The main responsibility of the Harris County Pets (HCP) resource center is looking after animals in unincorporated Harris County, and a wide selection of services is needed to do this properly, including medical care, spaying and neutering, and adoptions. A small, low-cost wellness center at the shelter gives affordable veterinary services to those who need financial help.
HCP is also actively involved in animal cruelty investigations, and it provides animal control services to control the strays that run the streets of Harris County. By regulation, stray animals are to be held for three days to give the owner a chance to reclaim their pet, but when there are serious health problems that need to be addressed immediately, HCP’s medical rescue program allows for the medical treatment of those animals prior to the three-day stray hold.
Harris County Pets (HCP) is part the Veterinary Public Health division of the Harris County Public Health Department in Houston, Texas. The city of Houston has its own public animal shelter, while HCP serves unincorporated Harris County, which has a population of approximately 2.3 million people.
As part of its public health duties, HCP’s zoonosis branch offers rabies exposure risk assessments for people who may have been exposed to rabies. It follows up on all the local bite cases, and it consults with bite victims and the medical community to determine if post-exposure prophylaxis is required.
HCP’s purpose is to protect the public from disease and injury associated with animals, and one of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to create a community of responsible pet owners. If every community was responsible for their pets, shelters would not even be required in society. HCP has gotten far more involved in animal cruelty investigations because it considers animal protection to be a priority.
When the current shelter facility was built in 1986, it was intended to handle approximately 12,000 animals a year. However, HCP manages over 18,000 animals a year today, and at one point, the number reached as high as 27,000 a year. “When it was first built, it was really just designed to bring an animal in, hold it for three days, and then euthanize it, and now we’re trying to operate a lot of different services out of this facility that it was never designed for,” says Harris County Animal Shelter Director Dr. Michael White.
In November 2015 referendum, voters approved a $24-million bond for the construction of a new, updated shelter. “It’s taken quite a long time, but now we’re in the middle of that construction, and hopefully, it will be completed by April or May of 2020.”
The institutional environment of the existing facility can be disheartening for the doctors, employees, volunteers, and visitors. At the moment, the only alternative to euthanasia is to place multiple animals in the same enclosures, which is far from ideal and can cause serious issues. The new spacious facility will be extremely public-friendly and will have a welcoming atmosphere that will hopefully attract more doctors, volunteers, and people looking to adopt or foster pets.
“We’ll have a lot more holding space, and it’ll allow us to house the animals the way it should be: one animal per enclosure or some enclosures will be larger for two animals. I think the housing is going to be so much better,” Dr. White says.
The veterinary medical clinic in the new building will have one side for services to the public and one side for shelter services to ensure there will be no mixing of public animals and shelter animals. All of its dog enclosures are going to be indoor/outdoor runs, and all the cats will be housed in cat condos. Currently, the shelter only has simple cages, which are not ideal for housing cats. The wings where the dogs are kept will be divided, and each section will have its very own supply of fresh air. When there is no recirculation of air between the sections of the enclosures, it is far easier to control the spread of diseases.
The new facility will have more offices, designated areas for adoption counseling, and space to get acquainted with animals before adoption. The one main entrance and lobby will be replaced by individual entrances for each division because it is beneficial to separate the functions between the adoptions, the surrenders, and the wellness clinic. The services offered by the wellness clinic will be enhanced when there is additional space.
Outside of the shelter, a building now being used as a temporary holding facility for animals that are moving out quickly is going to be completely remodeled to become a large open education room. The room will feature audiovisual equipment for public events and meetings that could help draw people into the shelter. HCP is also planning a covered outdoor pavilion, a fully-enclosed small dog park, and a dog walking trail along the perimeter and around the retention pond.
The extra space of the new facility enables it to hold animals longer to allow more time for the pet to be adopted, and the efforts towards disease control will help HCP continue to increase its live release rates that have already improved significantly. The year before Dr. White took over as director of HCP in 2013, the live release rate was only 15.5 percent, which means that 84.5 percent of all the animals that entered the shelter were euthanized.
Over the last few years, several changes have been made to policies and procedures, and this year, before the summer months that bring puppy and kitten season, HCP had maintained over a live release rate of ninety percent. Unfortunately, summertime always means a dramatic number of intakes for any shelter, and irresponsible pet owners sometimes surrender their pets simply to go on vacation.
“There seems to be an uptick in the number of animals being brought in, but my plan in the future is that we want to get as close to one hundred percent live release as possible. It may be a little bit unrealistic, but it is our mission here to try to save every animal that comes in,” says Dr. White.
HCP strives to target its mobile veterinary services to areas it has identified as veterinary deserts with no nearby clinics for animals. These areas tend to be lower socioeconomic areas where veterinary practices would likely not be able to find success. Unfortunately, the people living in these areas with furry companions often do not have access to pet-friendly transport. Since pets are not permitted on public transportation, sometimes there is no way for people to get their animal to veterinary services, and HCP is looking to provide an option for these people.
The shelter is also hoping to purchase a bus to travel into the field outfitted with all the necessary medical equipment for spay and neuter and wellness services. Another innovative idea is to establish some offsite adoption areas throughout the county to accommodate people in various locations.
The Harris County Public Health Department has helped the shelter improve its services over the years by funding an additional division called the transfer section to handle rescues, fosters, and transports. HCP has developed a program that hosts roughly 850 animals in foster care outside of the shelter, which is a lot to manage.
The seventy-five hardworking employees at HCP are spread thin, and the organization is in desperate need of more volunteers. “We’re grossly underfunded, understaffed, and overworked, and I’m just amazed at how much the staff can do with the limited resources that we have,” says Dr. White. “That’s why we need more volunteers to help us out with the things that we struggle to get done every day.” HCP is hoping that the newly renovated shelter will attract many more volunteers and foster families who can assist with placing as many pets in homes as possible.
“Not only are we dedicated to trying to find forever homes for every animal that’s in our shelter, but we are also dedicated to trying to protect animals in our community. We are protecting the community by picking up stray animals, bringing them to the shelter, and trying to provide medical care,” says Dr. White.