Approaching pet zero

Shelter had no animals available to adopt last week
Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, April 8, 2020
Shelter vacancy

Beaverhead Animal Shelter Executive Director Nikki Knight, left, and Operations Director Elizabeth Nutzman show off empty kennels after months of work to find placement for hundreds of animals in the shelter’s care. Their focus now turns to improving facilities overall for staff and potential pets. Casey S. Elliott photo

Beaverhead Animal Shelter staff took a breath, looked around and realized something surprising on Friday.

They had no animals on hand ready for adoption.

The facility has been operating all-hands-on-deck over the past eight months, with a new board of directors and new executive director attempting to dig out of a $70,000 debt, with hundreds of animals needing care and placement. In the ensuing months, the board limited intake of animals outside of Beaverhead and Madison counties, put extra effort into adopting out animals already in the facility, and appealing to the community to right the financial ship.

The board’s most recent financials showed only two outstanding unpaid accounts on the books. Donations of food and supplies for animals – and efforts to transfer animals to other shelters better equipped to care for them – reduced the adoptable pet population from 200 cats and kittens and 120 dogs and puppies down to almost zero March 27.

Executive Director Nikki Knight and Operations Director Elizabeth Nutzman credited the community’s willingness to donate needed items and dollars to getting the shelter back on track. The coronavirus pandemic pushed staff toward the last mile of getting adoptable animals into foster or “forever” homes, in case staff had to limit their time physically in the shelter. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s order to shelter in place and close public spaces to combat the spread of the virus occurred at about the same time as the last adoptable animals got moved out.

“It was a pretty herculean effort to get the animals placed out,” Knight said. “We are thankful for the community stepping up to the plate – we couldn’t have done this without the community’s support.”

Nutzman said they had already put in place scheduling options with rotating staff crews as restrictions began to bite more heavily on Montanans’ ability to work shoulder-toshoulder; once Bullock’s order came down, shelter staff were ready to go.

There are still animals on site at the shelter, thought not necessarily ready for adoption. Some have medical needs that must first be addressed, with other recent additions (for example, a new litter of kittens) needing to be weaned and spayed or neutered. As of April 3, there are five dogs and one cat readily available for adoption at the shelter, Nutzman said.

With all this space – and free time – shelter staff are conducting some long-awaited deep cleaning of shelter facilities. They are fixing up the older parts of the building to address leaks, and rearranging storage, shelving and kennels. Knight said they have a list of a number of improvements, such as putting up new shelving, patching walls and revamping animal rooms to be safe and healthy for the animals and handlers. All of the work and new protocols for animal intake and handling align with best practices for animal shelters in general, with the assistance of the Northern Tier Shelter Initiative.

Shelter staff are planning for an influx of animals for “kitten season,” which includes setting up an animal activity and play room. That room is almost ready to go, but the kittens have not yet appeared to fill the space.

The shelter puts its donation needs on the Facebook page. Knight and Nutzman also ask the public to contact them through email or Facebook, as there are no shelter staff on hand answering phones. Walk-in hours are suspended while the shelter in place order is active, but staff will set up appointments on request.

Knight and Nutzman recognize the pandemic is putting strains on people’s budgets, and the shelter is ready to do its part to help residents keep their animals. Donations of pet food and supplies, and cat litter are being portioned out into weekly supplies that can be given to pet owners as needed. Supporters can purchase the supplies and food online at Murdoch’s or Rocky Mountain Supply for this purpose.

“Our main goal is to keep the pets at home,” Nutzman said. “But we also understand during this time it will be a little difficult for some people. We want them to know we’re here for them and want to help them as we can.”