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Animal shelter puts the muzzle on taking in stray dogs

by Kristi Niemeyer
Editor | October 20, 2022 12:00 AM

Stray dogs and cats are overrunning Mission Valley Animal Shelter (MVAS), and the nonprofit, no-kill shelter located south of Polson is fed up.

The shelter’s board announced Monday that beginning Nov. 1, the shelter will no longer accept stray animals found in the city limits of Polson, Ronan or St. Ignatius – communities that all have animal control ordinances. Instead, those animals will be the responsibility of municipal authorities.

In addition, stray animals found south of Ronan to the Missoula County line will be referred to the Arlee Rehabilitation Center or Life Savers Animal Rescue, and animals found in or on Tribal Housing properties will be referred to CSKT Housing Animal Control.

“We have way too many animals,” says board member Sharon Hawke, who calls the situation at the shelter an ongoing crisis. “The stray dog problem really hit a crescendo last spring to the point where we didn’t have the staff or kennels to deal with it. All summer we’ve been at double our capacity.”

That means that a facility designed to house a dozen dogs has up to 27 in residence on any given day. “We have people finding stray dogs and wanting to bring them to the shelter but we’ve had to turn them away,” says Hawke. “Same thing with cats.”

After informing local governments in June that without more help the shelter would be forced to close Jan. 1, board members have been meeting every month with city, county and tribal representatives to try to come up with long-term solutions.

“It’s going to hurt the community, and hurt everybody if we shut down,” says Hawke. “We’re just trying to keep operations going at a level that we can sustain.”

The issue is faceted. The shelter costs around $500,000 a year to run, with most of that revenue coming from donations, a smattering of grants and income generated by the thrift store, Seconds to Go, in Polson. Additionally, the Tribes and Lake County each pitch in $2,500 a year.

While monetary struggles are ongoing, the 30-year-old facility, located adjacent to the county landfill, drastically needs to expand, and has neither the room to do so at its current location, nor the funding.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to add a new expensive addition to this old building,” says Hawke. “What we need is a second shelter in the southern half of Lake County.”

Meanwhile, the MVAS board is making hard decisions – like the one announced Monday – designed to keep the shelter afloat.

Hawke says when the shelter first opened three decades ago, local municipalities contracted with local veterinarians to house stray pets picked up within the city limits. Once the shelter opened, however, towns began sending strays there.

“I guess they figured ‘the shelter will take them in and it won’t cost us anything’,” she speculates. But as of Nov. 1, “we’re not going to accept them anymore.”

Hawke says local jurisdictions were notified that change was afoot during a meeting Oct. 5.

“I told them this was coming. In order to remain a viable organization and an asset to the community we had to do something,” she says. “We just can’t keep going on and accepting every stray that comes to our door.”

The board is also considering a move that would further reduce its ability to absorb strays.

According to Hawke, due to overcrowding, MVAS has had to turn away responsible pet owners who need to find a new home for their animals. In the future, the board may decide to designate some of the existing kennels for strays and the remainder for those animals surrendered by their owners.

Stray dogs, she adds, are typically high maintenance since most are not reclaimed by their owners and need to be spayed or neutered and learn some manners before they become eligible for adoption.

The shelter remains open to aspiring pet owners by appointment only since the existing staff keeps busy tending to critters. MVAS is advertising for a front-office employee with some administrative skills and Hawke says filling that position would allow them to reopen their doors to the public.

She worries that “the level of chaos and being overwhelmed all the time is going start burning employees out. We have to be careful of that.”

Thrift store volunteers would also be helpful, since the store receives an “overwhelming” volume of contributions.

While there are no easy answers to housing Lake County’s large population of stray animals, Hawke hopes the board’s decision will help the county’s only brick-and-mortar shelter “stay in business.”

“Our slogan is to be a voice for those who cannot speak and that’s what we’re there for.”

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