"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Free of their confines, a litter of kittens chase each other around as their cage is cleaned. Looking to be held they find Ellie Bishop, vet tech and intake supervisor, and rub up against her leg.
She takes the hint and picks two of them up and lets them climb all over her jacket. Purring loudly, they curl up in her arms. "This is the best part of my job," she says.
The kittens are part of a litter born at the Frances R. Willis SPCA a couple of weeks earlier and will go up for adoption as soon as they are big enough. The shelter, located in Summerville, was established over 25 years ago and serves all of Dorchester County.
Day At the Shelter
On most mornings, Sharon Atkinson, the shelter manager can be seen making her rounds. She pauses at each cage to check on every dog and cat there to make sure they are looking healthy. Once a board member for the shelter, she stepped down to take over as the shelter manager. Now she spends almost every day and every waking moment keeping the shelter running.
As Atkinson makes her rounds, others clean cages, do laundry and file paper work. Some have worked at the shelter for many years and as Atkinson says, they do not work there to get rich but because they love the animals.
Yvonne Taylor, a kennel tech, has worked at the shelter for 8 years and says watching the animals being adopted is what she enjoys most about her job. Taylor has worked there so long she says it feels like home.
As I walk through the kennels, the dogs race to the front of the cage to greet me. Most are looking for attention or a playmate but all of them are looking for a home. Whether they were strays, brought in by animal control or owner surrendered, they had a home and want to be found or adopted.
Every tail wagged, every nose nudged and some even jumped for joy as I passed. I don't get that kind of welcome from my best friends but one look into their eyes and I could tell they would be my best friend for life.
In the cat area, Marielle wonders through a tunnel while her cage is being cleaned. Content to stay put, she stares out curiously as I take her picture. Not until Taylor informs me of her condition do I look down and notice she has six toes. Later I learned that extra toes are not that unusual for a cat.
The cats are kept in an enclosed room obviously to keep them away from the dogs. The cages are stacked against one wall of the room and as I walk by, a single paw reaches out to greet me. I turn to return the greeting but am met by steel bars, hard and cold, a contrast to the soft furry animal they entrap. A zipper on my camera bag caught its attention and the fluffy-black cat playfully swipes at it a couple of times before I leave.
Obviously some animals are not as friendly and are kept under quarantine. Wild cats or dogs who might have bitten someone are kept separate and are observed to decide their fate. Some are cleared and join the rest waiting to be adopted while others meet a different fate and are put to sleep.
The shelter works hard to place animals with new families or rescue programs to prevent a high number of put downs, but it happens. Atkinson said of the 3,500-4,000 that come to the shelter each year, only about 5-10% are put to sleep. That number is getting lower, she adds.
Putting a dog or cat to sleep has to be the hardest job around. Having to look them in the eyes and say, no one wants you...
But, she explains that about 120-130 animals are adopted a month which is higher than the ASPCA national average.
Also the shelter works closely with pet rescue organizations such as Lowcountry Lab Rescue, which take in certain breeds of animals regardless of their condition and nurse them back to health before finding them homes. Atkinson said, she has sent dogs to rescues across the country.
Of course, some owners are reunited with their pets and are able to reclaim them from the shelter. A simple microchip would solve many problems for pet owners when their animal is lost. Atkinson said every dog and cat adopted from the shelter is fitted with a microchip identification tag.
Atkinson gives all of these figures while finishing up her rounds and before she embarks on a new set of tasks. The rest of the staff shifts their attention to the animals now.
A group of puppies play in their cage wrestling and biting each other, not paying attention to anyone else. One by one they are taken to a room to be bathed and given booster shots. Bishop administers the shots which she explains protects them from parvo and other diseases. All of the puppies will go up for adoption that day.
The puppies will go quickly, much faster than the older dogs, Bishop says, as she dries one off. I was ready to take one home.
Before long, the shelter opens and people start filtering through. Some come to look for a pet to adopt and others, like Niki Revoldt, come to volunteer by spending time walking the dogs. Every day she comes to walk a couple of the dogs and play with them in a special play pen called 'The Path Home.'
Revoldt walks as many dogs as possible but has her eye on one she hopes her fiance will agree to let her adopt. Only today she is told that particular dog has already found a home. A little defeated, she is happy he found a home.
The walks are as important for the volunteer as the dog. For a moment, nothing else matters as the dogs chase down a ball or roll around on the ground with you like you are the most important person alive; an unconditional love.
Volunteers and donors are the backbone of the nonprofit shelter by donating time and money. It obviously costs to keep the shelter running but cost in recent years have gone up. As the population in Dorchester County rises, so does the number of strays that come through the shelter.
Atkinson said the shelter is normally 75% full and between food, medication and labor, it costs about $70 a week to care for each pet. It cost $120 to adopt a pet but she said it covers only a small part of the care each pet receives at the shelter.
Many friends of the shelter support the SPCA through donations of money and food or even blankets and empty milk jugs. The blankets have many uses including bedding and the milk jugs are made into play toys for the dogs as they sit in their cages.
Atkinson walked through pallets of food donated by local grocers and stopped to show me a couple of handmade stockings made to be given as pets are adopted. She also explained that area schools make food and water bowls in art class and donate them to the shelter.
I was amazed by all the work that goes into the daily operation of the shelter but soon realized the reward. Kacey Patrick and her mother, Karon Bates, walked up to a cage, leash in hand, and said they were ready to adopt. Sasha, a hound mix, was going home.
Sasha was so excited, she could not wait to get through the door and on with her life with a new family. As Kacey filled out the paperwork, Tasha bounced around with excitement; no one had to tell her she was going home.
Tasha was being given a new lease on life, no more lonely days in a cage or the threat of being put to sleep; she could love and be loved.
It didn't take a day to appreciate what goes on at the shelter. The struggles of day-to-day operations are rewarded with an adoption that sends a cat or dog to a loving home.
Visit the shelter to adopt or lend a hand or go online and learn how you can donate to the care of man's best friends.
Paul Zoeller is a freelance photographer new to the area. Do you have an idea for a new blog or a question about a current blog? If you do contact Zoeller at firstname.lastname@example.org.