
Other organizations, like the Pet Adoption and Welfare Society (PAWS) and Friends of Mebane’s Animals, also have adoption services and a need for foster homes. But the Burlington Animal Shelter bears the brunt of the strays, and each municipality in Alamance County helps pay for the facility to be run.
Ron Klepcyk, a Town of Elon Board of Aldermen member, said something had to change to make the cost of sustaining the shelter — about $1 million per year — worth it.
“It’s a substandard facility at this point,” Klepcyk said. “The value of having a new animal shelter is that it’s a way to deal with the whole issue of cats and dogs that are running around neighborhoods. It’s just a part of being able to maintain things, and hopefully finding new owners for those pets that will be adopted.”
With pet overpopulation such an issue in the area, more animals have to be taken into the shelter than the facility is equipped to handle. In June 2015, the number of cats in the shelter more than doubled the number of cat enclosures — 80 to 35 — and the dogs housed exceeded the number of enclosures every month in 2015, according to the Shelter Replacement Committee report released in January.
The Animal Welfare section of North Carolina’s department of agriculture and consumer services highlighted the overcrowding of the shelter in an inspection report released in December.
The report said the existing facility does not meet the minimum requirements for animal housing and disease control. The shelter was also not considered acceptable in the areas of ventilation and odor control, most notably in the cat quarantine, where the inspector noticed “stale, stuffy air and heavy odor.” Enclosures in sound repair and primary enclosures were also areas of concern, mostly because of structural damage over time.
Putting renovations in motion
The current animal intake shelter located in Haw River, about a 20-minute drive from Elon University’s main campus, has been standing since at least 1970, according to Michel. During the shelter’s early years, the City of Burlington also ran another shelter in the nearby city of Graham, but ended its operations in 1991.
The Haw River shelter soon received its first major renovation and expansion to compensate, but it wasn’t enough — another expansion occurred in 2004, when the Pet Adoption Center was added onto the intake shelter to reduce the number of animals euthanized.
On May 11, 2015, Burlington Animal Shelter director Jessica Arias said it was time for the next expansion, this one to have a much more substantial long-term effect.
“It’s beyond time to start talking about replacement,” Arias said, according to Fox8’s Sarah Krueger.
The wheels began to turn for Burlington Animal Services when Sam Hunt of PAWS pitched to the Burlington City Council getting a committee together dedicated to replacing the current shelter.
“We would like to get the ball rolling on this, it’s not something that’s just going to happen,” Sam Hunt said at the July 21 council meeting. “The one thing I see that every city and this county can agree on is the welfare of animals,” he added.
Two shelter committee meetings were held a few months afterward, with notable community members such as County Commission Chairman Dan Ingle, County Manager Craig Honeycutt, former Burlington city manager Harold Owen and Mebane city manager David Cheek on board. The meetings were to determine the costs of renovations and where the money would come from, and a budget of $5.25 million was estimated to be the needed amount for the revamp that is supposed to make the shelter last for more than 20 years.
In January at a meeting requested by the Shelter Replacement Committee, the Alamance County Board of Commissioners approved the construction of a new shelter, but did not commit any funds to the project, according to a Burlington Times-News report.
Fighting against overpopulation
Most of the money needed for the renovation will go toward additional space for the animals, but it wouldn’t be as pressing of an issue if all companion animals in the county were spayed and neutered. But that’s easier said than done, according to Vicky Hunt, a member of the Shelter Replacement Committee and wife of Sam Hunt.
“There are a lot of reasons for the amount of strays, but one of the biggest is cost,” Hunt said. “Most places that offer these services can cost anywhere from $175 to $300.”
Multiple organizations, including the Hunt’s PAWS, offer lower cost spay-and-neuter services, typically under $100, which Ronnow said gives her the impression that many of the pet owners in the county are looking for an excuse to not do it.
“There are some discounted services in Alamance County for spaying and neutering, but there’s only so much they can do,” Farrow said. “Its upsetting cost is an issue for people, because if you pay to get an animal you should be able to take care of it. That’s just doing your job as a companion animal owner.”
Costs aren’t likely to come down either, according to Linda Harrell, an employee at the Elon Animal Hospital. She said the combined costs of equipment and medicine have increased over time, leading to pricier spay and neuter services.
Much of Alamance County may not know the benefits (and price) of spaying and neutering, if a county public opinion survey conducted by PAWS is any indication — the organization found only 22 percent of respondents were aware of the low adoption/high destroy rate by animal shelters that are spurred by overpopulation.
“Some people don’t have enlightened views on what can happen to these animals,” Hunt said. “They start thinking with their heart, not their brain.”
These animals may be abandoned once they get older, leading to strays that aren’t spayed or neutered. Farrow said one stray cat can lead to hundreds of new cats running around a city because of its litter having litters of their own. It can add up quickly.
“The total number of homeless animals adds up to something like 3-5 million a year in America, and that’s way too big a number,” Farrow said.
Transforming the shelter
According to Michel, years of making temporary fixes to long-term issues has led to the Burlington Animal Shelter’s current state of affairs.
“This facility serves the whole county, so we have to keep it up to code,” she said. “Last year we had several areas that were simply not acceptable. From air flow to welfare of the animals, we weren’t where we needed to be.”
As it stands, the current shelter’s main issue is with the areas the cats and dogs are held in, according to the most recent Shelter Replacement Committee report. Among the problem areas is the increased stress in shelter residents — each dog enclosure faces another, which leads to increased hostility among the animals. The cats in the room next door hear the barking and get more and more anxious, which can lead to health problems and behavioral issues.
Other aspects highlighted in the report included the lack of an isolation area for the dogs, the poorly ventilated cat rooms increasing disease occurrence and no space for grooming and bathing animals.
The anticipated $5.25 million to be spent on the shelter would be used to fix these problem areas along with improving the experience of employees, volunteers and visitors by adding additional spaces for them. Klepcyk says the cost will ultimately be worth it for taxpayers.
“One of the realities of a shelter is that parts of it are like a hospital because they do procedures there,” he said. “Part of that requires a whole new level of equipment and checking on the quality of the air, so I think it’s a reasonable amount of money considering what would need to be done to the building to make it compliant with regulations in the future.”
The committee report says recommendations for cost allocation are $4.5 million paid by governmental bodies on a per capita basis. This means Burlington, with a population of 51,510 as of 2013, would pay $1.96 million for it, while Elon, with a population of 9,513 as of 2013, would pay $378,978.91, according to a Times-News report. PAWS would raise the remaining $750,000.
“The money won’t be a problem for PAWS,” Hunt said. “We already have a couple of commitments from businesses in the area and there are a lot of people looking to help donate individually.”
An expanded importance
A renovation of the 50-year-old shelter will not only benefit the animals that are taken in and nearby citizens, according to junior and Animal Protection Alliance member Emily Morency. She said Elon students really benefit from the animal shelter because playing with the animals is a great way to relieve stress.
Pets have always been a popular stress-relief option for U.S. students. Kent State University has its Dogs On Campus therapy program, in which dogs visit campus residence halls and other areas during stressful situations and campus emergencies. Bucknell University has brought in therapy dogs for new students and exam periods.
Elon students at Epsilon Sigma Alpha (ESA), a co-ed service sorority focused on philanthropy, have taken advantage of the popularity of pets through volunteering at the shelter. Junior Jennifer Kraus, a member of ESA, said the sorority occasionally has a shelter weekend to give the animals social interaction.
“There are times when [the animals] don’t get to go out at all, so volunteering like this is important for them,” Kraus said. “Everyone loves to play with the animals. ESA runs out of spots within 20 minutes.”
Kraus said S.H.A.R.E., a program within Elon Volunteers, is another known group that volunteers at the shelter. S.H.A.R.E. members get the benefit of being trained in shelter handling as well as gaining community service hours.
But Kraus says the shelter needs to be improved to make volunteer experiences more enjoyable.
“The dog area is too overwhelming sometimes,” she said. “It echoes and causes a lot of anxiety for the cats. If they built more space, the whole area would be less of a hassle to deal with.”