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Humane society swelled to the seams with cats and dogs in need of good homes

Unprecedented numbers pack the shelter at time when surrenders outnumber adoptions
La Plata County Humane Society staff member Ken Hibbard takes Salazar for a walk on Saturday. “Sal” is a 1-year-old shepherd mix who has been at the shelter since August, longer than every other dog. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

One-year-old Salazar has been passed over by potential adopters at the La Plata County Humane Society since his arrival at the beginning of August. He’s been on the block – kennel row – longer than anyone.

When people pass by his kennel he tends to back as far from the bars as he can get. Sometimes he lets loose with a wary bark. It’s not aggression so much as a bit of fear.

“Salazar doesn’t show well in the kennel,” said staff member Ken Hibbard, who has been at the Humane Society for 13 years. Hibbard doesn’t dwell on what may have happened to a dog before it arrives at the shelter, whether abuse or abandonment to a lonely life – which is crushing for pack animals.

Tyron is interested in attention and affection from his adopted family. He likes long walks, Milk-Bones, sniffing and scratches behind the ears. (Courtesy of La Plata County Humane Society)

“I’m more concerned about what can we do for them now,” he said while at the play yard outside. That does not mean he doesn’t recognize the signs. A new arrival with piercing blue eyes (Tyron) is more interested in soaking up human attention than playing with other dogs. “He was probably left alone outside,” he said.

Salazar didn’t want to go for walks or play when he first arrived. He would just sit and stare at the parking lot. Now he’s in full tail-wag as he runs and plays with the other dogs in the yard. Shelter staff members describe him as “the sweetest and most gentle soul once you get to know him.” They call him Sal for short. Sal gets along well with just about every dog and cat he’s met at the shelter.

And that is saying something, considering the shelter is overflowing with dogs and cats in need of forever homes. There are currently 50 dogs, with a few in foster care, and 40 cats at the shelter, with another couple dozen in foster care. Three weeks ago, there were 70 dogs in the building and more than 100 cats in the system.

“We’ve had a couple of good weekends of adoptions,” said Chris Nelson, director of animal services. “But yeah, we’ve been extremely full pretty much all year and it is exceedingly bad right now. It’s kind of unprecedented really.”

The average length of stay has increased from about 12 days leading into 2020 to about 30 days now, he said. And a lot of that has to do with the pandemic. There were a lot of adoptions in 2020 and far fewer drop offs. Then the pandemic closed spay and neuter services for several months, which resulted in a bumper crop of puppies and kittens. Staff shortages and full client lists at veterinary offices only compounded the problem.

Doubling the amount of time animals stay at the shelter doubles the chance of one of them getting sick, Nelson said. And it also affects the perceptions of people looking to adopt.

“I think the public perceives it as some sort of problem, that the animal has problems,” he said. “We recently adopted a dog named Tiffany who had been here several months who we all considered the best dog in the building. And she just kept getting overlooked and overlooked and didn’t get adopted.”

Sadly, this is a time of year when the shelter receives a lot of surrenders, resulting in two animals being adopted for every three being taken in. That’s how it has been the last few months, Nelson said. There have been a few weeks where every kennel has been full so offices were used to fill the gap.

People surrender animals for hundreds of reasons, he said. For some, it is housing issues, especially with so many rentals not allowing pets. For others, it may be financial.

“And then there’s the ones we don’t like to talk about, like it (the pet) doesn’t match my new couch,” Nelson said.

Shelters are full nationwide right now, he said. It used to be you could transfer animals to less crowded shelters. Nelson used to be able to transfer 16 dogs and cats to shelters in the Denver area, now he can send only two or three at a time.

Volunteer Robin Fritch holds Sailor, who has been at the shelter since October, longer than any other cat. Sailor is always dressed for a tuxedo dinner and is good with other cats, dogs and children. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Down the hall from the dog kennels is the cattery, where 2-year-old Sailor has been on watch for someone to go home with since October. She enjoys snuggling, purring and of course – bird watching. Sailor wants people to know she is good with cats, dogs and children. Her wish list for the holidays is “to be a loving house cat and family pet.”

Young adults and kittens fill nearly every niche inside the cattery. Kittens had the run of the cattery on Saturday. Some were a little more shy, like the buff-colored Mashed Potato. While others like siblings Quinoa and Minnie Wheat kept up a rollicking tussle that included the shoelaces of any and all visitors.

Back outside with Salazar and Hibbard is 12-year-old Maggie Taylor of Durango who has done everything from bottle feed baby kittens to helping with baths to walking dogs during her year-plus as a volunteer. She was drawn to the shelter because of her love of dogs. Salazar takes regular breaks from his play with the other dogs to touch base with her.

“He’s really, really sweet,” she says of Salazar. “He’s good with other dogs. Sometimes I hang out with him in his kennel and he gives me lots of licks and loves.”

“Kids bring a great energy,” Hibbard said. “Dogs just relax with them.”

To help

For more information about dog and cat adoptions, visit lpchumanesociety.org. Shelter hours for admissions, adoptions and services are noon-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. Sundays. Staff can be reached at 259-2847. The adjacent thrift store is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. The shelter is located at 1111 South Camino del Rio in Durango.

The Humane Society has about 20 staff members and a roster of 400 volunteers, about 75 of whom stop in regularly to walk dogs and hang out with the cats.

The shelter is now offering reoccurring adoption specials at greatly reduced prices. All dogs are ready to go to a good home for $25 and all cats for $10. Regular adoption fees are $45 for cats and up to $250 for puppies. Potential adopters should be ready to provide lots of love and a caring home.

The La Plata County Humane Society is not a “no kill” shelter, and only in the rarest of instances is an animal put down for any reason.

“Some dogs and cats may stay here for a while – but we don’t give up on them,” said Hibbard, who retired Monday with nuzzles and purrs of thanks from those in his care.

Shelter staff members remind everyone to spay and neuter pets, and if people are having trouble doing that for any reason, they can call the shelter for help.

“I’ve been doing this job for 20 years and it is the one thing that we can control,” Nelson said. “It’s really part of pet ownership and responsibility.”


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