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We kind of refer to ourselves as ‘the little shelter that could,’” says Ginny Sims, manager of Southern Pines Animal Shelter in Hattiesburg, Miss., for the past two years. Like the overachieving train engine in the iconic children’s story, the shelter is using a can-do attitude to parlay its modest resources into successful outcomes for more animals.
An open-admission shelter funded largely by private donations, Southern Pines has room for about 250 dogs and cats, but it serves a 14-county area that covers about 9,000 square miles, including the college town of Hattiesburg and several surrounding rural areas. The shelter also accepts animals from anywhere in Mississippi, so some people without a shelter close by bring animals from as far as four hours away. A few years back, intake hovered around 10,000 animals a year, but now it’s dropped to the 5,000-to-6,000 range.
Meanwhile, the shelter that five years ago had a live-release rate around 29 percent recently celebrated three consecutive months of a rate above 90 percent. And Southern Pines took first place in its division in the 2014 ASPCA Rachael Ray $100K Challenge, an initiative that provides cash incentives for shelters around the country to get creative and break their own adoption records.
What is Southern Pines doing to reach such heights? A little bit of everything.
The yearly reductions in intake at Southern Pines, Sims says, can largely be traced to the shelter’s spay/neuter clinic, which opened in July 2009 a few miles from the shelter. The clinic marked a milestone last year when it performed its 30,000th surgery.
Founded with the help of grants from PetSmart Charities and The HSUS, the clinic follows best practices recommended by Humane Alliance, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that promotes quality high-volume, low-cost sterilization.
Veterinarian Alicia Hatch, Southern Pines’ medical director, says Humane Alliance teaches techniques for everything from keeping the clinic clean to finding grants that help the group keep prices down for clients. The clinic recently expanded its staff by hiring a second veterinarian (it also has three technicians, two receptionists and a manager) and is increasing the number of surgeries it performs. The current average is about 30 per day, Hatch says, but the goal is to bring that number up to 50.
PetSmart Charities provides grants that enable the clinic to discount its fees for owned pets and also to undertake trap-neuter-return (TNR) projects that target community cats. Slowly but surely, Hatch says, people are learning that fixing cats reduces nuisance behaviors such as spraying and yowling, and that returning sterilized community cats to their territory works better than trapping and euthanizing.
Southern Pines is “definitely still fighting” some owners’ deep-seated notions that pets should remain intact, Hatch says, but the clinic also gets clients who are the first in their family’s history to fix a pet.
Many Southern Pines clients have had pets in their lives who wandered up as strays or seemed to have always lived in the yard, Sims says. The people loved their animals, she adds, but perhaps never knew about preventive medicine or spay/neuter; such services weren’t always accessible or affordable, and people might not have ever seen a pet owner who arranged for such care.
But now, Sims explains, easier access to information has prompted a cultural shift. People are seeking veterinary care for the first time, perhaps realizing that their dog from childhood might have died from heartworms, and that altering dogs can prevent litter after litter of homeless puppies.
Southern Pines has been a partner since 2013 in PetSmart Charities’ Rescue Waggin’ program, which transports healthy, behaviorally sound dogs from parts of the country with an overabundance to regions with waiting adopters. “A lot of the success that we’ve had is due to that partnership,” Sims says, noting that Southern Pines sends about 100 dogs each month to receiving shelters in northern states. (For more on transport programs, see “Have Leash, Will Travel.”)
Southern Pines vaccinates dogs and puppies on intake and follows up with boosters, and several members of the staff are certified in the ASPCA SAFER aggression assessment, which helps establish dogs’ suitability for the transport program. If the shelter has too many of a locally common type of dog—say, black Lab mixes—staff tries to quickly assess them for possible transport to northern shelters where they’re in demand.
Transports free the staff to focus on finding homes for other dogs in the shelter, and Sims says an added benefit is that Rescue Waggin’ has made Southern Pines part of a collaborative community of shelters that share practical ideas for improving sheltering operations.
When potential adopters enter the shelter, the staff’s main goal is to help them find a pet who will fit their lifestyle, Sims says. To get the necessary information, she adds, a conversation is better than a lengthy adoption application. “What we’ve found is that people are enjoying the conversation, and they are able to really work through some of their concerns and their questions.”
Southern Pines has moved away from an application that left room for people to feel judged or incapable or unqualified to be good pet owners. Issues like weight restrictions for apartments and the amount of time a puppy might be left alone are now addressed during the counseling process, which Sims says makes for a friendlier environment that helps people choose a pet who will work well in their household.
Southern Pines is seeing a growing number of first-time adopters, many of whom are excited to be saving a life. But prior to the switch to open adoptions, Sims says, the process felt weighted down by lengthy questions seemingly designed to find fault with prospective homes—which sometimes created distrust and dampened the potential owners’ enthusiasm. “We were creating a tension with our community, and ultimately we were hurting the animals’ chances for finding a home,” she says.
The open adoptions approach lets the staff educate potential adopters without making them feel unworthy or setting them up to be less than truthful. If would-be adopters mention that they have unaltered pets at home, for instance, the staff can tell them about the benefits of spay/neuter, possibly paving the way for them to alter their current pets in addition to bringing home a new one. If the shelter were to simply decline the adoption, Sims explains, the adoptable animal would not get a new home, and the owners might acquire new pets by allowing their current crew to reproduce. Sims says the Southern Pines staff tries to remember that they were all once new pet owners in need of information.
And staff hopes that approach leads to a long-term relationship between adopter and shelter. Sims says, “Five months down the road, if they’re having a problem, we want them to feel like they can call and tell us, ‘Hey, I’m having some trouble with this. Do you have a recommendation?’”
Sweating the “Small” Stuff
Scenery might seem like a minor detail, but by drawing on grants and donations, Southern Pines has added landscaping to its grounds, created a nicer sitting area for visitors and added an adoption office, so potential adopters are greeted by a friendly face rather than left to wander. The construction of cat and kitten cottages separated cats from the dogs’ building, creating a calmer environment. Renovations are under way to improve the climate control in one of the older kennel buildings. And, in February, Southern Pines hosted its first on-site birthday party, with local children making toys for the dogs and cats.
“Our goal is to really make Southern Pines a destination place—a place where people want to come and visit,” Sims says. “They want to come and be able to volunteer, or to socialize with some puppies or enjoy a sunny afternoon walking dogs. And then when they’re ready to consider adding a pet to their home, we hope that they’ll remember us and choose adoption.”
Shelters need volunteers, and college students need a break from their computer screens and books. So once a month, Southern Pines staff head to the University of Southern Mississippi with dogs in tow to give students some pet therapy. The students get to play with puppies and get their stress out, and the shelter staff get to talk to them about volunteering, explains Sims, who served as Southern Pines’ volunteer coordinator before becoming manager.
The shelter has increased its college-age volunteers as well as its roster of regular volunteers, who might come in three days a week to help with the morning cleaning. “Like many shelters, we’ve got limited staffing and can feel shorthanded, even when we’re not,” Sims says. “Just knowing that you can count on this volunteer who comes every Thursday and Friday being here—it’s been an asset to the shelter.” On high-intake days, for example, it’s great to have volunteers on hand to keep the dogs’ enrichment program on schedule.
Volunteers also serve as Southern Pines’ advocates in the community, spreading the word about the shelter and inviting new people to visit, Sims adds.
Diversifying the donor base will be a key challenge as Southern Pines extends the programs that have produced positive results. Now that the shelter is saving more lives from more communities than ever before, it’s reaching further into those communities to spread the word—speaking to community groups, partnering with organizations and creating relationships with businesses. The shelter aims to communicate its needs to a wider base of people in the community. “Saving more lives is our mission, but saving more lives comes at a higher cost,” Sims says. Southern Pines will continue to be an open-admission shelter taking in animals who would likely be turned away elsewhere and might need some work and extra TLC, she adds. “So that just means that we need that much more support, we need that many more volunteers, we need that many more passionate people helping us.”
Sims hadn’t planned on a career in animal welfare. Her degree is in photojournalism, and she worked in communications and technology and integration training at a nonprofit for six years. When the nonprofit went under, she found herself unemployed. “I made a decision not to watch Netflix every day, and so I started volunteering at the shelter, and I just fell in love,” she says.
Today, she couldn’t be more excited to see Southern Pines producing results for animals that reflect the hard work and dedication of the shelter’s staff, volunteers and supporters. “Being able to offer opportunities and outcomes to animals that 5, 10 years ago would have not found a chance here, it certainly speaks a lot to our growth and to our dedication and passion for what we’re doing.”