Darlene Brown holds Bizzy, Jason Nickles holds Moma Dog and Tripod and Trudy McDanell holds Valerie on the front steps of the existing Columbus-Lowndes Humane Society building on Airline Road. The first phase of construction on a new facility is expected to be completed this fall.
Photo by: Kelly Tippett/Dispatch Staff
March 9, 2012 12:10:53 PM
By late afternoon Thursday, it was almost too dark to see the dogs in their concrete holding pens at the Columbus-Lowndes Humane Society. A few strips of fluorescent lights struggled to penetrate the gloom, but the majority of the lights stopped working weeks ago.
As Karen Johnwick navigated the cracked, sloping floors of the shelter, making last minute checks on the animals before leaving for the day, lights throughout the entire facility went out completely. Probably -- hopefully -- nothing more complicated than a tripped circuit breaker.
She glanced up at the skeletal framework which once held ceiling tiles to hide the dangling insulation and ductwork. Just another day in a rambling structure that is literally falling apart around her. After nearly a decade of planning, work is finally underway on a new structure, but with a $1 million price tag, it will neither be fast nor easy.
Johnwick shrugged, then admitted she gets discouraged. Still, every fundraiser helps, even if the money raised seems minuscule compared to the massive need.
In January, ground was broken at the new 6.2-acre site just down the road. This week, concrete walls were erected -- the beginning of what will eventually become two 8,000 square foot, indoor/outdoor dog runs.
The first phase, which will cost around $700,000, is expected to be complete this fall. Board members, staff and volunteers are still working to raise the additional $400,000 needed. Now that they've come this far, they're committed to seeing the project through.
It's a considerably different facility than the one they originally had in mind, board president Juliette Sharp said Thursday afternoon.
"When we first started with an architect, we had no idea how much things cost," she said. "You're talking seven or eight women who had never built anything. We wanted something nice, something gorgeous."
They planned a spacious, $3.2 million building. Then, the economy bottomed out and reality set in. They scaled back. Then they scaled back some more.
The structure they'll end up with won't be nearly so extravagant, but with ingenuity and clever use of every inch of space, it will meet their needs, she said.
"I wouldn't say it's going to be a state of the art place, but it sure as heck is going to be a thousand times better than what we have," she said.
Refuge for the
The shelter was chartered in 1953 as the Lowndes County Humane Society, changing its name to the Columbus-Lowndes Humane Society in 1976. The group receives a monthly stipend from the city and the county, but they are responsible for funding the new building's construction themselves.
The most profitable fundraiser they hold is the "Playing for Paws" charity golf tournament, which raises around $10,000 each year. They hold bake sales, rummage sales, supply drives. It's a lot of work for what sometimes seems to be pocket change, but little by little, they're beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
It can't come a day too soon for Johnwick and her colleagues, who struggle each day to keep the shelter clean, inviting and disease-free.
Brightly-colored rugs cover large cracks in the floor. Blue and white dog leashes serve a variety of purposes, from holding together rusty kennel gates to securing doors that no longer open and close properly due to the shifting foundation.
A big part of the problem is the shelter's location. Sharp remembers exactly what was on the property before the ramshackle trailer that serves as the office and the metal buildings which comprise the cat rooms and dog kennels.
What is now a refuge for abandoned animals was once a repository for abandoned household items. It was a garbage dump.
"When we were in high school, that was an activity for the boys -- driving out to the dump and shooting rats," Sharp said. "It was where people took refrigerators, old tires, and piled them up."
Dirt was brought in and the property was graded, but over the years, as the ground settles, the structure sitting atop it is cracking from the inside out, the floors bearing an eerie resemblance to the fractured ground in an earthquake zone.
Puppies lie on blankets in concrete pens so sloped that their water slants in their bowls and their waste trickles into the kennels behind them.
It's not the most pleasant atmosphere for would-be pet owners to search for a new companion, admitted Johnwick. It's not the cleanest or healthiest atmosphere for the animals.
She and her staff do the best they can, but you can't clean rust, she said, gesturing toward a gate with the toe of her shoe.
Hope and sadness
Even though the new facility will not be a palace, it will feature a few benefits. There will be rooms available for people to attend pet education seminars as well as interact and visit with the animals. A surgical suite will provide a sterile environment for spaying, neutering and other medical care.
In an average month, as many as 60 cats and 120 dogs end up at the shelter. Roughly half are adopted, but the remainder are euthanized because there are more animals than people who want them.
It's a sad business in many ways, but Johnwick doesn't want the shelter to be a depressing place, she said, as she wandered through the dark corridors, stopping to let a wet nose caress her hand.
If it's sad and depressing, people won't want to come to the humane society, she said. The fewer people who visit, the fewer animals adopted.
A large brown dog with teddy bear fur and a wagging tail stood on its hind legs and pressed its forepaws to the rusted wire gate in silent, shameless entreaty as Johnwick passed its pen. On the front porch, two chunky tuxedo cats sat in a plastic pet carrier, mewing plaintively as they waited to be transported to PetSmart in hopes of being adopted.
If a large corporation gave a sizable donation, or if more people considered remembering the Humane Society in their wills, it would help a lot, Johnwick said.
Until then, there's a supply drive at Walmart Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. There's a mini-adoptathon at PetSmart from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. There's the new building, long anticipated and eagerly awaited.
And on the horizon is spring, with a fresh influx of more kittens, more puppies, more need.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.