Two tiny black kittens mew softly as Bria Swartout cuddles them gently on her shoulder. They were left on the doorstep of the Rhinelander Animal Shelter one cold morning last week, and their prognosis is tentative. These babies are only a couple of weeks old, too young to be adopted right now. They will need specialized care for several weeks before they are ready for a new home-provided they survive this big change in their life.
Bria, who serves as the director of the Rhinelander Animal Shelter, is also anticipating a big change. On July 1 the facility that has been known as the Rhinelander Animal Shelter for close to 30 years will become the Oneida County Humane Society and Adoption Center (OCHS). “We are very excited about this change,” said Anna Kazda president of the new organization. “It will be a new beginning for us.”
Like all new beginnings, there will be some adjustments. This facility has always been financed by the City of Rhinelander, and that led to perceptions that the shelter was only for animals from within the city. However, in only a few short weeks, Rhinelander will not be obligated to subsidize the shelter any longer.
“We will become strictly non-profit,” said Anna. “We are not affiliated with the national humane or the state humane organizations either. That means we will be running solely on donations. But there will be some advantages to this. Right now a city employee heads the shelter, but on July 1 that won’t be the case. We won’t have to deal with union rules any longer, and this change will definitely be a money saver. We are hoping, though, that the city will see fit to give us some assistance financially as time goes on, and perhaps the county will too.”
Animal shelters are not inexpensive to operate, and yet they are a necessity for communities where pets are part of families. In 2011 it cost approximately $163,000 to operate the shelter. That includes not only food, cleaning supplies, wages and operating costs, but also spay and neutering animals, which is done at three local veterinary clinics, including French’s Homestead Veterinary Clinic, the Animal Health Care Clinic and Northern Paws Animal Hospital. These clinics discount spay and neutering procedures 50 percent.
“We have so many animals that need homes, not only here in Rhinelander but also throughout this country,” said Bria. “Overpopulation is a big problem, and altering animals is a way to cut down on communities having to shelter so many unwanted pets.”
Last year about 900 animals came through the shelter. The majority of these creatures, about 65 percent, were cats, and about 30 percent were canines. The shelter also took in various other pets, such as pot bellied pigs, birds, iguanas and small rodents like rabbits and guinea pigs. The shelter has about 25 kennels for dogs and 60 cages for cats.
“We rarely euthanize the animals that come here,” said Bria. “If they are very sick or have aggressive issues we can’t work out, then we may put an animal down, but we don’t euthanize animals because of lack of space. And we will always find room for an animal no matter how crowded we are.”
Besides Bria, who works fulltime as the director, there are three part-time employees, and the facility has a full board including Vice President Karla Ortman, Secretary Jenna Kane and Treasurer John Sager, in addition to a board of directors that consists of three members. Volunteers are also an important part of the shelter’s operation.
In fact, within the last year, staff and volunteers have worked tirelessly to update the facility. The inside has been completely repainted. Since cats are always numerous, a room was remodeled to accommodate these creatures. It has kitty climbing stations, and the animals take turns roaming around this space so they have a sense of freedom. In addition, a new “yap yap” yard was constructed outside where potential adopters can take animals and get to know them better. Dogs have little cots off the floor to sleep on, and there are outside kennels as well as another yard where staff and volunteers can play with dogs and socialize them for new homes. The facility is also clean and spotless.
Bria, shelter staff and volunteers spend lots of time with the animals, making sure they are ready to be adopted out to new homes. For Bria, who is a graduate of Rhinelander High School and has a degree in human resource management, that’s the fun part of the job. This industrious and caring young woman has been volunteering at the shelter since she was 15 years old, and now becoming the director is a dream come true.
“I can’t think of any other job I would rather be doing,” she said. “I feel so lucky to be able to do this. It’s something I really have a passion about.”
Breaking away from the financial advantages of having the city run the shelter is a little scary, but all the staff and directors are excited about the change for OCHS and see a bright future.
“Some of our goals include reaching out to other organizations that help animals like the Fix Is In and F.R.A.S.,” said Anna. “We are all working for the same purposes of making sure animals are treated humanely and that they can find and remain in loving homes. And I believe all humane societies should make an effort to have some sort of educational programs in place so people can learn about pets and how to take care of them properly.”
And as Bria tenderly wraps the pair of orphaned kittens in a plush blanket, she reflects on the importance of a community providing for its most vulnerable creatures.
“All animals deserve to be treated humanely and with respect,” she said. “This facility provides that for Oneida County, and I’m excited about the positive changes I know are in store for OCHS.”