Bryan Applefield watched as complaints about conditions and overcrowding at the Dothan Animal Shelter reached a boiling point in 2007.

Each time he commented “what is going on?” and “why can’t they resolve this problem?” it aggravated his wife, Helen.

“Apparently I said it one too many times,” he said, because she told him to do something about the problem or stop talking.

The two animal lovers got involved, working to get a better understanding of the challenges the shelter faced.

“I’ve always been a proponent that if we can define a problem, we can find a solution,” Applefield said.

More than a decade later, a solution is finally in the works. Last month the Dothan City Commission listed a new animal shelter among its top priorities for 2019.

Dothan is poised to pursue a public-private partnership to create a new multimillion-dollar facility. It’s an idea that was spawned by a movement but delayed by economic headwinds.

Defining the problem

In researching animal shelters, Applefield discovered Shelter Planners of America, a consulting service that has worked with more than 700 animal shelter groups on shelter planning and design.

The company proposed evaluating the Dothan shelter using data such as animal intake numbers, rate of adoptions, pets returned to owners, and rate of euthanization.

Before engaging the consultant, Applefield and two business leaders went to the mayor and city manager to seek approval on identifying shelter deficiencies and possible solutions. The city officials agreed to consider a public-private partnership pending the outcome of the study.

In November 2007, the consulting service was commissioned to start the study. When the 64-page report was completed a few months later, Applefield said it showed the facility operated by the Dothan Police Department was “severely outdated, in poor condition, performing poorly in every significant measure.”

By the time the report was received “the economy was in a recession and business and public entities were in no position to undertake a project of that magnitude,” Applefield said. The project was shelved, but not the movement.

Other advances

In early 2009, the Wiregrass Spay and Neuter Alliance – one of the prominent components of the consultant’s study – opened.

The clinic offers low-cost spay/neuter services and works with other organizations to address the issue of pet overpopulation in the Dothan area. Since it opened, the clinic has provided spay and neuter procedures to more than 63,000 dogs and cats.

About a year ago the Wiregrass Spay and Neuter Alliance began sterilizing all animals adopted through the Dothan Animal Shelter.

Before then, people who adopted signed a document that said they would handle the spaying or neutering within a specified time frame. In some cases, people would say they gave the animal away or lost it. Lost animals that are unfixed can reproduce, increasing the stray animal population.

The higher adoption fee of $85 for dogs and $55 for cats covers the cost of having the animal spayed or neutered, microchipped, parvo vaccine/feline distemper and heartworm tested.

“We’ve already started making some good decisions where our animals are concerned by spaying and neutering them before they leave us now, by chipping them,” said District 5 Commissioner Beth Kenward, who presented the shelter proposal at one of the commission’s strategic planning meetings. “There are various things that we’ve already started to move in the right direction.”

Mayor Mark Saliba agrees that the momentum is there.

“Every idea has its time,” and the time is now for partnering with private groups to construct and manage a new shelter, he said.

New shelter site

The current shelter is in a rural part of east Dothan next to Omussee Wastewater Treatment Plant. Plans call for relocating the shelter to a more visible location.

Dothan police Chief Steve Parrish said the consultant has suggested a site with three to five acres.

Kenward said Houston County officials were open to the idea of using property at the Houston County Farm Center, or they could provide some site preparation work that would reduce construction costs.

Thus far, a site has not been selected.

Kenward, who serves on a committee with the police chief, the mayor, Applefield, and others, said the point of moving the shelter is to make it more accessible and inviting.

A new shelter will resemble a doctor’s office building, she said.

“It’s state-of-the-art, a place you want to go,” Kenward said. “Frankly, our shelter right now is pretty dismal when you go in there. It’s sad. I want to adopt everybody.”

Details have to be formulated, but animal advocacy groups and their supporters would combine efforts with the city to build a facility that would cost between $3.8 and $5 million. The private group would form its own board and manage the facility.

The city would use funding already appropriated yearly to support the project.

The Dothan Animal Shelter budget rose from $630,000 in 2017 to $663,000 in 2018. The budget includes personnel, utilities, medical care, operational expenditures, and other costs.

Parrish said enforcement of the animal control ordinance would remain a city function, with the new shelter designed to provide parking for city vehicles and access areas for field officers to come and go.

The current shelter has 10 paid positions, from the animal services manager to animal services officers and animal care associates. Salaries with fringe benefits for animal control field officers were budgeted at nearly $176,000 in 2018 with salaries for other staff budgeted at just over $304,000.

Parrish said if operations are privatized, a 10- or 20-year path of attrition would probably be created to replace some employees with civilian equivalents as they leave or retire.

Shelter operations

From 2016 to 2018, the Dothan Animal Shelter accommodated more than 4,400 animals each year. The euthanasia rate was 19 percent in 2016, 31 percent in 2017, and 21 percent in 2018.

Dogs outnumbered cats and other animals taken in. While the number of dogs fell slightly each year, the number of cats increased.

Save-a-Pet rescued 2,468 of the 4,547 animals accommodated in 2018, with another 145 animals adopted and 247 returned to owners. More than 230 dogs and cats were taken by the Wiregrass Humane Society or transported to other facilities, and nearly 150 wild animals were released or taken by Big Bend Wildlife.

More than 70 animals died and 965 were euthanized.

Each year dogs were more likely than cats to be adopted and rescued, and the number of cats euthanized outnumbered dogs.

Lowering the euthanasia rate is a major component of the plan, Parrish said.

“We want to rescue as many and adopt as many as we can possibly do,” the chief said. “There’s always the talk about a zero-kill shelter. Anybody that really knows anything about a shelter knows there’s no such thing. You’re going to have injuries, you’re going to have viciousness, but that’s always a goal.”

The new shelter could have several government partners.

“There is a consideration as to whether we want this to be a countywide partnership with stakeholders involving the local municipalities – Kinsey, Taylor, Houston County, of course Dothan – and form a board of directors that oversees it,” Parrish said.

The chief said under state law, counties in Alabama are responsible for maintaining animal shelters.

“We maintain for the most part any rescues that the county has,” he said. The shelter charges the county a daily fee for each animal.

If the county joins a partnership, it won’t be charged per animal because it would become a stakeholder.

Community input

A public-private partnership would give animal advocacy groups and their supporters a role in formulating policy and implementing plans.

“In our discussions in strategic planning, one of the benefits was to move some of it out from under the umbrella of the city and allow the community to support it,” Kenward said. “Everybody’s kind of got a similar vision, so how do we align all of those and eliminate redundancy across the organizations and allow them to work together and pool their money and resources?”

Applefield said a nonprofit group can play a vital role in fundraising.

“We can receive and go for certain grants that would not be available through the city,” he said. “Currently through the spay and neuter effort we’re dealing with a lot of major grants that also would be ones that would consider helping with this cause, such as PetSmart Charities.”

Saliba said public-private partnerships have worked well throughout the country, and Dothan can look at how other communities have coordinated efforts.

“We’re not going to be reinventing the wheel,” the mayor said. “We’re taking an idea that really is coming from the community, which is what are we doing about taking care of our animals and our pets.”

A private entity could sponsor free spay and neuter days and send people out to educate the community on animal issues.

“If we’re going to dream, we might as well dream huge,” Kenward said. “Right now the city is vastly understaffed. This entity could do a lot more than what we’re currently doing.”

Applefield said a well-designed shelter cuts the spread of disease by providing proper ventilation and drainage. It also has incorporates surfaces and areas that are easier to clean and maintain, thus reducing bad smells.

“The net result of doing it right is you reduce the number of animals that have to be euthanized and create an environment whereby people really enjoy coming to look for a pet,” he said.

The managing board could create websites with photos of animals that would make it easier for people to find lost pets taken to the shelter.

“All of these factors lead to an environment in any community that improves the quality of life for people and pets,” Applefield said.

Saliba sees benefits in partnering with private groups.

“I think long-term what you see is that we’ll be able to better provide animal services,” he said. Taking management of the shelter out of the hands of the police department will free up manpower, time and efforts that could be better spent elsewhere.

The shelter is an idea that can work well in a public-private partnership.

“It’s going to get legs and continue to walk on its own,” Saliba said.

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