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Step by step, pet by pet

Shelter volunteer knows that sometimes, change is hard

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2013

Volunteer leader Debbie Rappuhn has devoted herself to saving as many animals as possible at the Florence Lauderdale Animal Shelter in Alabama.Rappuhn built relationships wiht rescue groups across the country, created a foster network, and gave the shelter a social media presence - all with the goal of boosting good outcomes for pets like this pooch.

Debbie Rappuhn isn’t much for the status quo.

“I’m one of those, they call me a little terrier, because I’ll just nip at your leg until you let me have what I want,” she says.

After the previous volunteer leader at Florence Lauderdale Animal Shelter in northwest Alabama left to become a mission worker in China, “Debbie kind of stepped right into her spot, and has just made leaps and strides. It’s just been incredible what she’s been able to do,” says Vinny Grosso, shelter manager.

When Rappuhn started advocating for reducing the shelter’s euthanasia numbers, “I told her, ‘There’s no way, Debbie … I’ve tried—there’s just too many animals,’” Grosso recalls. He pointed out the shelter’s built-in disadvantages: a longer breeding season in the South, its location in a small population base, and a lack of animal ordinances to control breeding in Lauderdale County.

“I said, ‘There’s just no way, you’re going to get disheartened.’ And she wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she just started pounding away.”

Rappuhn (pronounced Ruh-POON), got involved at the shelter about two and a half years ago, when her daughter Allie chose to do community service there for a school requirement. Since Allie was only 12 at the time, her mom had to accompany her, joining a few volunteers who washed bowls, did laundry, and fed dogs.

Before long, Rappuhn grew interested and started asking questions. She quickly figured out that the volunteers needed a leader.

With no one to tell her what to do, she went ahead and hired workers to clean and paint the kitchen, the laundry room, the cat room, and the puppy room to make the shelter more inviting, paying for the job herself.

One day she met a volunteer who came in occasionally to send dogs to rescues she’d connected with online. Rappuhn decided to try it: She started taking pictures of dogs at the shelter, and sending them out to rescues with brief descriptions.

“At first I got no response, nothing. … and then I got one that said, ‘Yeah, we’ll take these three Labs,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, my Lord!’ It’s the best feeling in the world,” she says. Soon, she got the hang of it, and started making good contacts with rescues across the country.

Rappuhn worried that stray dogs could be missing opportunities by not being visible to the public before their stray holds ended. She fought to change the policy. Now volunteers are able to post pictures of strays earlier, helping to drive up potential adoption interest.

Her next battle was convincing the shelter, which serves the city of Florence and Lauderdale County, to vaccinate incoming animals. She met resistance because so many pets (about 70 percent) were being euthanized, so the city thought it wasn’t worth the resources.

“There were about three of us that paid for vaccines for a while. We knew it had to be done, and we couldn’t wait … then I finally got the point across to where we could vaccinate everything [at the city’s expense],” she says.

Grosso acknowledges that Rappuhn had her work cut out for her. Some of the longtime staff threw up roadblocks against her efforts to change things. “We’ve had some issues where the volunteers and staff have butted heads, but for the most part, most of the staff have now turned around, and they’ve seen, too, that the volunteers aren’t here to get their jobs, or make their jobs more difficult. They’re there to save those animals,” he says.

Rappuhn’s volunteer group, Heart of Alabama Save Rescue Adopt (HASRA) now transports dogs to groups as far away as New York City, using a new, $17,000 van given by PetCo, and has built an extensive foster network. The group, which has a core of 15 volunteers, also transports cats to several Pet Depot and PetCo stores in the area that have agreed to give HASRA cage space.

Volunteers created and manage the shelter’s Facebook page, posting pictures of adoptable animals and sharing news about pets who need medical care, inviting followers to donate. Rappuhn and her parents—who are in their 70s—created large, fenced-in play areas for shelter dogs, and Rappuhn found someone to pour concrete, so the pens would be easier to clean.The statistics tell the story of what the group has accomplished since Rappuhn came on board. In 2009, the shelter handled 6,209 animals, adopted 1,000, and euthanized 4,735. In 2011, with the advent of the group’s new programs, there were 5,067 animals handled, 1,300 adopted, and 3,288 pets euthanized. And in 2012, the final figures were 4,627 handled, 2,533 adopted, and 987 euthanized.

“She has brought it all the way to where we’re hovering around 20 percent [euthanasia] for dogs and cats. And it’s basically because of social media,” Grosso says. The shelter is different in other ways, too. “It was a grim, dark, gloomy place, and now it’s a place of light. There’s new paint, there’s paintings on the wall.”

The work that HASRA volunteers have done has changed the public’s perception of the shelter, too. “Donations are just through the roof, people are on board, they’re trying to get us a new shelter … the amount of people in that shelter a day is just incredible, the traffic of people coming in and out—volunteering, dropping stuff off, making donations,” Grosso says.

His only concern is that Rappuhn will eventually burn out. “She’ll work at the shelter all day long … and then she’ll go on home, and get on Facebook, and then she’ll work on the Internet, and work with fosters and rescues till midnight, 1 o’clock in the morning. She’ll come in the next morning, she’s got bags under her eyes, and she goes right at it again,” he says.

But Rappuhn’s not done yet. Her latest focus is pushing for a new shelter, with a goal of the city, the county, and private donors each paying a third of the total cost. “It’s not easy for me, because I am so passionate, and I want it done yesterday, and sometimes I say more than I should,” she says. “I’m just fighting.”

About the Author

Jim Baker is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.