A previous version of this story contained inaccuracies about the programs offered by Orange County Animal Services. This story has been republished to correct for those inaccuracies.
Meet Chloe. She’s a 2-year-old pit bull at the Orange County Animal Shelter with hopeful eyes and a fervid love for toys and back rubs, and you can bet that Assistant Director Andi Morgan is the lucky one giving them to her.
There’s a reason why the loving pets that fill the spacious rooms of the shelter are adopted so quickly — and it’s not just because of their irresistible faces. Morgan and the rest of the staff work tirelessly to keep the adoption rate high, several of them working into the night.
“Partly because we care a whole lot and partly because we have no life,” she said.
Tenille Fox, Morgan’s new colleague, is being trained to take over a communications position at the shelter. Although she has only been there for about a month, Fox said it’s easy to tell how much the employees and volunteers care about every animal.
“Every time I look over, a volunteer has a dog on its back, just rubbing its belly,” she said. “And Andi’s a big fan of trying to carry three cats in her arms off a truck after someone pulls in to drop them off.”
Since Morgan started working at the shelter more than a decade ago, she said the yearly rate of incoming animals at OCAS has settled to around 2,900 from numbers over 4,500. She partially credits this healthy decline in animal overpopulation to the shelter’s spay and neuter program.
Morgan said the shelter partners with the Spay Neuter Assistance Program of North Carolina for four free spay and neuter events a year. Additionally, she said OCAS has an ongoing program that offers free spays and neuters to qualifying residents. Vouchers for this program can be used at SNAP and other participating clinics.
OCAS recently received a grant to increase the funding for their spay-neuter program, and Morgan believes this is the key to fewer unwanted animals and a low euthanasia rate.
In the month of May, the euthanasia rate at OCAS was a mere 0.06 percent. Thirteen out of the 19 animals euthanized were put down for medical reasons and the others were for behavioral reasons. According to Morgan, OCAS has not euthanized an animal for lack of space this year.
But even so, Morgan worries about the stigma surrounding shelters that have to euthanize. She said this is only fostered by using the words ‘kill’ and ‘no kill’ to differentiate shelters and rescues, and believes this trend can actually cause harm towards shelters and make the euthanasia rate even higher.
“We should say ‘open vs. limited admission’ instead,” Morgan said. “Using those words just distracts the public and causes hysteria — shelters and rescues should be on the same side. The real villain is pet overpopulation.”
Along with its spay and neuter program, OCAS offers around 12 rabies clinics a year — some at the shelter and some at other locations. Morgan said when she first started working at the shelter, part of her job was to increase media attention surrounding prevention of the virus and treatment after exposure. She said getting educational messages — like the fact that owners need to have their pets boostered within 96 hours of potential exposure to the rabies virus — heard over other news, like celebrity news, was hard.
“It was hard to make rabies as sexy as Britney Spears shaving her head,” she said.
The reason why local artist Cam Cline and her husband John decided to adopt from OCAS rather than a rescue is simple — they were smitten with a certain dog and didn’t pay much attention to breed or class.
“We were at the Chapel Hill Tennis Club fundraiser for the shelter, and I was trying to sell my artwork there,” Cam said. “The shelter brought some animals with them and I met Maggie and fell in love.”
When they adopted her five years ago, Maggie was a 6-year-old beagle who had run away from previous owners and was discovered months later, emaciated in the woods. After the shelter nursed Maggie to health, the Clines were compelled to open their door to her. Their two children, Max and Sarah, immediately developed a relationship with her.
“When we first got her, that was when Sarah got mono, and Maggie snuggled on the couch with her and was her companion when she was sick,” Cam said. “We sure love her to pieces.”
Another large piece of the work OCAS does is reuniting lost pets and their owners, which Morgan said can be harder to do with cats than dogs. She said about 45 percent of lost dogs are reclaimed at the shelter, but that number drops drastically to four percent when it comes to cats. Morgan said part of this difference in reclamation numbers is due to cats being viewed as more self-sufficient.
“There’s just a difference in mentality on how we view these animals,” she said. “Cats are kind of like second-class citizens.”
Morgan said it’s sometimes difficult to tell at first if cats turned in to the shelter are feral or lost because they react the same way in the shelter — scared and withdrawn. After a few days though, staff can usually pick out the cats who were frightened from being in a new environment from the wild cats.
A relatively new project at OCAS, the Free Roaming Cat Task Force, aims to help humans and free roaming cats coexist, rather than simply removing the cats from the community. The program hopes to add transparency to the process of humanely decreasing feral cat populations in the area.
“Feral cats are wild animals — we wouldn’t trap a deer,” Morgan said. “If we spay or neuter them and then release them back into the wild, they won’t reproduce and we can maintain the population size.”
While Morgan’s top priority is to help the animals in her shelter, she’s trying to steer OCAS in a direction that also provides people with resources to stay informed on modern terminology, safe practices and general pet care.
“It’s all a big education project,” she said.