Animal shelter takes a unique approach to abused pets.
By Phil Lindeman
The Eagle County Animal Shelter offers something many communities simply can’t afford: a “central clearinghouse” for pets, according to director Shawn Markmann. As a government-funded facility under the direction of Eagle County Animal Services, the shelter is part of an overarching department dedicated solely to unclaimed animals, the majority of which are strays. From the moment a lost or abandoned pet is found, Markmann and his officers are part of every detail.
Animal shelters aren’t few and far between – Colorado alone has more than 120 – but many are nonprofits and contract their services to town governments. Organizations like the Denver Dumb Friends League and Eagle County Humane Society can fundraise at will – both a blessing and a curse. The contract model means there is occasionally a gap between the county officers who pick up strays and the private shelters that care for them afterwards.
“The fact we run a shelter at the same time up here is kind of an anomaly,” Markmann says. “Most others municipalities can’t oversee those services, but I think having both those services in one department is really nice. We have a foot in both worlds and that gives us a broader view.”
A pet-friendly community
In the small, pet-friendly communities of Eagle County, running a shelter with tax money is relatively easy, but the county’s all-in-one approach isn’t feasible for densely populated areas. Operating costs for an area with fewer than 60,000 permanent residents are more affordable than a city with 100,000 people or more.
“Most towns don’t want to build large facilities for animals because they are money pits,” Markmann says, noting it takes roughly $2,000 to treat and shelter an animal once it arrives. “This setup gives you a total perception on what happens in the county as a whole. We have a more realistic expectation of how animals can be cared for.”
Until 2008, the shelter had the best of both worlds through a partnership with the local Humane Society, but a nasty split that year separated the two organizations. Although the shelter lost volunteers in the wake of the feud, once Markmann took over in 2010, he built a model that now works well for his six full-time employees and, more importantly, the cats and dogs they encounter daily.
Last year, the shelter found homes for 640 animals, and Markmann predicts nearly 700 will be adopted by December. These impressive numbers are due in part to the shelter’s humanitarian approach: It’s considered a “no-kill for space” facility, meaning animals will never be euthanized unless health or behavior issues leave no other option.
“No animal that is healthy and adoptable will be killed here,” Markmann says, noting the shelter has boasted a five-percent euthanasia rate for as long as he can remember. “Sometimes, we have to put an animal to sleep if they are just too sick or aggressive. There is really no such thing as a ‘no-kill shelter’ when you take in every animal.”
As Markmann alludes to, the 80-kennel shelter looks after animals that wouldn’t otherwise receive help – say, an unidentified dog hit by a car – but is only able to house dogs, cats and other small animals like hamsters.
Once a dog or cat is brought to the shelter, it has five days to be claimed by the owner. If no one comes forward, the animal becomes the property of the county and is assessed for adoption. It gets the works: a check-up, vaccinations, microchip, even a grooming if needed. When the pet is taken care of, it’s finally put up for adoption and generally finds a home within a few weeks.
Although Markmann is proud of the shelter’s adoption rates, the main benefit of the Eagle County facility is what he dubs “re-housing,” or returning lost pets to their owners. Thanks to the all-inclusive model, officers are familiar with pets and stand a better chance of returning them to their owners.
“It’s nice we have the ability to re-house animals – in a small community, you tend to know which animals belong to which people,” Markmann says. “In a worst-case scenario, the same animals will just get brought to us over and over.”
Helping pets – and owners
Despite the department’s catch-all approach to the process of animal care, it still encounters problems faced by shelters everywhere. The majority of in-need pets come from Eagle and Gypsum, where there are higher numbers of permanent residents than the transitional towns of Vail and Avon. For Markmann, one of the biggest hurdles is dealing with abusive or simply irresponsible owners.
“It’s very frustrating to have an animal you can tell comes from a home, just because of their obedience training or grooming or how they look,” Markmann says. “You know someone owns the animal, but they just aren’t looking for them. That happens much more than I care to elaborate on.”
Along with educating complacent owners, Markmann is constantly searching for volunteers. Markmann uses volunteers for most daily activities, from walking dogs to caring for kittens. This keeps overall costs low and helps take a small burden off his officers.
When the county and Humane Society severed ties, the shelter lost more than volunteers – it no longer had funding from tax-free donations. The shelter makes enough off adoption fees to cover vaccinations and microchips, but the remarkably low cost is more about finding responsible owners than making a profit. In general, Markmann says people who can’t manage $100 for a dog won’t be able to care for it in the long run, but the cost is just low enough that animals don’t spend months without a home.
“There’s a certain psychology to adoptions,” Markmann says. “We have a little easier time making people more responsible about ownership.”