UCAS Director Jessica Rogers holds one of many cats the shelter now has.
(Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The dog days of summer have arrived a little earlier at the Unicoi County Animal Shelter.

The facility’s current cat population is the highest UCAS Director Jessica Rogers can remember seeing in some time. The number of dogs at the shelter is nearly double the typical amount.

Rogers said the population spike can be attributed to actions taken by shelters in surrounding counties in recent weeks and months. Throughout 2017, multiple shelters throughout the region have temporarily ceased animal intakes for various reasons.

“There’s no state law that a county facility is required to be open admission, but any facility that does receive some sort of taxpayer funding, it is assumed that their citizens will be able to surrender pets to that facility,” Rogers said.

The issues at other shelters have led to animals that would normally be taken to those facilities being dropped off at the UCAS.

“This has been one of the worst summers we’ve had in a while, and we feel like that largely is because of other citizens in other counties not having that open intake option available for animals in need,” Rogers said.

Rogers said the UCAS is in place to serve Unicoi County’s citizens and only actively takes in animals from within Unicoi County. However, she said boxes of animals have been “dumped” at the facility after hours. On a daily basis over recent weeks, boxes and crates containing unwanted pets have greeted UCAS volunteers and staff as they have arrived at the shelter, Rogers said.

“We’re seeing boxes of kittens when we come in the next morning,” Rogers said. “People are leaving dogs in makeshift kennels if the drop boxes are already full. I feel like that may largely be in part, too, because people know that we’re only going to actively take animals from within our county when we’re open, so they’re waiting until we close and bringing things at that point.”

The situation has left the UCAS without much of a choice, Rogers said.

“Our position always is they have to have somewhere to go, the animals have to have a safe haven to go to,” Rogers said.

Rogers said UCAS staff has found temporary housing for the “unseasonably high number of intakes” coming into the facility and is working to find a more permanent solution.

“We do not want to euthanize for cage space,” Rogers said. “That’s not something that we would ever aim to do or found that would be a solution for the overcrowding, but we do have to find a game plan for the animals that we do have currently in-house and the never-ending flow of animals still coming into the facility every day.”

Typically, the number of cats the UCAS has both in-house and in foster homes is around 100 to 120. Rogers said that number currently sits at around 170. The shelter usually has around 30 dogs in-house and in foster homes, but that figure is currently around 55, Rogers said. 

The UCAS was actually on track in 2017 to realize its lowest intake numbers in quite some time, Rogers said. When Rogers took over as UCAS director several years ago, the shelter began tracking local spay/neuter efforts in the community and animals leaving the shelter, as they are spayed or neutered before exiting. Each year, these numbers are compared to annual intake numbers.

Since the tracking processes were implemented, the shelter has consistently seen a steady decline in its annual intake of unwanted animals, Rogers said.

“This year, we were on track to, of course, be even lower than our previous year but, unfortunately, with some of the other local shelters closing their intake, that has funneled into our facility so we are actually at a higher intake than we would have ever expected to be.”

This, Rogers said, has put a bit of a strain on the UCAS, as it is one of the smallest shelters in East Tennessee with perhaps the smallest operating budget. The shelter’s operations are funded through a hybrid of fundraising and governmental contributions. Funding is provided annually by Unicoi County’s three governments which goes toward local animal control efforts and shelter personnel costs. The shelter relies on fundraising efforts to get the money for day-to-day operations and animal care expenses.

“But we still give every single animal that comes through our doors an equal opportunity,” Rogers said.

Rogers said shelters in surrounding counties have been able to offer free or reduced adoption fees, but she said the UCAS does not have the resources to do so.

“Our adoption rates have been fantastic, but we have noticed them slow down over the last few weeks with all of the other counties offering free or drastically reduced adoption fees,” Rogers said. “We have reduced ours to an extent, but since we do require all animals to be spayed or neutered before they leave us, that’s why the remaining fee is what it is. We have to be able to pay those vet bills. And even at the current adoption fees, if you look at what you spend as a private citizen taking an animal to a vet, a basic spay is going to be nearly $200, where if you adopt a shelter pet, everything is already included.”

Because of the overcrowding, UCAS officials are seeking the community’s assistance. Rogers said additional volunteers are needed to help walk dogs and groom cats housed within the shelter. The community can also assist through donations, as the shelter is in need of animal care items such as food, treats and puppy pads.

Those wishing to help may contact the UCAS at 743-3071.