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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Augusta, Georgia

The news is slow this week, so today’s post is on a subject I’ve been following for a while – the dysfunctional shelter situation in Augusta, Georgia.

The Augusta Animal Shelter was in the local news this week when it reported that its shelter killing rate so far in 2015 is down 15% from the same period in 2014. That sounds good, until you read the rest of the story and see that so far this year the shelter has killed 1,912 pets and adopted out only 572. Why is the Augusta shelter so bad? A grand jury report released last January found that the shelter is “understaffed and undersized” and has an inadequate building in a poor location. The report also found that the “staff is doing an incredible job with what they have to work with.” The report found that the shelter’s 70% kill rate was due, among other things, to its location being hard to find and its starting salary being $19,500, which led to a lot of staff turnover.

Median household income in Augusta is low – under $35,000 in 2013. Shelter intake appears to be very high. A page on the shelter’s website says the shelter takes in over 12,000 animals each year and returns only 550 to their owners. The website has a link to statistics, but it has been down when I’ve checked. The grand jury report said intake for the year was 10,000 in 2014. Augusta’s population is about 200,000, so if intake is 10,000 per year that is 50 pets per thousand people (PPTP), which is extremely high. The shelter accepts out-of-county surrenders for a small fee, which might be part of its intake problem.

Lisa Floyd, who operates an organization called CSRA Life Saver that helps the shelter, says that the problem is too many animals. There are still places, mostly in the southeast, where there is a pet overpopulation problem, and it looks like Augusta might be one of those places. In my researches it seems like shelters with PPTP of 50 or above usually have to transport animals elsewhere for adoption while trying to reduce intake, if they are to get to No Kill. A claim of “too many animals” is often just an excuse for poor performance, but in the case of the Augusta shelter it appears to be simply a factual statement.

The shelter lost its part-time veterinarian in 2014, and the city approved hiring a new veterinarian. No one applied for the job for months after the position was announced, and the shelter was without a veterinarian until a hire was announced a couple of months ago. The shelter’s advisory board has also had major upheavals in the last year.

Is the high kill rate and general dysfunction the fault of shelter leadership? A story last year indicated that there was a lack of trust between rescues and shelter director Sharon Broady, and that it was costing animal lives. To Broady’s credit, though, it appears that since then she has been attempting to make improvements. The Augusta shelter is not exactly an attractive venue for shelter directors, any more than it is for veterinarians. Low wages, high staff turnover, and an inadequate and isolated shelter building is not a good combination for a city that wants to support excellent leadership.

In looking at successful shelters over the years, there is usually one or more things that stick out that have made the community successful. It might be a great director who is so talented that he or she can overcome all obstacles. It might be a supportive and progressive community of people who spay and neuter their pets and who come to the shelter to get them when they stray. It might be city leaders who find enough money to support an attractive, modern, convenient shelter building that’s open on evenings and weekends. It might be a rescue group of volunteers who transport animals north. It might be a non-profit that takes over and does whatever the city shelter is failing to do. Augusta has some dedicated rescue groups, but that’s about it.

Augusta’s combination of a cash-starved shelter, inadequate physical plant, extremely high intake, and low-income community presents a real challenge for No Kill. The city’s advantages are that residents are concerned about the shelter, local media regularly report on the situation, and shelter staff appear open to receiving help. So what could be done? In the last few years some of the big national organizations have been able to make an impact in communities by coming in from outside with one or more of three interventions – targeted spay-neuter, transports, and community cat programs. Augusta needs all three.

The Augusta shelter has an adoption rate of about 6 or 7 per thousand people as far as I can tell from the fragmentary data. That is much less than No Kill communities achieve, but given the shelter’s circumstances I’m surprised it’s that high. It may be hard to increase that rate given the poor location of the shelter and the apparent lack of money to have adoption-friendly hours. I was not able to find any information on whether the city plans to take action on the grand jury report by building a new shelter in a better location or increasing funding to the shelter so that it can extend its hours. Short of that, the only way to get a high adoption rate would appear to be the private sector taking the animals out and marketing them locally in an effective way. The shelter has offsite adoptions, which may account for their recent increase in adoptions, but their main offsite venue appears to be the local pet store.

Augusta could also use some help from consultants – although it is doubtful any money for consulting would be forthcoming and there may be constraints on the director’s power to change procedures. Just looking at the shelter’s website shows some things that need to be done, from stopping out-of-jursidiction intake to making the shelter’s hours more convenient to asking for appointments for owner surrenders.

I think the Augusta situation is worth looking at because jurisdictions like Augusta are increasingly what the No Kill movement is facing. A lot of the low-hanging fruit in shelter improvement has already been picked. Today, communities where the live release rate is under 50% tend to have some serious systemic problems that may not be solvable simply by lobbying local government or firing the shelter director. Those communities may require people from outside to come in and provide resources, at least to get the shelter on its feet.



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