Pine Bluff Animal Control makes huge lifesaving strides

Two people holding puppies standing in front of dog kennels
Best Friends embed program helps Arkansas shelter save more dogs and cats.
By Liz Finch

Disaster struck a few days before Best Friends embed project operations manager Cathy Overfield arrived at Pine Bluff Animal Control (PBAC). Several dogs — including a rambunctious golden-colored pup named Pugsley — began showing signs of the highly contagious, potentially deadly distemper virus. Because the Arkansas shelter did not yet have a vaccination protocol in place, a full-on outbreak was quickly underway among its 70 dogs.

Cathy and the staff at Pine Bluff wasted no time. She was at the shelter to help it on its path to becoming no-kill via Best Friends’ national embed program, made possible in part by a grant from Maddie’s Fund®. They began vaccinating dogs for distemper upon arrival and planning booster vaccines 14 days later. It was the beginning of sweeping changes that would make it possible for the shelter staff to save more dogs and cats’ lives than they ever had before.

Shelter staff overhaul practices, start new programs

Setting up strict vaccine and booster protocols was just the first of many changes that took place once the embed began. Staff were trained in how to clean effectively and learned how to use personal protective equipment to cut down on disease transmission risk.

Then there was the issue of dogs like Pugsley, who had tested positive for distemper. Historically, there would have been only two options: euthanasia, because the shelter had nowhere to safely house him without potentially exposing other dogs to the shedding virus, or foster care. The challenge was that no foster program yet existed.

[Puppy beats distemper with the help of two determined foster moms]

Setting up a foster program was the first priority. The Pine Bluff staff learned how to safely care for dogs with distemper, and a foster home was found for Pugsley, which provided much-needed socialization with fully vaccinated dogs in the home of animal control officer Alyssa Parker.

The distemper outbreak was the catalyst for the shelter to begin a foster program, and roughly a dozen dogs who tested positive went to foster homes because of it. It was quite a way to kick off sweeping changes at the little shelter, but the team is committed, and now they have help.

No-kill goals

“Until recently, the staff would not have known what symptoms to look for, treatment and testing had not have been available, and the knowledge that foster care was a safe option would not have been on the radar,” says Ali Paepke, supervisor of shelter partnerships at Best Friends in Northwest Arkansas.

During a 2021 tour of regional shelters, Ali became aware of the Pine Bluff shelter. It was clear that they could use some assistance. Best Friends helped by taking in pets regularly from the shelter. It helped a little, but there was potential to do much more. Ali says, “Director Marcus Graydon and his staff were committed and caring, so we knew we had to do something more to help.”

That something turned out to be the embed program, which began upon Cathy’s arrival in September 2022. The goal of the embed at Pine Bluff is to work side by side with staff to enhance and implement programming based on proven strategies to reach and maintain a 90% or higher save rate. That’s a tall order for a shelter that saved only about 57% of the animals who came in between January and September of 2022.

Adoption success

One of the goals was to increase local adoptions and for the shelter to have a larger presence in the community. “The shelter was closed in November because many dogs were still in distemper quarantine, but there were healthy dogs who needed new homes,” Cathy says. “So we held a month-long ‘Fall in Love at PBAC’ adoption promotion with waived adoption fees, and the costs for spay/neuter and rabies vaccines covered by Best Friends.”

The event was a big success. Twenty animals were adopted, and PBAC achieved a 93% save rate in November and December.

Big changes for cats and dogs in Pine Bluff

In addition to increasing the flow of animals out of the shelter, Cathy and the staff have been concentrating on ways to stem the tide into the facility as well.

“We use a triage system to determine if an animal needs to be admitted right away or if we can delay them coming into the shelter,” says Cathy. “If an animal is in medical distress, has an injury, or has bitten someone, PBAC accepts them immediately. Otherwise, we give rehoming resources to people who must surrender their pets. Instead of being exposed to the stress of living in a shelter, those dogs and cats hopefully can go directly into new homes.”

To reduce the number of lost dogs coming into the shelter, PBAC staff is coaching those who find lost canines to help reunite pets with their families by posting photos in their neighborhoods and knocking on doors where the pet was found. After all, a recent study in Dallas determined that 70% of stray dogs who were reunited with their families were initially found a mile or less away from their home.

[Long-lost dog reunited with family after six years]

The shelter staff has also been trying out a trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) program so that healthy cats found outdoors are no longer impounded.

“When I first heard about the TNVR program, I thought I was going to get all this pushback and have people going to city council meetings and just bashing us,” shelter director Marcus says. But he decided to take that risk. “We had been trapping and killing cats, and we wanted to introduce something different.” Since starting the new program, Marcus says they’ve heard from many local residents who are grateful that the shelter staff are bringing the cats back to them. At the start of the new year there were just two cats in the shelter.

Inviting the community to help

Building their relationship with the community is another objective for PBAC, and they pushed the envelope on that when a goldendoodle named Peggy came through the door with a horrific paw injury.

“We decided to post about her on social media and were transparent about the fact that we didn’t have the funds for her care,” Marcus says. “Not only did we get enough for Peggy, but we also got enough to set up emergency accounts at two local vet clinics for other dogs. Best Friends is currently matching donations to those clinics, too.” Find donation information here.

The cherry on top to this public outreach? Peggy went into a foster home and recovered from her injury with veterinary care; she was adopted in no time.

Changes beyond the shelter’s walls

While changes within the shelter have been huge — and there are more to come during the six-month Best Friends embed — the hope is that success there will inspire others in the area to strive for no-kill too.

“Success here will prove that communities like Pine Bluff can achieve and sustain no-kill,” says Ali. “That can have substantial influence on neighboring communities in Arkansas where there is still much progress to be made in terms of saving lives.”

PBAC staff aren’t the only ones looking at things in a new way. Cathy, too, has learned some powerful lessons during her time in Arkansas that promise to stick with her and impact the way she helps people and animals in the future.

[How shelter embed programs are saving pets’ lives]

“Recently, a woman came in seeking help for her adult dog and a puppy during a cold snap,” Cathy says. “She lived with friends who wouldn’t allow the dogs in the house, and she was desperate because she didn’t want them to freeze. Initially, I thought, ‘You're gonna have them outside in the freezing cold? That puppy can't even control its body temperature!’”

Then, she and Marcus looked at one another and seemed to click on a solution at the same time. PBAC could give her a doghouse and a supply of straw to keep the dogs warm.

“She was so overcome that she gave us huge hugs,” Cathy adds. “That made me reconsider what I consider a ‘good’ home. This whole experience has really tested me on my values. It’s made me more authentic in my work.”

A brighter future for all

Pugsley cleared the distemper virus, and soon after he had a meet and greet with a potential adopter and their dog. He is just one of many pets alive today because of the changes at Pine Bluff and the staff’s commitment to learning new ways to save more animals.

“Things weren't good at all before Best Friends started working [with us],” says Marcus. “For a dog like Pugsley, we would have just said, OK, this dog is sick, and we would have euthanized him. Finding out that vaccines could protect the dogs was a huge revelation for all of us.”

Pets are more comfortable during their stay at the shelter now. They’re fed twice a day, each one has a bed or blanket, and the team’s goal is to find a place for them to go — either to another shelter or rescue group or to a new local home.

Change can be difficult. But the team at Pine Bluff was ready for it, and the changes have impacted them as well as the animals. “Seeing that we could save animals instead of euthanizing them brought the staff closer,” Marcus says. “And over these last two months, we’ve actually done more adoptions than we have in the last two years. We are a much stronger team.”