By Melissa Taubitz

As I prepare to leave the Humane Society of Macomb to begin a new life on the “west coast” of Michigan, I find myself thinking back to how much life has changed for animals at the HSM shelter.

I began working at HSM in 2009 as a kennel attendant. Though I had been in the veterinary field for three years at that point, it was my first experience working in an animal shelter.

In an environment comprised of animals who have been neglected, abandoned or forced to leave their homes due to unpreventable circumstances in their owners’ lives, it wasn’t surprising that a sad feeling came upon me every time I entered the building.

At that time, the shelter ran similar to others: cages were full, and employees did the best they could to keep up with caring for the high volume of animals. The euthanasia rate was high, and emphasis was placed on finding homes for animals that were adoptable. Dogs and cats were bored and depressed, spending day after day in cages with minimal mental and physical activity.

The life of a kennel attendant can be a rough one, physically and emotionally. Days are spent cleaning one cage after another, only to find the first cage has been dirtied by the time you reach the last. The shelter is loud, with dozens of dogs “talking” to each other and the staff, and the odor produced by a hundred animals housed in a single building can be intense. Given this environment, it is no surprise that the animals can be terrified when they first arrive at the shelter. It is not unusual for a friendly, outgoing animal to become aggressive simply out of fear. Because of this, great caution must be taken to not only protect the animals, but also the safety of the kennel attendants who care for them.

Emotionally, being a kennel attendant can be extremely taxing. It is impossible for any animal lover to not bond with each animal he or she is caring for. It is especially difficult when an animal who would be such a wonderful addition to a home is continuously overlooked by potential adopters, or when a beloved animal is deemed too ill or untrainable to place in a home and is euthanized.

Thankfully, there are wonderful things that happen in shelters that help balance out the emotional toll. That first kiss or nuzzle from an animal who was previously too terrified to be handled, or the day that the constantly overlooked animal finally goes home brings such joy to a kennel attendant’s heart. Those happy tears can make a previously unbearable day one of the best days ever.

Because of my previous veterinary experience, when the HSM clinic had a veterinary assistant job opening, I was moved to the clinic. While I was no longer working with shelter animals on a daily basis, I still had a very strong attachment to those still in the shelter. Being able to see adopted shelter animals come through the clinic as patients was so exciting!

The clinic provides medical care for sick shelter animals, so I continued to experience the shelter environment while bringing pets to and from the clinic for treatment. I still felt that sadness when I was in the shelter, and was still heartbroken for pets who remained homeless day after day.

But in 2015, that all changed. Shelter management became aware of improvements other shelters were making, in not only the environment of the animals, but of the medical care as well.

Huge measures were taken to make the shelter a friendlier place for the animals, as well as a healthier and more enriched environment. Thorough medical care was provided for each animal, regardless of how adoptable they were viewed to be. In fact, more effort was made to find homes for animals who were continually passed over by potential adopters. Rescue groups and fosters were contacted, and animals too terrified to thrive in the shelter were able to go to a less-stressful environment while they awaited adoption.

The aesthetics were addressed – the shelter was thoroughly cleaned top-to-bottom. Walls were repainted. Bright colors and happy pictures were placed on walls.

Increasing comfort for the animals was also a priority. New cleaning protocols helped to lessen the spread of diseases such as kennel cough, which thrive in shelter environments. Cats were moved far away from the dogs to lessen the stress caused by barking and odor. Kennels were made larger, each animal received a comfortable bed, and dietary needs of each animal were taken into great consideration. Soothing music and calming fragrances were brought into the shelter to help increase comfort for each animal.

Enrichment for the shelter animals was researched, and new activities were brought into the shelter. Dogs received toys that kept their brains busy, and an agility course and playgroups were implemented to provide socialization and exercise. A dog trainer was brought on-board to work with animals surrendered for behavioral issues. Cats were given a playroom where they could run and jump each day, and a catio was placed outside for cats to enjoy the great outdoors safely.

There was a complete overhaul in terms of medical care of shelter animals. Proper vaccination is started the moment animals arrive in the shelter. Heartworm testing and preventative, and flea preventative are provided for each pet. Illnesses are addressed immediately and antibiotics and pain medication are given to each pet in need. Chronic and life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, kidney failure, cancer, orthopedic and ophthalmic issues and even allergies are being treated for all animals. Even hospice care has been provided for those animals who are beyond medical treatment.

Attendance at adoption events, utilization of social media to speed adoption, and networking with rescue and foster groups has decreased the length of stay of animals at the shelter drastically.

Today the shelter is a much happier place. While there is still sadness that so many animals are in need of loving homes, their chances of adoption have skyrocketed. Shelter and clinic staff give as much love and care as they are physically able, and the calmer disposition of the animals shows it.

I am an animal nut. I have severe allergies to everything with fur. Thanks to a multitude of allergy medications, I have been able to continue working with animals, and can’t imagine not working with them in some capacity for the rest of my life. To see the changes at the shelter and in the pets affected by them makes my heart so happy. I feel truly honored to have been a part of it all.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to the shelter and clinic management, animal caregivers, doctors, technicians, receptionists, foster and rescue groups, volunteers and the community, who have made the shelter a place of hope for animals in need. Your dedication to this cause has made such a difference in the lives of so many pets.