PAWS shelter 'not a boarding facility or dumping ground,' works to reduce its population

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — The Panhandle Animal Welfare Society no longer is going to serve as a convenient depository for unwanted pets. 

As one of a host of changes being made to how Okaloosa County's animal shelter will function going forward, owners attempting to surrender a pet could get turned away.  

"Now, instead of saying 'Yes, we'll take it, come on in,' the policy is 'What can we do to help you keep the animal?' " said PAWS Executive Director Tracey Williams. "We should be a last resort, a resource, not a boarding facility or dumping ground. ... We have to stop allowing animals that have a place to live to be surrendered until we can make room for them."

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Room is something PAWS doesn't have enough of at the present time. A January inspection of the facility by a team from the highly regarded University of Florida Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program found the agency exceeded its "capacity of care" for both dog and cat populations. 

"The lack of proactive surrender prevention strategies on the intake side combined with excessive, self-imposed barriers to live outcome has created a high-risk environment," the report said. 

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As it did following its last visit to PAWS in 2018, the inspection team put together a road map through which the agency can lower its feline and canine populations and provide a safer, healthier, less stressful environment not just for the animals but for the people working there as well. 

This photo was taken at PAWS on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. A trailer that sits in front of the old building is scheduled to be removed.

Unlike 2018, Williams said, this time the road map will be followed. Her board of directors voted last week to provide its unconditional support, and PAWS' staff appeared "visibly relieved" and excited to move forward with the changes.

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Williams said her leadership team also has reached out to Okaloosa County officials for approval to move forward with immediate implementation of some of the initiatives suggested by the Maddie Shelter Medicine Program.

The approval would allow recommended operational changes to be made while necessary revisions to county ordinances are being considered.

Okaloosa County Administrator John Hofstad said Wednesday that he had just been notified of the proposed ordinance changes PAWS is suggesting. He said a meeting between PAWS officials and the county staff will be held soon to discuss the issue.

"We haven't agreed to anything yet," he said. "We'll try to meet in the next week or so and hammer out an ordinance that works for everybody." 

Cat house kerfuffle involving rumored 150 cats in trailer focuses attention on PAWS

Many of the recommendations, like a suggested "community cat" diversion program, defy traditional thinking as it pertains to animal control.

Williams, who was named PAWS executive director in June, said her mindset "has been completely transformed" by all that she has learned from the inspection team comprised of Program Manager Cameron Moore and veterinarian Dr. Sara Pizano.

The University of Florida team, which travels around the country to inspect animal shelters, dispelled many myths Williams said she had held since her arrival in Okaloosa County. 

"We were old school thinking," she said.

Tracey Williams, executive director of the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society, holds one of the shelter's puppies. PAWS will implement a number of changes to how it operates.

Until recently, cats coming to PAWS were caged individually or placed in a communal "cat house." That leads to stress and hastens the spread of disease, according to the report filed by Moore and Pizano. The team said it had seen sick cats housed with disease-free cats and saw a cat fight during their inspection at PAWS.

PHOTOS: A visit with the cats of PAWS (01.28.21)

A community cat diversion program actually returns felines to their outdoor home after the animals are vaccinated and sterilized.

Cats can be territorial, and removing them from an outdoor environment is comparable to closing down their house and confining them to the shower area, according to Colleen Cobb, PAWS' new director of animal operations.

Also, when a cat is trapped and brought to a shelter, another cat moves in and takes over its outdoor territory, allowing the ongoing cycle of reproduction to continue unabated. By returning the animals to where they had come from puts them back in their territory, although, "there won't be a continuing increase in population," Cobb said.   

By returning cats to the field, PAWS can dramatically reduce the number of animals it is forced to euthanize each year, the report said. Also, "TNR, (Trap/Neuter/Return), is shown to drastically reduce complaint calls and solve the nuisance issues which caused the complaint in the first place." 

"We have to train our brains to think that way," Williams said.

Another myth lies with the assumption that people surrendering their animals to shelters do not care about their pets, the report said. Studies have revealed, it said, that between 40% and 80% of owners did not want to surrender their pets but did not have access to temporary help that would allow them to keep the pets.

"When shelters and other animal welfare organizations collaborate, assistance programs can be developed on a grander scale," the report said.

The report encouraged PAWS to partner with fosters and animal rescue services to move animals brought to the shelter to places where they can be housed until they can be adopted. 

Panhandle Animal Welfare Society Executive Director Tracey Williams (right)  and Colleen Cobb, the shelter's director of animal operations, carry some puppies out for a walk. As one of a number of changes planned for the shelter, people wishing to give up their pets might be turned away.

Williams said PAWS also will start vaccinating and preparing animals for adoption as soon as they come into the shelter. That will speed up the process of moving them from PAWS' care to adoption.

"Before, the thinking was we're not going to put money into vaccinating or sterilizing the animal until it's been adopted. We're flipping that to put the animal on a vaccination schedule and spend the money up front because they're going to be adopted. We are going to get them out the door," she said. 

This photo was taken at PAWS on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. A trailer that sits in front of the old building is scheduled to be removed.

The report also called for an aggressive social media presence to market animals for adoption. 

But everything will start with bringing down the population of the animal shelter. 

"There's just no way we can fix what we're doing with a constant influx of animals. We really need to stop the flow so we can fix what we have," Williams said. "We're still going to perform animal control duties and we're trying to work proactively. There needed to be a drastic change, and I think that's what we're trying to do."