New vet clinic coming to town! PAWS using donated land for low-cost spay and neuter facility

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH – It’s been a long time.

The Panhandle Animal Welfare Society has been sitting on a 15-acre parcel at 745 Lovejoy Road N.W. donated six years ago by local supporter Al Qualls in memory of his wife, Peggy Ann Qualls.

PAWS Director Tracey Williams said that in that time, there have been renderings released of an administrative building that never came to fruition and announcements made regarding progress, but PAWS was interrupted with a fair amount of hurdles — a director change after 37 years and, of course, COVID-19.

Related:PAWS moving forward on new facility thanks to record donation

“Everything’s coming into the right space, finally,” Williams said. “What we realized while we were closed down and fixing things up was that the biggest need was not the shelter necessarily or offices, but a low-cost spay and neuter clinic.”

PAWS will soon present a proposal to its board of directors to approve the concept for a veterinary clinic at its next meeting Sept. 22 and hopefully break ground in the near future.

Williams started as director a year ago. Her original goal was to break ground soon after being hired, she said.

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The Panhandle Animal Welfare Society breaks ground in May 2020 on a 15-acre parcel donated six years ago. Rather than build an administrative building first, PAWS administrators now want a veterinary clinic.

“But when I got there, I realized there was too much other work to be done with our operations,” she said. “It’s not a great idea to open a facility when your existing operations aren’t running as smoothly as they should be — everything from our financials to our contracts for animal control to our protocols within the shelter.”

A team from the University of Florida advised the facility three years ago on what changes to make, and came back this past winter to re-evaluate. Not only had the original advice not been taken, but the facility had lost traction, Williams said.

“That’s what we worked on all summer and, of course, it was a very busy summer — lots of animals,” Williams said. “And we also had a lot of transition with recruiting new staff. There’s been a lot of turnover. To add more fuel to the fire, there was the cost of construction that doubled and tripled.”

Panhandle Animal Welfare Society volunteer Bill Reed works with adoptable dog Buddy at the shelter in this photo taken during a clear the shelter event earlier this year.

Now, with a million-dollar donation in December 2020, Williams thinks they are ready to begin work on something the community needs desperately: a veterinary clinic. They realized how heavily the community relied on PAWS when it shut down and lost its veterinarian in January.

“Because we don’t have a vet and we only have traveling vets coming in every once in awhile, we are not able to service the public animals, only our shelter animals,” Williams said. “That, along with the fact that now there’s a veterinarian shortage, people are having trouble getting into the clinics because they’re so backed up and busy, and so certainly it’s even harder for people who can’t afford those appointments.”

PAWS now sends injured shelter animals and stray animals in need of care beyond the basic protocol of PAWS' existing clinic to a veterinarian.

More:PAWS animal shelter settles lawsuit with former employee; settlement confidential

Adoptable dog Max looks out from a kennel at the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society during a clear the shelter adoption event held earlier this year.

“Most all of our cases are emergency needs where an animal has been hit by a car or has been abused or neglected,” Williams said. “That’s getting very expensive for us to send them to the vet, and at the same time we’re clogging up the system for other people. It’s kind of a vicious cycle. We’re at the point where we just have to build a clinic.”

The existing clinic tells its own story, Williams said.

“The clinic is so old and the equipment, diagnostic machinery and things, we don’t even use anymore; we use them as paper weights or bookshelves because they’re all broken an old,” she said. “It’s going to be very different.”

When PAWS had a staff veterinarian, it could do 15 to 20 surgeries daily at most. The goal of the new clinic is to have two veterinarians, more surgical tables and twice the number of recovery rooms to do 60 to 80 surgeries daily.

Tracey Williams, executive director at the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society, stands in one of the shelter's rooms that normally would have been filled up with cats in kennels.  PAWS's recent "Empty the Shelter" adoption event helped the orgazation adopt out about 125 animals in its care.

Williams thinks it will help that PAWS has six new members filling its 12-person board after a large turnover.

“With that, I think we’ve got some invigorated leaders,” Williams said. “Most of the new board members coming in have been volunteers for years who have been very involved in our play yard and our operations. These board members that are coming in have worked as much or longer as staff during the week to help our animals with behaviors and getting walked, so they know what our needs are. They are extremely motivated to help us get this thing built.”

More:PAWS takes urgent action to empty the shelter of all animals by mid-March; adoption fees waived

They toured other high-volume spay and neuter clinic facilities in Panama City, analyzed templates of clinics that have worked well and consulted with a veterinarian about their plans, Williams said.

“We didn’t want to just start from scratch; we wanted to find something that works well and build a clinic off that model, something that will serve our shelter animals and the public.”