THE LEAST OF THESE
By ANDREW MCGINN
As anyone who relies on volunteer help knows, good ones are hard to find.
So imagine how elated the ladies of PAWS — the People for Animal Welfare Society — must have been recently when an entire family contacted them wishing to volunteer at the Greene County Animal Shelter.
The family, however, quickly reneged when they actually saw the shelter, deciding it wasn’t a place they wanted their kids to be around.
“People think warm and fuzzy,” explained Shannon Hagen, the current treasurer of PAWS, the organization that cares for the community’s unwanted dogs and cats on behalf of the city of Jefferson. “There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about this.
“It’s blood, sweat and tears, mostly.”
Hagen is speaking literally — cages that get rustier by the year leave dogs with ripped noses and torn mouths. The facility’s chain-link pens enable dogs to fight with one another through the gaps, leading to grave injuries, like the one inflicted recently on Honey, a tan and white hound/Vizsla mix who has called the shelter home for the better part of a year.
Honey needed stitches — for the second time since arriving at the shelter on March 28, 2019 — but with it being a Saturday night, the vet’s emergency fee ate a little deeper into PAWS’s dwindling pool of money.
“The animals deserve so much better,” said Ann Wenthold, a member of the PAWS board, “as do the people volunteering.”
They worry that the drive to raise $1.13 million for a new Greene County Animal Facility is starting to stall, a dilemma fueled by the notion that people in the 21st century have attention spans roughly the same as their cats.
And, as fate would have it, a shiny new object entered the picture this year in the form of the Greene County Early Learning Center, whose board is now actively raising $2.9 million for a new building on Vine Street.
It’s also probably just a matter of time, they observed, before the county looks to build a new jail to replace the outdated Law Enforcement Center, which itself has a number of deficiencies.
“I don’t think what we’re asking for is too grand,” Wenthold said.
The animal shelter project crossed what organizer Don Orris called a “mental milestone” in September, when a $34,400 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture pushed the committee past the $500,000 threshold. After a recent, sizeable gift from Alice Walters, the project now stands at $550,000, according to Orris.
But what the federal government giveth, the federal government can taketh away — the USDA grant has a time limit.
If there’s no building soon in which to put the grant-funded equipment, the grant could be lost.
Similarly, an offer of free land by the Greene County Development Corp. for a new shelter just to the south of AAI/Spalding was originally good for three years.
That was three years ago.
Since then, Heartland Bank purchased a lot in the same business park, and a new Greene County High School and regional career academy are going up within sight, suggesting that could soon be hot property.
Orris, the retired hardware store owner who took up the animal shelter cause with momentum on his side following construction of the Thomas Jefferson Gardens, said the offer of free land remains, because it’s too hilly for much of anything besides the planned dog park that’s part of the project.
“It’s the best lot for us and the worst lot for them,” Orris said.
Orris said the fears expressed by PAWS — whose volunteers are critical in staffing the shelter — aren’t unfounded. There’s always something, he said, that forces the shelter to go lower on the list of fundraising priorities.
“It seems like we get pushed back all the time,” Orris said.
Ironically, Orris was contacted by three sisters in Perry who wanted to use his extensive research into animal shelter facilities for a project of their own.
He happily obliged.
That $2.25 million facility, Raccoon River Pet Rescue, is now standing in Perry after one of the sisters donated $2 million.
If there’s such a thing as shelter envy, it’s fomenting in Jefferson.
“She didn’t even die,” a wide-eyed Wenthold marveled recently.
After several attempts to canvass the entire county for donations flopped, Orris said he’s now at work on sending 800 or more letters — every last one personalized — to as many local addresses that he can obtain.
Unlike a political campaign that buys lists of addresses for glossy mailers, Orris has to settle for who’s still in the phone book.
“In today’s world, so many people have cellphones now,” he said. “Are you in the phone book? If not, I don’t have an address.”
His latest pitch is something called a charitable remainder trust, a gift of cash or property.
Say, for example, someone without heirs wants to donate farmland, but still needs that land to generate income while they’re alive. Such a gift would continue generating income for the owner, but would enable the shelter committee to borrow against earnings to break ground.
“It only takes one,” Orris said, repeating his long-held belief that the right donor is still out there. “I’m still looking for the one.”
And to the largest-single donor will go naming rights, he said.
The existing shelter’s biggest problem may be the fact that it’s not visible from West Russell Street, where it sits out of view next to the city sewage plant.
“If anyone spent an hour down here,” Wenthold said, “they would understand why it’s so desperately needed.”
Stepping inside the cramped building is like standing on a flight line, so deafening is the sound of eight dogs (even though there are only seven dog runs). Police ask that PAWS keep two runs open to accommodate strays they pick up.
Heat is provided by space heaters.
The harder the winter, the more likely that bowls of water will freeze.
One horror story Orris tells is of a local resident whose dog escaped while they were on vacation and ended up at the current shelter. The animal froze to death.
Hagen tells the story of Buddy, a chocolate Lab she found one day in his run in a pool of blood. She had stopped at the shelter by chance on her lunch break.
It appeared Buddy had stuck his paw into the next run, where it was grabbed by another dog.
The leg had to be amputated.
The dogs in a modern animal shelter would be separated from each other, according to Wenthold.
As is, they say, the current facility scares off both potential volunteers and, even more crucially, people looking to adopt a pet.
There’s no bathroom, which meant the little boy who once had to go while his family looked at adopting a dog was out of luck.
Yet, despite it all, some PAWS members have volunteered for years.
For them, it’s all about the animals.
One gets the sense they would literally walk into hell and back if a kitten needed to be bottle-fed.
Actually, bottle-feeding kittens makes it all worthwhile.
“We get five minutes of happy every once in a while,” Hagen said.
How to give to a new animal shelter
Donations can be sent to the City of Jefferson/Greene County Animal Facility Project at 220 N. Chestnut St., Jefferson, IA 50129
Project organizer Don Orris encourages anyone with questions to call him at 515-370-5740.