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Humane Society of Carroll County disputes comparisons with other shelters

A cat looks out from its enclosure in the adoption area of the Humane Society of Carroll County Wednesday.
A cat looks out from its enclosure in the adoption area of the Humane Society of Carroll County Wednesday. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO, Carroll County Times)

Carolyn "Nicky" Ratliff and her staff are usually very busy.

Ratliff, the executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County, said she is constantly on the phone handling calls for service, maintaining records, and performing other tasks to ensure the shelter she runs is operating properly. Her 11 employees - less than what some similar shelters have - are contracted to operate animal control and shelter services on behalf of the county. And they are stretched thin, she said.

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"It breaks my heart that my people have to do what they have to do here," Ratliff said. "There is no down time."

That is why she does not understand detractors of the shelter, which is located on Littlestown Pike in Westminster. The critics complain the Humane Society is not doing enough to save animals rather than euthanize them.

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In Ratliff's view, the shelter can only do what it can.

The most vocal of the shelter's critics is Laura Shenk, the founder of Animal Advocates of Carroll County, a group formed in 2012 to save animals. She said the euthanasia rate at the shelter is far too high. Shenk's and other resident's concerns prompted a meeting in December in front of three county commissioners.

"[The shelter is] not doing too good," Shenk said. "And we are contracting this organization to do [animal control] on the theory that they can do this better."

In 2013, 2,375 cats and kittens were brought to Carroll's shelter. Of those felines, 1,465 were euthanized, a rate of 62 percent. As for dogs, 1,146 were brought to the shelter in 2013, and 393 were euthanized, a rate of 34 percent.

Ratliff said some of the euthanizations that were performed in 2013 were at the request of owners - 286 of the felines and 210 of the canines, specifically. If those numbers are excluded from the totals, the euthanasia rates drop to 56 percent for cats and 20 percent for dogs. Many of the euthanizations that were not requested by their owners were performed because the animals were too old, sick or dangerous to be adopted, Ratliff said.

Ratliff said she is tired of comparisons to other shelters. She said the raw intake and outcome numbers do not capture the differences in resources that each shelter has. That is not to mention the demographic and geographic differences in the areas that each shelter serves.

As for her shelter, she said it is underfunded and understaffed.

A tale of two shelters

Still, Shenk points out that other shelters perform less euthanizations than Carroll's.

For instance, Harford County's animal shelter, operated under contract by the nonprofit Humane Society of Harford County, euthanized cats and dogs in 2013 at rates of 46 percent and 20 percent, respectively. The rates are 44 percent for cats and 9 percent for dogs excluding owner-requested euthanizations. The rates are lower than Carroll's.

But Ratliff said there are important distinctions between the two shelters.

For instance, Harford's shelter does not operate animal control services. Instead, all of the Harford shelter's 21 staff are devoted to shelter services, and certain employees have specialized tasks, such as handling volunteers and managing intake and outcome data.

Carroll's shelter, by contrast, has 11 employees, and only seven operate the humane society's shelter; the other four are animal control officers. With more than 3,000 dogs and cats coming into the shelter's door each year, the staff can get overwhelmed, Ratliff said.

And that is not the only difference.

With more funding, Harford's humane society is able to run various promotions - even opening up an adoption center at a local mall. This year, about $650,000 of Harford's funding comes from the county, and about $500,000 from fees for services, contributions and donations, said David Fang, president of the board of directors for Harford's humane society.

With $810,000 in funding this fiscal year from the county, Carroll's humane society is unable to devote as much time to promotions, let alone opening additional space for animals to be held. Carroll's humane society receives donations, but that funding can be limited.

Without the funding, Carroll's shelter does not have the same tools that other shelters do, leading to some noticeably different outcomes. For instance, Ratliff initially provided to the Times inaccurate numbers for the total canines brought to the shelter in 2013.

Part of the reason is that Ratliff has no computer software to track such data, instead accounting for animals and their outcomes by hand using paper spreadsheets. Several calls later, Ratliff produced the correct numbers.

In contrast, Fang confidently provided such data pulled from his shelter's animal tracking software.

Ratliff said she is investigating, along with IT staff in the county government, a software system that will track intake and outcome numbers.

Unfortunately for Ratliff, additional funding appears to be up in the air for next year.

The county's staff did not recommend funding a kennel expansion, a spay and neuter wellness clinic or additional storage for Carroll's shelter in their Preliminary Recommended Community Investment Plan. The plan was presented Thursday during a county commissioners meeting.

Despite the limited resources, Shenk, of Animal Advocates, said there is still more that can be done. She noted the shelter could work with other groups in the community to increase adoptions. She said adoptions also need to be promoted more aggressively, and the times that the shelter offers adoptions - 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 to 11:30 a.m. on Saturdays - should be expanded.

Ratliff said she does work with other groups in the community to save animals, including Metro Ferals, which operates a trap, neuter, return program in Carroll. She said she even works with some members of Shenk's group to help find dogs and cats a home.

As for adoption times, Ratliff would be happy to expand them, she said, if she had more staff to do so. She said she is wary of relying on volunteers to expand hours, because they can be unreliable.

Fang, of Harford's shelter, said given Carroll's shelter's level of funding and staffing, it should not be criticized. Instead, county leaders and the community at-large should work to find solutions to any problems it has.

"What Nicky needs is not people screaming at the county [commissioners] ... what she needs are people coming up with solutions and donating money so she can hire people to help her," Fang said.

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