Fighting for a new Jackson County Animal Shelter

Mud mushes in under car tires heading up Airport Road in Cullowhee. After a drive up the narrow, inclined, twisty back road, a dirty gate stands open on the left, and an unwelcoming hill lies ahead. Following a steady ascent to the muddy hill’s peak, a timeworn, outdated building can be seen sitting amidst a tiny unpaved parking lot. A few shrubs hide the sign that says: Jackson County Animal Shelter.

During the last year, the Jackson County community has been putting up a fight for a brand new animal shelter, something community members are passionate about.

A snowy day at the Jackson County Animal Shelter. Photo by Shelby LeQuire

A snowy day at the Jackson County Animal Shelter. Photo by Shelby LeQuire

The current facility is over 30 years old, and does not have a back-up power source in case of an outage, according to the shelter’s website. Ventilation is poor, office spaces are cramped and Internet is unreliable. The shelter is out of the way, making access less than convenient. The facility also struggles to meet the animal shelter requirements of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. In addition, shelter volunteers said it does not have a welcoming appearance to its workers and visitors.

The small facility faces constant stress over space and finances, having only the capacity to hold 15 cats and 15 dogs at one time. Adoption rates are less than what volunteers would like, making open kennels a rare sight.

In August of 2015, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners (JCBOC) appointed an Animal Shelter Task Force (JCACT). The special task force was developed for the purpose of coming up with ideas and plans to improve the shelter’s facilities.

“Despite local rescue efforts, the number of animals in need in Jackson County is still overwhelming,” chair of JCACT, Pat Thomas, said.

As outlined by shelter volunteers present at the Jan. 7 JCBOC meeting, a brand new animal shelter would be able to house more animals, have room to collect and store pet food, and provide suitable power, heating and air. It would include a grooming room, heated floors for outside kennels, intercoms for communication, a public conference room and a sanitation area for multi-use tools. In addition, a new facility could provide temporary care services to pet owners who are hospitalized or experiencing domestic violence situations. A new shelter would include a “get acquainted” area to help pets adjust to potential owners, and ideally, the building would have adequate room to perform spaying and neutering procedures within the facility.

These are just a few of the features a new shelter could provide, but getting there could be a struggle. Most of the efforts toward building a new shelter are directed at the JCBOC, who will decide if it is a priority for the county.

Humane Society logo via

Humane Society logo via

Mary Adams, a WCU English professor, who has been working with the Jackson County Humane Society (ARF) for over 20 years, spoke out to the commissioners at the meeting on Jan. 7.

“This past summer, many members of this community begged passionately for you to address the dog and cat problem in this county, and as a group you told us that you were listening. The task force took you at your word,” Adams said at the meeting.

During her speech to JCBOCAdams brought up the fact that surrounding counties have upgraded to exceptional shelter facilities. For example, Haywood County is building a brand new shelter, in spite of their current shelter being younger than Jackson County’s.

Jackson County’s shelter has a link on their homepage to the JCBOC website, encouraging community members to reach out to the commissioners on the issue. They hope more people will recognize a new animal shelter is a priority for the county.

“ARF is a small group with a tiny budget, and most of its volunteers are between 50 and 80 years old. Many have full-time jobs,” said Adams. “Simply put, we’re out of time. We can’t wait for this project to be kicked down the road again.”

As Adams explained, the burden of pet overflow in Jackson County has fallen not only on ARF, but Catman2, a cat shelter in Cullowhee.

“We are a two-person operation with just a handful of volunteers, yet we are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to make a difference,” said Catman2’s shelter manager, Kaleb Lynch. “People appreciate that willingness to help and the selfless acts of compassion for which we are known.”

Harold “Catman” Sims, owner of Catman2, loves on a kitty. Photo via

Harold “Catman” Sims, owner of Catman2, loves on a kitty via

Catman2 works with ARF on a regular basis. As Lynch said, they communicate daily, and have worked together through the years to provide around $75,000 of free or low-cost spaying and neutering services. Together, they have made a significant difference in the number of unwanted animals being born in Jackson County.

Lynch began his volunteering experience at the Jackson County Animal Shelter, where he said euthanasia was happening often when he first started.

“I would come in one day and all the cages would be full, then I’d come in a few days later and they’d all be full again but with different animals and only one or two would have been adopted,” he said.

With the collaboration from Catman2 and ARF, euthanasia rates have dropped significantly in Jackson County – it has been over a year since a dog has been euthanized – but Lynch recognizes they are not finished. He is afraid if a new shelter is not built soon, ARF’s euthanasia rates could rise in no time due to the lack of space.

“A new shelter is 100 percent necessary,” he said. “Despite the staff and volunteers at the shelter being compassionate and caring, the facility itself is falling apart.”

According to Thomas, since local pet adoptions are not happening as often as desired, and lack of space, ARF has several transport partners in other states who accept some of the shelter’s dogs into their own facilities for adoption. Many of the animals who end up in the shelter on Airport Road are surrendered to ARF by Jackson County locals. When adoptions take place, average costs are $70 for dogs and $55 for cats. This fee includes a coupon for spay/neuter at selected veterinarians and a rabies vaccination.

As reported in an article from Smoky Mountain News, county commissioners have a lot to think about right now. In addition to trying to make a decision about the shelter, they are also considering replacing school roofs, redeveloping the Skyland Services Center, building a new Health Department building and making the Green Energy Park bigger.

A time frame for a new shelter, assuming it becomes a priority and there are no hold-ups, would be two years. Finding land that is suitable for such a project might be one of the biggest problems, though. A desirable location for the shelter would be somewhere that can hookup to public water and septic, and somewhere out of people’s backyards. Harold Sims, owner and founder of Catman2, is making plans to open a cat museum in the US 441 area, and he suggested at the commissioners meeting that this would be a good place for a new animal shelter, too.

Jackson County Animal Shelter volunteers and staff via

Jackson County Animal Shelter volunteers and staff via

Even in spite of the long journey ahead, animal advocates in Jackson County are closer than ever to getting their decision.

According to the Jan. 7 meeting minutes provided by Clerk to the Board of Jackson County, Angie Winchester, commissioners have approved a $12,000 needs assessment, plus travel costs, to decide what kind of space and amenities a new shelter could include and how much it would cost. According to Winchester, no other action concerning the shelter has been taken at this time.

As the efforts continue, community members will be eager to hear an official decision from the Jackson County Board of Commissioners on the building of a new animal shelter. This article will be updated when further details become available.