Underdog

Animal shelter director: 'It's one of the toughest jobs around, but somebody has got to do it.'
Aug. 18, 2014 @ 01:27 PM

At work, Judy Lanier has been called a lot of names. Most can’t be repeated and the vast majority of them are unkind.

“Some days, I’m a saint. Other days, I’m the devil incarnate,” says Lanier, laughing even though she knows the joke is on her. “In the court of public opinion, I will always be guilty of some heinous act. But the reality is, I am an animal rights activist myself. But unfortunately, I have a job to do. As horrific as it may be at times, it’s still my job.”

Three and half years ago, Lanier left her post as a deputy for the Davidson County Register of Deeds to assume the role of Animal Shelter Director under the direction of Davidson County Sheriff, David Grice. A life-long animal lover with a passion for change and serving her community, she decided to apply for one of the most historically controversial and misunderstood jobs in the nation.

“I knew the reputation this shelter had going into this and it wasn’t good,” Lanier said. “But I also admire Sheriff Grice and his staff.  I wanted to work in a place where I felt I could do the most good and be an agent for change.”

Preparing for Battle

In the weeks leading up to the interview, Lanier spent her free time visiting animal shelters in neighboring communities and talking with staff to get a realistic idea of what the job entailed. She scoured the internet researching shelter policies, good and bad, from across the United States, as well as familiarizing herself with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) guidelines on caring for and rehoming victims of animal cruelty. She also tackled the unnerving truths about kill-shelters and euthanasia.

“I had people telling me I couldn’t do this job because it would require me to euthanize animals. But I wasn’t focused on the dying part.  I was and am determined in getting these animals adopted before it came to that and trying to keep them alive long enough to find  loving, forever homes.”

Lanier admits she prayed long and hard about the ethical issues and devastating reality of working with hundreds or potentially thousands of homeless animals day in and day out that may never find a home. She walked into the interview armed with a hefty list of shelter improvements, her own set of newly drafted standard operating procedures and the statistical pros and cons of operating a ‘kill-shelter’.

In Davidson County, high unemployment rates, over breeding and a growing population of unneutered and unspayed pets have left area rescue groups and shelters filled to capacity and scrambling to deal with a never-ending onslaught of unwanted pets.

“Times are tough for a lot of people right now,” she said. “Many people can barely feed themselves and their kids, much less care for a pet properly. A bad economy can have a terrible impact on animals just as it does people. And when times get hard, an animal is the first to go and it’s not their fault.”

Baptism by Fire

But no amount of research or praying could have prepared Lanier for the vicious slew of personal verbal attacks by throngs of animal rights activists who showed up in downtown Lexington and at the Davidson County Board of Commissioners meetings to protest the shelters use of the gas chamber as a form of euthanasia.

“I was shocked. Totally shocked that these people were yelling about the way we euthanize animals when all I want to do is keep them alive. I want to get them homes and get them out of here now,” Lanier said, pounding her fist on the table. “I tell every person who claims to be an ‘animal rights activist’ instead of holding a sign to protest against the gas chamber, why don’t you adopt an animal yourself or put down the darn sign, pick up the phone and help me find these dogs and cats good homes so none of them have to die, period. Help me. Help me. Help me help these animals.”

Lanier said she dreams of the day when funds can be raised to purchase a mobile, low-cost spay and neuter clinic and the shelter is turned into an adoption-only facility.

“Trust me when I say, I would give anything if we could close the doors to this shelter tomorrow because every animal in Davidson County had a loving home so not one more cat or dog had to die,” she says fighting back tears. “Sure, I would have to find another job, but it would be worth it. But the truth is, as long as there are irresponsible pet owners and as long as folks see pets as something they can throw away, this shelter and every other animal shelter in the nation will be in full swing.”

Fact Versus Fiction

The Davidson County Animal Shelter operates in a 6140 square foot brick building at the end of Glendale Road in Lexington. It is equipped with 186 kennels to hold dogs and cats — in separate areas — as well as numerous runs and covered outdoor areas where dogs can play and get a break from their confines.

With an operational budget of $62,000, the shelter employees a full-time vet tech and three kennel attendants. Five animal control officers also work in conjunction with shelter staff.

According to the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’  2013 Public Animal Shelter Report, last year the Davidson County Shelter took in 3,440 cats and 3,319 dogs. While the number of intakes are down from previous years, Lanier and her staff were charged with euthanizing 5,489 animals—1985 were gassed, while 3,504 died by  lethal injection.

North Carolina is one of six states in the country that still uses gas chambers to euthanize animals. Eight shelters, including Davidson, are among the last holdouts.

“Dying is dying,” Lanier said. “There ain’t nothing pretty about euthanasia no matter how you do it. And after seeing some of the abuse cases that have come in here, I can tell you right now, I would rather put an animal down than to see them tortured, neglected, burned, beaten or starved.”

Lanier refers to the shelter as the ‘dirty little secret at the end of Glendale road’ and adamantly believes that none of the animals that wind up there deserve the hand they have been dealt.

“People come every day to surrender dogs and cats and tell me what a good pet they are,” she says shaking her head. “I tell them, ‘If your pet is so good why don’t you try your hardest to find them a home or get them adopted?’ I’m not being rude, I’m just trying to drive home the point that animals are not disposable. I believe when a person takes on the responsibility of pet ownership, it’s for life.”

One Day at a Time

Since her hiring, Lanier has stayed true to her word, fulfilling the long list of improvements and upgrades she set out to achieve and doubling adoption rates within eight months of becoming the shelter’s director. Among her top priorities were increasing educational opportunities for shelter staff to help them better care for the animals as well as customers. She and her staff are permitted by the state to provide rabies vaccines to the public for $8 per injection. 

In addition, Lanier and her staff work closely with area businesses such as Tractor Supply and Food Lion who provide donations of food, treats, toys and other items, as well as animal rights organizations such as Friends of the Shelter and Gingers Fund that help find homes and raise money for severely abused and neglected animals.

Today, sitting in her cramped office at the Davidson County Animal Shelter, Lanier surrounds herself with loved ones. There’s Bill, a vibrant Yellow-collared Macaw, who dances and squawks each time Lanier laughs. Behind her cluttered desk is a huge cage filled with a family of chubby, chirping guinea pigs that are busy sorting through a bowl of freshly chopped radishes to get to their bell peppers.

“That’s Mamacita and her babies,” Lanier explains looking over the top of her glasses, rolling her chair close to inspect the nibbling brood. “People think we just take in dogs and cats, but we get a little of everything. I like the exotics pets such as snakes, birds and such, so they come back and live in here with me so they won’t be stressed by all the other animals. I have to make sure everybody has a home and is well-loved for as long as they are here.”

Watching Mamacita eat her pepper, Lanier leans back in her chair, removes her glasses  and rubs her tired eyes. Behind her on her desk is a roll of bright pink stickers with the word “euthanasia” in bold black letters that go on the cages of those animals whose time is up.  Shelter policy states that stray animals are held for 72 hours before they are eligible to be released for adoption.  Overcrowding means fewer cages where adoptable animals can be showcased and housed. When space runs out, so does a dog’s or cat’s time.

“You know, it doesn’t matter how many things we do right here. No matter how hard we work or how many animals we try to salvage,” she says. “All people can focus on is the fact of how we euthanize animals. They don’t see that we fight a losing battle every day, take in hundreds of little lives everyday, clean, care, love and worry over these animals everyday. And in the end, all I want now is what I wanted when I started this job—I want to find these babies homes now. Now.”