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Caring for the dogs and cats people deny responsibility for is one of the toughest jobs anybody ever loved. When a recession is on, it’s tougher still.
Eleven-year-old Lena Johnson of Elgin spends her first volunteer session at the animal shelter playing with a couple of puppies. The two dogs came from a bigger litter, but the expense of taking care of them forced the owners to give up these two. Photos by CHRIS BAXTER, The Observer
Ask the folks at the Blue Mountain Humane Association animal shelter. They’ll tell you that demand for their services are up, even as their limited budget shrinks.
“People aren’t adopting or redeeming pets as much, but more animals are coming in,” Jane Sabin-Davis, head of the Association’s board of directors, said recently.Just to give a rough picture of the problem, the total number of animals taken into the shelter in 2007 was 1,507. In 2008, the number climbed to 2,050.
The shelter looks after the needs of all sorts of animals, dogs, cats mostly, but sometimes, horses and sheep, and even the occasional exotic pet.
Dogs, however, are the main focus. Not as many are finding that “forever home” Sabin-Davis and other shelter workers like to talk about.
In August of last year, for example, the shelter handled a total of 60 dogs. Thirty percent were adopted and 32 percent returned to owners.
In January of this year, the facility took in 58 dogs, but placed only 22 percent in homes. Just 26 percent of the animals were returned to owners.
“The economy is influencing it,” said Sabin-Davis. “We’re getting people who say they’re laid off, they’re downsizing, they’re moving from a house to an apartment and can’t keep their dog anymore.”
Another sign of recessionary times is the number of purebred dogs coming into the shelter, Sabin-Davis added.
Up until the recession, dogs coming in were more likely to be some combination of black Lab, border collie and Australian shepherd. That looks to be changing.
“Now we’ve got a beagle and a Welsh terrier we can’t get out of here. We have had dachshunds,” Sabin-Davis said. “That’s reflective of people who can’t afford to take care of their dogs. You don’t just give up a purebred.”
The Humane Association is proud of its shelter and the important role it plays in the community’s well being. Things have come a long way since the days when strays were taken to a small, ill-equipped pound near the county fairgrounds.
Originally, the new facility was named the Louise McNeely Animal Shelter; two years ago, the name was shortened to The Animal Shelter.
Built in 1996 at 3212 Highway 30, the shelter is equipped with 12 dog adoption kennels, 15 cat kennels and additional room for stray cats and dogs.
The building, surrounding grounds and outbuildings are owned by Union County, which remains a close partner in shelter operations. The county employs two part-time animal enforcement officers who work closely with the shelter staff, which includes two part-time animal care technicians.
The area of coverage is a big one. The shelter services all of Union County except Elgin and Union, entities that have and enforce their own pet ordinances. The Union County facility also helps Baker County with animal control issues.
In addition to intake, adoption and redemption services, the Humane Association offers various education programs, including a dog bite safety program in local elementary schools.
Currently, a “Pooch Program” is being developed for youth at the RiverBend transitional facility at Hilgard. The program is designed to teach young people responsibility through caring for dogs.
The association also puts on regularly scheduled events like rabies clinics and the Santa Paws picture-taking session at Christmas time.
“There’s a real variety of things we do to reach out to the community,” said Outreach Coordinator Emily Booth.
Sabin-Davis said there is a major effort on to educate people about dog licensing requirements.
“Every dog in the county except in Union and Elgin is supposed to have a county license. That’s a message we’d really like to get out,” she said.
The association’s annual budget is $100,000, with income deriving from fees for service, contributions from Union County and the Cities of La Grande, Cove and Island City, plus memorials and donations.
On an outing to the animal shelter, Justin Bowling of La Grande plays with one of the several cats awaiting new homes.
Fundraising is a vital activity coordinated by the board of directors. But here again, the recession is putting a damper on things.
In August-December 2007, the shelter’s income from fees, donations and memorials was $47,798. During the same period in 2008, it was $33,420.
Sabin-Davis believes the board will be able to raise enough funds to cover the budget this year. But she worries that the association’s effort at educating the public about responsible pet ownership will suffer.
“We’re a humane association and we need to educate people on why we can’t have those animals running loose out there,” she said. “We’re keeping up with the flow, but we’re not stemming it.”