The word "control" was eliminated when the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office took over the animal shelter from the Health Department in 2012.
No one controls the rescued animals, they provide services to them.
A new sign was promptly placed out front: New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Animal Services, but a new name can hardly overcome the decades of stigma and assumptions that the shelter has been labeled with.
“A lot of people call this place the dog pound but it’s the shelter,” noted Officer Stephen Watson. “We shelter these animals from being hit by a car, from being attacked by another animal, from all sorts of things."
Watson is one of the longest tenured officers at the shelter, which is now a mix of civilians and deputies.
While he responds to calls throughout the county, staff at the shelter manage a revolving door of pet drop-offs, adoptions, medical care, and neverending facility cleaning and maintenance.
Regardless of the many duties, friends, family and the public at large have never seemed to fully understand what the job is all about.
The shelter is even misunderstood by other members of the sheriff's office. Despite having years of K9 experience, Lt. Scott Croom hardly knew what to expect when he transferred to manage the shelter. He didn't know how busy it was at the facility.
"I didn’t have a clue," Croom said. “The girls up front. The guys on the street. The people in the shelter. Constantly cleaning. Constantly answering a call.”
Watch any movie (particularly children’s movie) that features a shelter and you can see how deep-rooted shelter stigma goes.
The cages are usually shown as dark, dirty and dingy small spaces. The animals look bleak and depressed while the “dog catcher” comes across as aggressive, indifferent and downright mean.
In real life, and at least in New Hanover County, it’s hard to see where those stereotypes get started.
“I’ve always had that drive or that want to come to Animal Services,” Deputy Janice Covil said. “I always thought like everybody else did, that it was just pick up dogs and bring them to the shelter. Maybe they get adopted and maybe they don’t. The biggest surprise was the compassion that everybody had.”
Covil transferred to the shelter in the summer. Like everyone else who steps behind the “Employees Only” door, she saw a very different shelter from the one she imagined.
She was impressed how employees handled the animals.
"Taking them out to exercise, feeding them, talking to them and just loving on them,” said Covil. “When I came in I never dreamed the kennels were as big as they are or how they were housed.”
Covil is also on the team handling rescue calls throughout the county. She’s hardly new to rough interactions, having years of law enforcement under her belt, but the ones towards Animal Services are particularly grating.
“We get a lot of comments – a lot of negative comments or jokes, ‘Oh you’re the dog catcher! Didn’t know that was your truck,’” Covil said. “Words are words. That’s not what gets me. What gets me are the conditions that we find these animals in.”
The general public consensus is that when Animal Services pulls up, your dog is going with them. It’s a relentless myth that too often creates an unnecessarily hostile scene.
The truth is, Animal Services hardly has space or resources to casually be plucking dogs off the streets. Their goal, in all cases, is to bring the owners up to speed on ordinances and proper care to improve the pet's life and keep them at home.
Ultimately, it’s whatever is in the best interest of the animal.
“We understand that while we work for the sheriff and the taxpayers, we are here for the animals,” said shelter manager Nancy Biszick Ryan.
The New Hanover County Animal Shelter is located in an unassuming corner of the county not far from the airport.
Enter the front door and you'll likely be greeted by two staff members who take the brunt of whatever the day has to bring. They are the first line of defense for every abandoned animal, every resident upset over a fine and every adoption.
Spend a few hours with them and you can witness the roller coaster of emotions that come in and out the front door.
“They call there cursing," Croom explained. "They’re screaming, angry they got a citation. They take it out on the girls up front.
The front desk staff understands how passionate people are about their pets, but it certainly doesn’t justify the mistreatment of other people.
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