Life of a shelter dog
Animal center home to both happy reunions, sad endings

LAWRENCEVILLE - Joe Yagle led the dog in by a rope tied gently around his neck.

The black and brown mix-breed immediately put his paws on the front counter to greet Debra Kovac, an animal control officer.

The friendly dog had followed Yagle home from a walk he took with his own dog a few days before, but because the two dogs didn't get along, he brought the animal to the shelter to see if he could find a home.

But Yagle hated to leave his new-found friend for fear that the dog would be euthanized like so many are at the local animal shelter.

"He really seems like a nice little dog," Yagle said, vowing to check on the dog and come back and adopt him himself. "The other option, I'll take if I need to."

But that dog - whose name, it turned out, is Scrappy - was lucky. Within hours of his arrival at the shelter, a man came looking for his brother's dog, who had escaped from his pen over the weekend.

By mid-afternoon the owner and pet were reunited.

But another dog who arrived at the shelter just minutes before Scrappy was not so lucky.

Sparky was brought in by his owner, who thought he might be able to find a new home for the dog his family raised for eight years. The owner, a Suwanee man, who did not wish to be named, even brought some dog food along.

But before he left, Kovac told him the bad news: Sparky would be

euthanized that morning because the man said he had a tendency to snap at people.

"We've become a last resort," Kovac said about the man, who said he tried to find a home for the dog among neighbors. He said his family is too busy to give the dog proper care any more.

"This is the bad thing about working on this side," of the shelter, said officer Larry Merck.

While the county's 1-year-old Animal Welfare and Enforcement Center is a great improvement of the cramped warehouse that served as a shelter for 20 years prior, it is still that last resort for many pets. It was filled within weeks of its opening, and space issues mean there are still dogs that are euthanized.

But for all the sad stories of dogs and cats meeting with their unkindly ends, there are more tales of happy reunions with lost pets and new adoptions.

"We will do our level best to find a home for 'em," said Lt. Mary Lou Respess, the manager of the shelter. "We've got folks who all day beg folks to take an animal. But that doesn't happen for every dog. I wish it was true, but it's not."

"A numbers game'

Respess admits that the cutest dogs are the most likely to be adopted.

But one recent Tuesday, Mary Usry waited anxiously for the pet she was adopting - "the ugliest dog in the shelter," Respess said.

The tiny animal was covered in dirt and matted hair when it was found by animal control officers, but Usry immediately fell in love. She carried around a photo of the dog she thought about naming Gizmo, knowing as soon as the doors opened she would see a new, clean dog.

Usry, an Athens woman who had been mourning the death of her dog for months, said she immediately fell for the dog.

"I had to be sure before I would even walk one, so I didn't get emotionally attached," she said. "He had a spark. ... This I think was really meant to be."

As Usry held her new dog - who appeared to be a Shih Tzu once the grime was washed away - Shealynn Mace got a kiss from her new puppy Reeses. Mace, an 18-year-old, decided to adopt the 2-month-old puppy and a 2-year-old lab.

"I'm so excited," she squealed.

Merck put Gizmo back in the kennel - he had to be neutered before he could go home - and noted that the pens would be full by the end of the day.

"It's a numbers game," he said. "We try everything we can to avoid it. ... We can't give all of them a home, unfortunately."

The shelter works with rescue groups, puts up signs on the pens of the dogs they feel a certain affinity for and post listings on a Web site.

To increase adoptions, the center is even offering to waive adoption fees to seniors and running a two-for-one special for kittens.

Comparing numbers between June 2008 and June 2007, when the operation was housed in the cramped Hi-Hope Road building, euthanizations have increased and adoptions have gone down.

Animal Control supervisor Jason Cannon said the trend can likely be attributed to the economy.

"We've seen a lot of animals come in because people are losing their homes," he said, adding that fewer people have taken on pets because of financial strains. "Just because you built a larger building doesn't mean you'll have more adoptions."

Frank and Maggie

Respess said her two dogs at home are enough, but that hasn't stopped her from saving a couple of kittens.

One, Frank, was scheduled to be euthanized for scratching when she took pity on him and decided the shelter needed a house cat to keep mice out of the food pantry.

Frank lives there now with Maggie, a kitten whose owner was murdered in a trailer park a few months ago.

"We have so many black kittens," Respess said, explaining that no one had shown an interest in adopting Maggie, who was named after her former owner. "That lady loved her. ... She didn't have any hope."

At least for now, the shelter is also home to a horse and a rooster. The rooster was found wandering in a neighborhood, and the horse was discovered badly malnourished in a field.

Respess said she's learned about all kinds of animals since she took over the shelter last year.

"I'm learning more about horses, cows, pigs, goats, cats. I'm learning every single day," she said with a laugh. The rooster, she learned from a staffer, has an upper respiratory infection, so he'll need medication. "I don't know anything about those creatures, but we take them to the vet."

That day, a pair of terrier puppies were euthanized after weeks of waiting for a home. A large lab was being considered by a rescue organization. While the officer walked him to her desk, he squatted and left excrement. Just another day at the office.

A mother who brought her kittens out of the rain and into a man's garage was placed in a cage, along with her kittens.

And an 86-year-old woman whose roommate was charged with neglect was reunited with her 20-pound cat.



Volunteer Virginia Keller said the animal deaths at the shelter are always sad, but she said the blame shouldn't be placed on the officers. Instead, it's irresponsible owners who refuse to have their pets spayed and neutered.

The shelter now requires spaying and neutering before an animal is adopted, and Keller's organization helps arrange for the service.

"People don't understand what goes on," Keller said. "They are doing an incredible job up here. It's the public that isn't doing what they need to do. They aren't being responsible."

Respess said she tries not the judge the owners who bring in neglected or abandoned animals.

"We would much rather they call us than throw the dog out," she said. "Even if a dog gets put down, it's better than it being in a cruelty situation or thrown out."

"Some people say we could be a no-kill shelter, but I don't know how that's possible. Our officers come out of there crying," she said. "Everyone has the heart of gold and deserves to live, but it's just not possible."

Merck would prefer to remember the good times.

The day Scrappy was reunited with his owner and Sparky was sent to be euthanized, Merck got a letter from a woman he helped adopt a dog a few months ago.

He wiped away tears as he read about the way the dog was thriving in his new home.