By Ben Swan
The New Mexican
Forget enchantment. New Mexico is the Land of Extremes. There’s either too much water or too little. Too much sun or not enough warmth. Those with too much and those with too little. When it comes to animals, people love them almost obsessively, or they’re so indifferent, it amounts to neglect. Those contrasts became clear as I visited shelters in Española, Santa Fe and Las Vegas, N.M.
At the Española Humane Society, I found a friendly staff and a place packed with dogs and cats. I met dozens of puppies housed in makeshift wire fences on a concrete floor. They seemed happy, comforted and well fed, crying to be held, or wanting to lick someone’s hand. Most were destined for adoption in Denver.
The shelter’s manager, Denise London, was cleaning the puppies’ pens while I admired freshly painted murals by dedicated volunteers during a recent spring cleanup. The adult dogs, two or three to a kennel, waited patiently for a new best friend. Some howled whenever a visitor came near as if to say, “Take me, now.”
Gretchen Yost, the shelter’s medical director, introduced me to Indy, a cat named after the fictional Indiana Jones because it seems indestructible. The fluffy white cat had survived a run-in with a fan belt, but he had many injuries. He had lost blood and several valuable body parts. But Yost was able to save him by rerouting his urinary tract from the front end to the back. The frisky cat was poised to tackle any adventure.
The open-door shelter cares for more than 4,100 animals a year, and each animal costs about $93 to shelter and place. City and county revenue sources make up about 9 percent of the shelter’s operating revenue.
In Santa Fe, I toured the beautiful facility while a car show was going on outside. Few dogs were available for adoption that weekend, and most were out on leashes, enjoying the event. Adoptable dogs, probably only about 12, were housed individually in comfortable enclosures. Volunteers were busy cleaning windows and, presumably, fluffing dog-bed pillows.
Puppies were housed in a nurserylike area, but were off-limits to all but serious adopters. They could fill out an application to visit the dogs. It’s a good policy, since the puppies haven’t had vaccinations and are susceptible to a host of deadly diseases.
I left admiring the commitment the community has for the shelter. Bill Hutchison, the shelter’s communications manager, told me 6 percent of the shelter’s operational costs comes from city and county sources. With the shelter’s extensive programs, he estimates each animal costs more than $300 to shelter and place.
In Las Vegas, I found Maureen O’Brien trying to coax a timid cattle dog to come to her. The director of The Animal Support Center, she is trying to find homes or foster homes for the remaining dogs and cats at the shelter. The shelter, which lacks public funding and has lost its private money, will close its doors June 30.
O’Brien told heart-wrenching stories of abandoned or neglected animals. One dog bore scars from a trailer fire. Another had spent its life chained outside. Two frightened dogs hid deep inside a plastic doghouse, only their eyes visible.
The dogs live in makeshift cyclone-fence enclosures, exposed to the elements, save for plastic or crudely constructed doghouses. The gates to many of the enclosures were secured with old leashes or collars.
But the place has improved in recent months. When the previous director arrived in the fall, she discovered 60 dogs living on maggot-infested straw, fighting for survival.
When I visited, about 25 cats roamed a singlewide trailer on the property. Many were timid and hid in the duct system. The center also supports a feral cat colony of about 20.
The center, which formed a decade ago to treat injured animals, became a drop-off place for unwanted critters. It quickly outgrew its limited space.
The last director tried to turn the shelter around, but ultimately burned out. Nancy Dickenson, a longtime benefactor, said the center tried and tried, but failed. It lacked community support, she said, but a new coalition is in the works.
O’Brien put the state of our animals perfectly for me: “There’s so much need in this town,” she said, “and then there’s obliviousness. People who live well forget there’s a great deal of suffering here. And then when we start seeing it, the ‘How the hell can I help’ comes up.”
Those interested in helping find homes for the animals can call O’Brien at 505-426-8203. Those interested in adopting animals from Lazlo Lazowska, a Madrid resident who’s rescued nine center dogs, can call her at 505-917-4391 or e-mail her at email@example.com.
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I’m off to Alaska for a couple of weeks to look at how animals fare in the North Country. I’ll write columns from there, here and online at SantaFeScoop.com. If you have an animal-related question or story you’d like me to explore, contact me at Scoop@sfnewmexican.com.