February 2014

Movin' On Up (to the North, that is)

Author: Michael Paskevich | Photographer: Photography by Anne

Animals who find themselves housed at the county shelter in Beaufort face a dire fate: death by lethal injection if they remain unclaimed after a five-day holding period. Many still undergo euthanasia, of course, but an aggressive recent collaboration between Beaufort Animal Control Services, the Hilton Head Humane Association and other animal lovers is upping the odds that captured, often abandoned or mistreated animals, find renewed lives and happy homes, sometimes far away from their original points of origin.

Medical rehabilitation, low-cost spay and neuter options and an out-of-state transport program are helping to reduce the death rate for area animals while saving human tax dollars to boot.

Tallulah Trice took over as director of the county shelter two years ago, heralding a fresh approach that strives to eliminate euthanasia whenever feasible. “We had a lot of people, including county officials, who demanded a change in the way we were doing things,” Trice said. “It was time to put our foot down on the old way.” Trice reached out to community organizations and like-minded individuals, finding a fan and fellow animal champ in Franny Gerthoffer, executive director of the Hilton Head Humane Association, where a no-kill philosophy and adoption center were already in place.

“She works in a kill environment but has a pro-life attitude,” Gerthoffer said of Trice. “She wants to save them and the mentality was not like that in the past. I still get calls from people saying they don’t want to take animals to Beaufort County because they kill everything; but thanks to her, I can now tell them that things are really changing for the better.”

There are no limits to how long animals can remain at the private Hilton Head facility off Spanish Wells Road, where a healthy horde of feral cats roams the property on a permanent basis while temporary residents await a better future. Time, space and medical limitations are a given at the no-frills county shelter where more than 4,500 animals ended up last year. However, that tally is down from a high of about 6,000 animals per annum; numbers reflecting growing compassion for abandoned animals that also saves taxpayers on the costs of capturing the animals and crucial programs such as countrywide rabies control.

“We can’t move the animals (to new homes) from the shelter unless they are healthy,” Trice said, “and it’s hard to get an animal healthy in that environment. It’s a place where everyone dumps the unwanted animals, and at least 85 percent of dogs that come in beyond the age of three tests positive for (curable) heartworm.”
Enter the Humane Association and veterinarians such as Laurel Berry and Matt Dixon who anchor the effort to save the lives of the less fortunate. They treat injured or unhealthy animals at the non-profit Association’s clinic, which has X-ray and full-service surgical capabilities to rehab them for adoption or return to capable owners.

Franny Gerthoffer and Talluah Trice

One recent benefactor of their skills was Hammer, a mixed-breed terrier caught wandering Beaufort after slipping away from his grieving owner, a Marine stationed at the nearby Marine Corps Air Station. The lost animal had a damaged eye through no fault of his owner, and after the eye was removed and he returned home, Hammer supplied some karmic payback and earned a flash of fame as well. The dog was the first to spot a Christmas tree on fire in the home over the past holiday season and nipped at his sleeping owner’s arm to alert him to the danger, saving him and making local newspaper headlines for his heroics.

Not all stories end on such an upbeat note, and animal welfare specialists continue to grapple with saddened owners unable to afford the price of having their animals returned in top condition.

“Sometimes life happens,” Trice said, “and we have people who tell us they can’t even afford the gas to come and get their pets out of jail which is unfortunate.” But there’s still hope for these animals, who could find themselves at the Humane Association where they are checked medically, photographed, assessed for behavior traits and then put up for adoption locally or at public shelters stretching from Atlanta to Maryland.

The transport program, funded in part by private donations and revenues from the Association’s Litter Box thrift store plus grants to the county from the nationwide ASPCA, allows paid drivers to move the animals to metropolitan areas where larger populations increase the demand for rescue animals. “We’re moving up to 30 at a time in vans to no-kill establishments that could use more animals,” Gerthoffer said. “Dogs and cats that sat here for months end up being adopted elsewhere in weeks.” The Hilton Head Humane Association’s Adoption Center staff is in constant contact with out-of-state facilities to help meet a growing need for household additions.

Staff members also contribute to a worthy effort by picking up and holding wayward animals at the island facility even if they are technically county property. “If one of the plantations calls and they are holding a dog at the security office, we’ll go pick it up,” Gerthoffer said. “That is saving tax dollars by not using county vehicles to schlep to Hilton Head and pick up an animal that’s going to be picked up soon by its owner.”
Trice confirmed the positive impact on the county budget for animal services. “Our fuel bill was $50,000 (in 2012), and this past year it was down to about $10, 000,” she said. Other encouraging signs include a steady increase in the number of people taking their pets to a low-cost spay and neuter clinic (SNAC) that fixes them in an ongoing effort to control the area’s animal population. Expanding cooperation between the county and the Hilton Head facility allowed 1,500 pets to find new homes last year under the travel program, up from a previous high of about 800 animals.

Both Gerthoffer and Trice credit nearby kennel owners and concerned volunteers for aiding their steadily improving combined effort, noting that such folks are always willing to house animals temporarily when space is at a premium at the more time-flexible facility on Hilton Head. “We have a lot of good people around here who want to help,” Gerthoffer said.

Perhaps most heartening, statistics bear witness to expanding life expectancies for animals arriving at the county shelter. “Excluding feral cats we have not euthanized anything that is treatable and adoptable,” Trice said. “Sixty-six percent of our animals end up being treated and released to good homes. Euthanasia is about 27 percent, but that’s mostly aggressive dogs and feral cats. Our department is part of (county) public safety, so it’s important that we don’t release anything that might cause public harm.”

The dynamic duo’s symbiotic work continues, even if their shared goal of commuting death sentences for every captive animal remains a still-distant dream. “We’re trying to go out of business,” said a smiling Gerthoffer. “We can’t, but we sure want to.”

Hilton Head Humane Association is located at 10 Humane Way on Hilton Head Island. For more information, call 843-681-8686 or visit hhhumane.org.

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