The 8-month old shepherd/mastiff thumped her tail and looked out of her crate as the tailgate opened on the gray GMC Denali. The staff of the Animal Adoption Center peered in, greeting the big dog with coos and a few “good girls.”

Her transport, loaded with puppies rescued by the Lander Pet Connection, arrived on a day in late May. Two litters of puppies also traveled in the vehicle, five tiny furballs snuggled in a lump with another puppy next to the driver for extra comfort on the three-hour drive.

Not much was known about the big dog, named Brit, which is often the case with dogs moving through the shelter system. What was known is her future was uncertain where she was found roaming around in Fremont County, where she was seen as a bit of a big nuisance.

Arriving in Jackson, she was taken in by the Animal Adoption Center, but stayed at the Broadway location only a few hours. That evening she hopped in another vehicle and went home with potential adopter Danielle Harrity — and “that was it,” Harrity said.

The pup quickly assimilated to her new life in Wilson, making nice with the resident dog, Levi, a 4-year-old greater Swiss mountain dog, two kids and three horses.

She was given a new name by Harrity’s husband, who announced one night at dinner: “I think she’s Stella.”

They all agreed, though in the past few days they’ve also realized that calling the dog spurs a response from their daughter, 9-year-old Ella. But the dual response is one the family is willing to work with and laugh off.

Stella “just seems like an amazing part of the family already,” Harrity said. “She just loves being with us and has such a lovely energy — she just really makes us happy.

“It was sort of an immediate fit. It just feels like she’s always been with our family.”

Problem population

Twenty years ago this type of animal rescue wasn’t a likely one in Teton County, which was battling its own problems with homeless and unwanted pets.

Before the PAWS of Jackson Hole spay/neuter voucher program, money wasn’t available to neuter the pets that found their way to the Jackson/Teton County Animal Shelter. The lack of sterilization had animal lovers and advocates worried that even after the hundreds of animals that needed homes found them, the shelter would fill right back up.

For the years that records are available — 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 — that’s essentially what happened, according to PAWS. During those years the shelter cared for an average of about 650 animals annually.

“We had lots of dogs in the shelter, lots of cats in the shelter — and it was hard to place them,” said Ann Smith, who founded PAWS in 1999. “There were fewer people and most people already had a dog. That was why I wanted to do something to help the shelter.”

Smith, alongside a handful of “dog-loving” women, launched the group around a kitchen table. They “made it up” as they went along, Smith said, raising money to support the shelter through small events and private donations.

Nearly 10 years after its humble beginnings, PAWS — which “doesn’t stand for anything; it’s just something easy to put on a hat or a shirt,” Smith said — rolled out what would become the cornerstone of the nonprofit’s work: spay/neuter vouchers. In the years since the program launched, the homeless animal population in the community has dwindled. In turn, numbers of dogs housed in kennels at the Jackson/Teton County Animal Shelter plummeted.

“Because we are spaying and neutering everything that comes up, the stray population of dogs in Jackson is nonexistent,” PAWS Program Director Jess Farr said.

The same essentially holds true for the feline population, which has also been curbed with the nonprofit’s Trap-Neuter-Release program, which captures feral cats, spays/neuters the animals and returns them to the wild.

The organization has since expanded its spay/neuter work to Star Valley and Teton County, Idaho, issuing about 1,200 vouchers a year among the three communities. Such prevention work has transitioned Jackson Hole from one whose municipal shelter housed upward of 40 dogs and 60 cats to one that cares for a handful of felines and maybe eight canines on any given day, PAWS Executive Director Amy Moore said.

The shelter, located south of town near the Teton County Recycling Center, remains home base for impounded dogs who have been picked up roaming the streets or owner-surrendered animals, Adam Galadima, one of two community service officers who run the shelter.

But even those numbers are declining.

“We have seen a reduction in animals being surrendered, we’ve seen a reduction in our animals being returned and we’ve also seen a reduction in the number being impounded,” Galadima said.

He credits the changes to owner education — a focus for all animal welfare organizations — and the community’s robust spay/neuter programs.

“All animals are spay/neutered now,” he said.

Owners coming to pick up impounded animals are educated on spay/neuter options, Galadima said, and “if an animal becomes part of the Jackson/Teton County Animal Shelter program, the next day the animal gets scheduled for neuter or spay.”

Space for pets in need

Such changes have not only meant fewer problems with stray dogs and cats and homes for local pets in need of one, but also an opportunity for Jackson to aid other communities. Having successfully addressed its own pet overpopulation, it has shifted its sights to providing relief to others.

The Animal Adoption Center serves as a receiving shelter, essentially a place for rescues to transport their animals for adoption. It partners with PAWS of Jackson Hole and the Jackson/Teton County Animal Shelter to pluck a few animals from nearby and overcrowded shelters — Star Valley or Idaho Falls, for example — that are brought to Jackson for adoption.

Only three or four come in at once, because the shelter is still responsible for holding Teton County animals, and PAWS foots the bill so taxpayer dollars aren’t diverted from the municipal shelter’s base mission.

But by far the leader in this relief effort is the Animal Adoption Center. The nonprofit, which celebrated its 15-year anniversary in 2019, works with state and regional rescues, shelters and organizations to move dozens of dogs and cats into Jackson annually, offering reprieve for overburdened shelters and sanctuary to animals at risk for euthanasia.

“It’s a paw-in-a-paw relationship that we have with the Adoption Center,” Farr said. “They couldn’t have the impact that they have without PAWS getting us to a community that doesn’t face the same problems that the Idaho Falls community or the Lander community faces.

“We have resources out there for people who own animals that aren’t reproducing, and they’re staying with their families.”

More homes than dogs

In mid-March the Animal Adoption Center was forced to close its doors like other businesses trying to weather the pandemic. But its work didn’t slow. If anything, it ramped up.

Since it closed to the public March 14 the Animal Adoption Center received 110 foster applications and 280 adoption applications for dogs and cats. This year has been, by far, its busiest of the past five, with 159 adoptions between January and May, compared to 81 for the same period the year before and 65 between January and May 2018.

“I think COVID has played a huge factor for those who have been thinking of adopting and wanting to adopt but they never had the time,” Executive Director Carrie Boynton said. “It’s a great time to potty train a puppy. It’s a great time to introduce a new family member.”

While other rescues and shelters have been hit hard by the pandemic — many seeking financial aid from national funders, some closing their doors entirely — the surge in local interest and support has allowed the Animal Adoption Center to increase its relief of other shelters inundated with too many animals and not enough homes.

“Nationally intake numbers are hugely declined,” Boynton said. “But we’ve taken the opposite approach to try to really help the places that need it most.”

Like PAWS the Animal Adoption Center has also been a heavy hitter in curbing pet overpopulation both locally and statewide. Since launching Spay/Neuter Wyoming 11 years ago, over 14,000 animals statewide have been spayed or neutered through low-income vouchers honored by a dozen participating veterinarians, as well as biannual spay/neuter clinics on the Wind River Reservation, that perform on average 400 spay/neuter procedures each visit, Boynton said.

With a new “rescue mobile” recently acquired, center staff expect to be of further aid to pets in need, transporting animals to spay/neuter clinics and moving more dogs and cats into Jackson from overcrowded shelters.

“Transport is the lifeline and the teamwork that it takes to make it happen — it’s truly the essence of rescue work,” Boynton said. “It’s so incredibly important to have trusted partners and to be able to collaborate and do what’s best — not just in our county, our region and our state. but to be able to give animals a second chance.”

The Animal Adoption Center also works to breathe new life into shelters across the state through the Wyoming Shelter Project, which guides other organizations toward lower euthanasia rates through increased spay/neuter programming. At the Rock Springs Animal Shelter, for example, feline euthanasia dropped to 16% from 70% and canine euthanasia dropped to 2% from 30%. All animals adopted out of the facility are now spayed or neutered and the facility’s intake has reduced by 40% — all since the partnership began in 2014, according to statistics provided by the Animal Adoption Center.

In addition to working with shelters in Wyoming — including the Lander Pet Connection, Animal Humane Association of Star Valley, Paws for Life Animal League in Riverton, Green River Animal Shelter and the aforementioned Rock Springs Animal Shelter — it also receives animals from facilities in Idaho.

When it comes to a long-distance haul, it collaborates with Dog Is My CoPilot to fly in pets from Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas and Utah.

‘Big Dog,’ big flights

Dog Is My CoPilot has been landing in Teton Valley to hand off animals to the Animal Adoption Center since the transport organization first took flight in 2012.

As the years have passed, Dog Is My CoPilot has increased its flights, connecting with nearly 100 municipal shelters and nonprofit organizations to move animals around 15 states. The plane is the “Big Dog,” a retrofitted 12-passenger Cessna 208B Grand Caravan that fits up to 251 animals if Dr. Peter Rork has maxed out his Tetris skills in balancing a mix of dog and cat kennels.

This year is likely to tally up the most flights flown since the organization began, with a Petco Foundation grant allowing for three additional pilots to join Rork as captains of the Big Dog. More pilots means the Cessna will be in the air more frequently, taking to the skies nearly every day some weeks, said Rork, who founded the organization.

“It’s certainly needed and we’re constantly trying to answer all the calls from all the groups,” he said. “We could fly twice a month for a long list of shelters — there aren’t enough days in the week to get it all done.”

The nonprofit will also be connecting more often with the Animal Adoption Center this year, anticipating two to four flights a month will deliver dogs and cats in Teton Valley for the center to swoop up.

Like the adoption process itself, transporting animals across the country is a bit of a matchmaking puzzle, with Dog is My CoPilot Executive Director Kara Pollard connecting organizations to move animals out of overburdened areas and into ones with more homes.

In Jackson the person picking the pets to come to Teton County is Jenna Martin, the Animal Adoption Center’s Adoption and Communications Coordinator. High on her list are traits associated with the typical Jackson pooch: dog- and people-friendly with the energy for hiking, biking and other outdoor pursuits.

That’s not to say small dogs or giant breeds don’t make it in the mix. While scanning spreadsheets full of as much information as an organization can pack in (which is sometimes not much), she picks animals that best align with the Animal Adoption Center’s applications, aiming to match the community’s wants with the needs of rescues and shelters across the region.

“Right now we have 10 people in line for a certain type of dog,” she said. “We’re taking note of those things. If we see another dog come through that we know so many people are in the market for, we’re going to sign onto that dog.”

She also doesn’t shy away from dogs or cats that need a little extra medical care. Throughout the year the Animal Adoption Center will also provide care for a handful of pets, if not more, with expensive medical needs.

With all the cats at the Animal Adoption Center living communally in Kitty City, cats brought in must be friendly with other felines. Before COVID restrictions that shuttered the nonprofit’s doors to the public the cats also needed to be open to a lot of visitors.

“When we’re open to the public our door is a revolving one where all walks of life come through to socialize with them. So we couldn’t have a feral cat, for instance. There’s just not the market for that here in Jackson — people want house pets. At least that’s what we see,” Martin said.

The final and most important step for the receiving shelter is finding its new wards forever homes, a process that stems from the nonprofit’s foster program.

Unlike most shelters, all of the Animal Adoption Center’s canines go to a home in the evenings instead of curling up in a kennel. While some would come back to the center in the daytime (before changes in operations stemming from COVID), where they would greet drop-ins and go for walks and hikes with volunteers, each night they’d pack up for a sleepover with a foster family.

“It makes our matchmaking process a lot easier,” Martin said. “You can’t really get a full personality of a dog sitting in a shelter.”

Information collected by foster families — the nonprofit’s network is up to 500 foster homes — gives Martin a more well-rounded profile of the pets. Foster parents can often answer if their charges get along well with cats (or shows too much interest); if they’re comfortable with children; if they’re a lazy couch potatoes or always on the go.

On the other end the Animal Adoption Center works closely with adopters, requiring those interested in taking home a pet to do just that — foster the animal they’re interested in as a bit of a trial period. A free one-hour training session with dog trainer Eva Perrigo, who creates training programs for center dogs, is also offered to adopters.

Ultimately the goal is to get the animal into a home where it can live out a full, happy life — and never see a shelter, transport van, plane or foster home again.

“The Animal Adoption Center brings in such an array of animals,” said Farr, who previously worked for the Animal Adoption Center before she moved to her job at PAWS. “They’re doing a really great job bringing in these fabulous animals for people to understand they’re not broken dogs. They’re not broken, they’ve just had bad luck.”

She summed up the heart of adoption work as: “This is this animal’s last time going through the shelter system.”

Animal welfare advocates have seen the community embrace that sentiment, excited to take in a down-on-his-luck pup and proud to share their pet’s rescue story when he comes across another wagging tail in town.

“We have such a supportive network of individual groups that work together here in town,” Pollard said, “And then we have the community. You walk on the streets, you walked up trails and every other person says, ‘I adopted my dog from the Animal Adoption Center,’ ‘I adopted my dog from the town of Jackson animal shelter.’

“We just have a really special place here. It’s neat that we can come together and supply people with more pets.” 

Contact Melissa Cassutt via 732-7071 or jlove@jhnewsandguide.com.

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