It's raining cats and dogs in Okaloosa County, straining the resources of the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society and the non-profits and rescue organizations that try to deal with abandoned and unwanted pets. Just how bad is the problem, and what are the possible solutions?

LAUREL HILL — On a hot August day in northern Okaloosa County, animal control officer Katie Bruno hops in her white van and goes down the list of things she has to do that day.

First, check on a reported horde of goats running in the middle of the road — again. Next, a person noticed a dog living underneath an abandoned house in a rural neighborhood and wants the dog checked on. And a woman in Crestview died unexpectedly the day before and her two dogs, a Rottweiler and an elderly Lab mix, need to be picked up and brought into the shelter.

It’s just another day in animal control — a list of places she’s needed that will inevitably get longer as the day goes on.

Along the way, Bruno stops at the house of a family who says a dog wandered onto their property and they can’t take care of it. She suspects the dog has been theirs all along, but they insist she take it, so she does. She also stops to drop off a bag of food for another family’s pit bull, since they’re having trouble taking care of it financially, and tries to convince them to get the dog neutered — they want to breed the dog and sell the puppies.

“I told them to just come through my shelter on any given day and see how many pit bulls and puppies we have,” Bruno says when she gets back in the car. “We are full. All the time.”

 

The seemingly endless duties of an Okaloosa County animal control officer are symptomatic of a greater issue facing the county, one that has four paws and a wet nose.

Every month, hundreds of dogs and cats are brought into the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society, the animal rescue organization contracted through Okaloosa County to collect, house, and maintain the area’s animal population. On any given day, the shelter says it has between 550 and 600 animals in its care.

Most of them, like the dog under the house and the dog that belonged to the family, are brought in as strays or owner surrenders. Some are rescued from abusive or neglectful situations. Some are brought in when their owners die or are arrested, and some are picked up simply as missing pets.

PAWS workers and volunteers try hard to find homes for all animals that come in, and for most of them, they do. But shelter records show nearly one in three animals is ultimately euthanized — most of them cats, and dogs that were deemed aggressive, dangerous or ill.

“With dogs, at this point, we’ve almost eliminated any need for an animal to be euthanized because we don’t have space for them,” PAWS Director Dee Thompson said. “A lot of that has to do with rescue (organizations) we work with. There are also animals that we put to sleep at the owner’s request, and unfortunately with the cats, there are just so many ferals that come in, and very, very few rescue groups for cats.”

So what is the role of PAWS in Okaloosa County, and what can residents of the county do, collectively, to reduce the euthanasia rate and keep the pet population at a manageable level?

So, what exactly is PAWS?

The Panhandle Animal Welfare Society is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with two main “branches” that serve different purposes for Okaloosa County: on one side, there’s animal control, which is funded by and contracted through the county, and on another side, there’s the humane society, which is funded through donations and grants.

The animal control part of the agency is funded by county and city money, totaling approximately $763,385 annually. That’s the branch that responds when a dog attacks someone, when feral cats are running loose or when strays need to be picked up off the street (among a litany of other animal-related calls).

The humane society is the branch that handles animal outreach in the community—dog and cat adoptions, the veterinary clinic and low-cost spay and neuters. That part is funded entirely by grants and donations. Dee Thompson, director at PAWS, estimates that each year, the PAWS Thrift Shop brings in an estimated $600,000 to $800,000, the spay and neuter clinic makes about $160,000 and adoption fees, grants and donations provide further income for the humane society.

The money goes towards things like equipment, payroll, lights and gas.

“Our electric bill is $3,000 a month,” Thompson said. “Basically we’re lucky if we have a zero-balance budget, where we try to end the year just exactly what we budgeted.”

Thompson said the shelter has 30 paid employees and payroll amounts to approximately $800,000 annually, including animal control. About 150 unpaid volunteers are logged in the PAWS books each month.

 

By the numbers

Between Oct. 1, 2016 — the date Okaloosa County’s most recent contract with PAWS was ratified — and August 2018, PAWS has taken in 12,076 animals, according to shelter records obtained by the Daily News. That includes cats, dogs and “other” animals, like Leppy the Gecko, who lives in a tank in one of the PAWS staffer’s offices.

More than half of those animals were brought in as strays, and an additional 2,815 were owner surrenders, shelter records show. The rest of the animals were brought in from animal control, some were born in the shelter, others were brought in for euthanasia at the owner’s request and some were returned after adoptions.

There are 56 kennels at PAWS, and each of them house two or three dogs. On a recent Monday in early October, dozens of adoptable dogs clamored for attention as shelter workers walked down the hallway.

There was Leonidas, a large Anatolian Shepherd whose owner surrendered him on Sept. 29 because the dog was afraid of thunder.

Dobby, a Labrador retriever mix, was brought in as a stray on July 23. The black and white “tuxedo” dog sat quietly, shaking in a corner while his kennel mates barked for attention.

Between October 2016 and August 2018, PAWS placed nearly 4,000 animals like Leonidas and Dobby into adoptive or foster homes. Additionally, more than 1,200 dogs and 200 cats were returned to their owners, and 1,742 were transferred to other animal rescue groups, like Alaqua Animal Refuge in Freeport or Saving With Souls Pet Rescue in Fort Walton Beach.

But nearly a third of the animals — 3,755, to be exact — had to be euthanized. Thompson says that dogs like Leonidas and Dobby — healthy, non-aggressive, non-dangerous dogs — won’t be euthanized. They will find them homes, she says.

Cats, on the other hand, are sometimes euthanized even if they’re healthy and adoptable, simply because there are so many of them and not enough space, funds, or staff — or people willing to adopt them.

Out of the 3,755 euthanized animals, 2,633 were cats, 1,104 were dogs and 18 were “other” animals, according to shelter records.

Okaloosa County has lower euthanasia rates than both Walton and Santa Rosa counties, who have euthanasia rates of 46 percent and 65 percent for the same time period, respectively.

Euthanasia

Thompson knows that PAWS, as a shelter that does have to perform euthanasia, sometimes gets a bad rap in the community.

But when you have two or three more cats coming in the door for every one cat that’s adopted, it’s an unavoidable evil.

The kennel technicians at PAWS perform the majority of euthanizations. They do them in a quiet place, out of sight of other animals, and give each animal an anesthetic agent first to put them to sleep. That’s not something required by Florida law but something they do out of compassion for the animals. Then they administer sodium pentobarbital, which puts the animals to sleep.

There’s a large crematory behind a pair of closed doors at PAWS where the animals’ remains are turned into ashes. Two boxes on either side of the crematory are filled with ashes and bones. They'll be hauled away soon to be disposed of properly.

Thompson often cries when she talks about having to euthanize animals — it’s something all of her 30 staff members are required to go through training for, but something none of them want to have to do. It takes a toll on the kennel techs who work with the animals each day and form bonds with them.

“The kennel techs are probably the closest to all of these animals because they see them and feed them every single day,” she said. “On any given day, these people who are making $9.27 an hour, $10 if they’re lucky, know that there’s a strong possibility that even if it’s at an owner’s request, they’re going to have to put an animal to sleep every day and have to come back the next day. To do that for that kind of money, shows a tremendous level of dedication to the animals.”

Thompson and the staff at PAWS have a goal to become a no-kill shelter, which means lowering their euthanasia rate under 10 percent, by the year 2020. To do that certainly won’t be easy. PAWS needs more space, more funding and more, well, everything. But what they need the most, they say, is for members of the community to take better care of their animals, for more people to spay and neuter their pets, and for humans to fundamentally change the way they relate to animals in Okaloosa County.

 

‘Change is coming’

Katie Bruno, the animal control officer, said she knows some people have a bad perception of PAWS. But she said people’s anger is misplaced.

“What people don’t understand is that we’re not monsters,” she said. “No one wants to euthanize an animal. But if a dog attacks a kid, how can I put that dog back out into the public? If a dog eats a cat, how I can put that dog back out there? There are just some circumstances where our hands are tied.”

Bruno has been with PAWS for three years and has been an ACO for a year and a half. Even in that short amount of time, she’s seen it all. She was called to the scene of a Laurel Hill home back in March when a man was arrested for battering his father and authorities found pieces of a 75-pound pit bull in the man’s refrigerator. The dog had been tortured, mutilated and killed.

“It was the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen,” Bruno said. There was another dog in the home, a small beagle mix named Maggie, who was physically unharmed and was taken to PAWS after the incident. Bruno is now fostering the pup in her own home, but by the way she talks about her, it’s likely the pup has found her forever home with Bruno.

Bruno has seen people who dispose of their dogs on the street, unable or unwilling to care for them any longer. She’s seen people intentionally starve, beat and neglect their animals to the point where authorities have to get involved. She’s seen people who refuse to spay or neuter their pets and breed the animals to the point of illness and death.

“People have this old-school mentality that animals are supposed to breed, that’s what they’re meant for,” she said. “And that’s certainly not the case. I promise you, we have no shortage of animals in this region. There’s no reason why you should be breeding. The backyard breeding needs to stop.”

She also sees, more often than not, instances where people in Okaloosa County really love their pets, but don’t have the funds to care for them or the education or resources to properly take care of them. In those instances, Bruno said, she does everything she can to empower people to keep their pets, by giving them food or crates, or informing them about low-cost spay and neuter programs and inexpensive rabies vaccinations.

“We don’t want to take people’s pets,” she said. “Trust me, we have plenty in our shelter. I’m going to do everything I can to help a person keep their pet before it gets to the point where I have to take it.”

While she knows most pet owners are good, she said she sees a trend in the county of people who consider their pets as “property, not something that has a soul or something meaningful.

 

“I think what’s really terrible is the way people act as if animals are disposable,” she said. “Another huge issue is people finding free animals on Craigslist or Facebook and they see ‘free,’ but what they don’t understand is that there’s no such thing as a free animal. When you assume responsibility of animal, it’s just like a child. There will be medical expenses, boarding, and a lot of people don’t understand that.”

But Bruno insists that “change is coming.” There’s hope on the horizon for a new facility for PAWS, thanks to a 16-acre land donation made by the family of late animal lover Peggy Qualls back in May. An assessment team from the University of Florida was in town in early October to help PAWS re-evaluate its adoption and euthanasia practices and institute different methods of animal control.

PAWS staff is even working with local lawmakers to change some outdated animal ordinances on the book, like seven-day stray holds, that they hope will enable them to get animals into foster or adoptive homes even quicker.

“We need community support,” she said. “PAWS does have a stigma, but if people would just realize it’s not us, we’re trying, We’re responsible for cleaning up everybody’s mess…There’s only so much that we can do ourselves. We need the backup of the community, we need them spaying and neutering their pets, we need them vaccinating. Everybody needs to wake up.”