Five years ago, employees reporting for work at a Georgia animal shelter walked past picketers, saw their faces posted on social media with the word “murderer” written across them, and were verbally abused when dining out.

Even for public works, such harassment is atypical. But these weren’t typical public works employees.

In many communities, animal control is public safety’s job. But in 1991, Georgia’s Agriculture Department turned over the reins to local government and the City of Columbus assigned the job to Public Works.

Rounding up, assessing, cataloging, housing, feeding, cleaning up after, exercising, and finding homes for 8,000 stray animals suddenly became the responsibility of the department’s Special Enforcement Division. Already handling things like illegal dumping, alcohol and business licensing, junk vehicles, and overgrown lots for a city with 203,000 people, the division had to build a new program from scratch.

There’s no national reporting structure, but a 1997 National Council on Pet Population survey estimated that shelters euthanize 64% of the animals they take in. In 2010, the division began publishing its rate: 79%. Local animal rights activists were less than pleased.

Fast forward five years

Today, at 26%, the division’s euthanasia rate is among the nation’s lowest. In July 2015, the Best Friends Animal Society ranked the city’s program the nation’s top mid-sized municipal animal shelter and awarded the division a $700,000 grant.

Getting to this point is largely the work of politically savvy Drale Short.

In her 32 years with the city, she’s been administrative assistant to the public works director, operations chief, fleet maintenance interim deputy director, rainwater division manager, and oversaw solid waste ordinance compliance for the Special Enforcement Division. When Patricia Biegler joined Public Works as director four years ago, Short was promoted to division head.

Difficult decisions: ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ euthanasia

Columbus (Ga.) Consolidated Government Special Enforcement Division Manager Drale Short differentiates between euthanizing sick or injured animals and what she considers the worst kind: euthanasia for space.

“A healthy, vibrant, lovable animal is put to sleep because we have no place to keep it,” says the 32-year city employee.

Built in 2009 to replace a 30-year-old state shelter, the city’s Animal Care & Control Center has 48 dog runs; cages for 40 cats; and space for six ferrets, rabbits, turtles, and snakes. As required by law to give owners a chance to identify lost pets, the center holds strays for five days before deciding their fate.

If neither the center nor local rescue groups have room, “we try to figure out which animals are most adoptable and which ones aren’t so we can make space for what’s coming in,” says Public Works Director Patricia Biegler. Trained employees euthanize animals; bodies are treated as special waste at the local landfill.

If the animal’s adoptable, the center posts a photo and information on its website (which also publishes intake and euthanasia rates). Animals are featured on a weekly television program and the center promotes adoption at community events.

The division had already developed ordinances dovetailing with state animal control laws and built the 12,657-square-foot Animal Care & Control Center via a public-private partnership with PAWS Humane, the local U.S. Humane Society branch. The two entities exist next to each other on almost four acres provided by PAWS. The city kicked in $2 million to build the center and helped raise another $2 million through donations.

So when Short took over the Special Enforcement Division, her goal was to facilitate a paradigm shift.

“The former reality was public safety – get the animals off the street so they don’t bother anybody,” she says. “There was no animal welfare with regard to getting animals placed in forever homes.”

Partnering for pets

“Animal control is a community problem that needs a community solution,” says Biegler. “No single organization can do it alone.”

Discussions concerning the division of responsibilities morphed into PAWS providing education and a wellness clinic and the city handling law enforcement, such as removing animals from hoarders.

Together, they created a Save-A-Pet program focusing on adoption by:

· Partnering with 30 local rescue groups. Groups with a state permit take animals at no charge and provide a foster care network that makes dogs and cats more adoptable.

· Developing “professional” volunteers. When Short took over, volunteers ran the show. Today, a part-time paid coordinator oversees 130 trained volunteers, half of whom are regulars.

“As public employees, our job depends on what we’re doing,” says Short, who asked volunteers who didn’t want to follow protocol to leave. These were the people who picketed the division in 2010 and 2011.

· Preventing reproduction. Spaying and neutering are now required by the state instead of the center and owners must submit proof of the procedure. These two changes raised the spaying and neutering rate from 65% to almost 100%.

· Focusing on cats. Cats are more difficult to place than dogs, and there are more of them. In 2013, Columbus used a $58,250 PetSmart Charities grant to launch a trap, neuter, and rescue program.

· Establishing a medical and behavioral program. Donations cover medical procedures. In the behavioral component, employees work with animals and their owners on training basics.

· Implementing an effective retention program. People who aren’t prepared for the work involved in caring for a pet often return their animal to the center. “We spend time helping the ones who return to keep the animal to try to make it work,” says Biegler.

A special kind of person

Short hired 19 employees, including field officers and shelter workers. She seeks people who exhibit compassion for people and animals.

“From there, we build on skills,” she says. Employees receive training through the Southeastern Animal Control Association, National Animal Care & Control Association, and at state Agriculture Department conferences.

Animal control work is based on instinct and being able to read an animal.

“The first thing you’re going to read is fear,” Short says. “They don’t know what you’re going to do, so you’ve got to be able to take control and make sure you’re safe.”

After a control officer was injured in an attack by two pit bulls, Short decided they should be equipped with something besides a catch pole to deal with aggressive animals. Tasers were bought and the city’s police department taught field employees how to use them.

Biegler advises public works agencies tasked with animal control to provide adequate staffing and training.

“This is very complex and very technical,” she says. “Spend time visiting other places and learning from them. You want to make sure you’re doing things right.”

Short, for example, toured shelters nationwide to learn how to set up a program framework. With financial help from an animal advocate, she attended her first Best Friends Animal Society conference and learned her team was on the right track. She gets tips, such as where to get grants to promote cat adoptions, by networking.

At an Atlanta Best Friends conference two years ago, the Pet Coalition of Muscogee and Harris Counties was formed by rescue groups who meet for lunch monthly to discuss common concerns. The coalition received a $25,000 grant from PetSmart Charities to staff an adoption center at the local PetSmart store to give more public exposure to larger, older dogs that are more difficult to find homes for. Dozens of dogs have since been adopted.

Along the way, Short and her team have established valuable relationships with key influencers.

“Misinformation can kill your program,” says Short. “If something goes out that’s completely inaccurate, one of our volunteers or foundation people will champion us.

“In rural areas, farmers are used to dealing with animals in a certain way. Urban areas with more diversity will be very animal welfare-based; they want amenities such as dog parks.”

That means knowing who to go to on a legislative body to get funding as well as knowing how to deal with outside groups’ boards.

“You have to know when and how to ask,” says Short. “Go to the ones you know are going to be supportive and they’ll deal with the ones who aren’t.”