Fort Mill Times

Dogs doubled to a kennel. A shelter overrun. York County had to do something. Once.

Academy Christian School student Emma Bennett watches two dogs greet each other at York County Animal Control in 2016. The students donated items to the shelter for their "Hearts for Humane" mission. York County Council approved increased funding for the agency to help pay mounting veterinarian bills.
Academy Christian School student Emma Bennett watches two dogs greet each other at York County Animal Control in 2016. The students donated items to the shelter for their "Hearts for Humane" mission. York County Council approved increased funding for the agency to help pay mounting veterinarian bills. Herald file photo

Dogs sat sometimes two or three to a kennel, in an over capacity animal control office working to improve its save rate, but not yet where it wants to be. Something had to be done.

The county just doesn’t want it done the same way again.

On Jan. 16, York County Council approved almost $6,000 beyond what it had contracted with a local veterinarian for emergency services. Services needed when that same veterinarian left the county unexpectedly.

“I don’t like it,” said Councilman Chad Williams. “I don’t think it looks very good, but I don’t have a better solution to take care of the animals.”

Councilman Robert Winkler agrees.

“I don’t like the way it all happened and what it is, but at this point it’s what we need to do,” he said.

In September, the county animal control department’s only full-time veterinarian resigned to start her own practice in York. In the following weeks the county shelter, designed to hold up to 250 animals, had as many as 350. The county contracted with three veterinarians for help. Two for $25,000 and the newly opened Southern Charm Animal Hospital, started by the former employee, for $29,000. Just below the $30,000 amount that requires a public bid process.

Some facilities could take two or three animals at a time. Others wouldn’t provide on-site care at the shelter. Or chose not to work with the county for other reasons. The exception was Southern Charm, which didn’t yet have an established customer base.

“This particular vet is the vet that left and quit (the county position),” said Kevin Madden, assistant county manager. “She had no work, so she’s there and ready to take on anything we can do. I think she was cheaper than the others as well.”

The county ended up exceeding the $29,000 amount with Southern Charm. Bills were up to $34,750 before payments neared the $30,000 mark, prompting a hold and a required vote from council.

Councilman Michael Johnson said the amount of money is “not going to break the county.” His concern is larger.

“I’m more concerned with the process that allowed this to get to that point,” he said. “How we didn’t see that our veterinarian might leave, and then how we did not see that an overload to just one veterinarian as opposed to spreading it out over every veterinarian in the county wasn’t possible. Did we create this problem ourselves, or did we get hit with the perfect storm?”

Then, a more practical concern.

“Have we evaluated this so that it can’t happen again?” Johnson asked.

Councilwoman Allison Love said animal control is her “council hobby,” as her public service concern for animals dates back to her campaign for council when she made animal control an issue. She even heard from some at the time it was an odd stance to take, considering animals don’t vote.

Love said the county “probably could have planned a little better for what happened” with the veterinarian leaving. She looks at that $34,750 as the cost of caring for 523 animals.

“I also know that all those animals weren’t spayed and neutered and given rabies shots, and that’s the part that breaks my heart quite frankly,” Love said.

Love wants the county shelter to achieve no kill status, but it isn’t there yet. She asked council to consider money in next year’s budget to expand animal control to accommodate more animals. When the veterinarian left and up to 350 animals filled the shelter at a time, she said, the situation wasn’t good.

“What that means is that we have dogs in kennels that are large enough for one dog, and we may have three in that kennel,” Love said. “It’s just unfortunate all the way around for the animals of York County.”

Part of the “perfect storm” that drove so much work to the county’s former employee involves the uptick of incoming animals, too.

“People are surrendering dogs, probably more than ever,” Love said. “For probably the least reasons, ever. It’s a very unfortunate thing.”

Expanding animal control, not just with space but with staff, is an answer Love would like to see.

“Contract work always costs you more than it would if we had our own vet,” she said. “It concerns me that we hired a part-time vet, because we’re not a part-time animal control. We’re an overtime animal control.”

Bill Shanahan, county manager, said there have been “some major changes” in animal control the past several months. The county is looking at full-time and part-time veterinary positions. Last year, the county approved special adoption rates for animals during certain events or peak seasons. An expanded animal control department would get the county closer to its goal of becoming a no-kill shelter, or one with a save rate of at least 90 percent.

“There is no such thing as a complete no-kill shelter,” Shanahan said. “If you have a dog that is brought in there and has been beaten up and is dying and there’s no way you can save it without leaving it in a painful life, you have to put it to sleep. That’s just what’s best for the animal.”

Still, the county wants to work with volunteer agencies and others to get close.

“Our goal is to get as close as possible to being a no-kill shelter,” Shanahan said.

David Harmon, assistant county manager, said the save rate was in the mid-40s to 50 percent when council approved the discounted rates. Now it’s up to about 76 percent.

“It’s gone up quite a bit,” he said.

Still, Harmon said, the county isn’t seeing any slowdown with the animals in serves.

“We have a lot of owner surrenders,” he said. “I think last year alone we had, out of 5,500 animals roughly that came in, over 2,000 were owner surrenders. So that’s significant.”

So many, the county is looking at going to a “managed intake” system. Meaning people would have to set appointments to bring in and surrender animals. Love said the county also needs to price shop. One of the veterinarians the county used when contracting the recent work has a deal posted on its website offering the same services for a “considerably lower rate.”

“When we walk in with 500 and something animals over a short period of time, we should be getting the lowest rate ever advertised by that vet,” Love said. “And we’re a little off that.”

Whatever solutions it takes, Love said she will support efforts to improve animal control as long as they keep that save rate on the increase.

“The remedy is not to euthanize more animals,” she said.