Profile: Beating the odds

Published 4:00 pm Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Executive Director Sara Shirley plays with some of the dogs awaiting a forever home. (Reporter photos/Jon Goering)

Executive Director Sara Shirley plays with some of the dogs awaiting a forever home. (Reporter photos/Jon Goering)

Shirley, Humane Society staff beat odds to save county’s innocent, unwanted animals


Sara Shirley sees a light at the end of the tunnel, and after almost a decade of involvement as either a volunteer or an employee with the Shelby Humane Society, she is confident that light doesn’t belong to an oncoming train.

Shirley, executive director of the Shelby Humane Society and its shelter operation at 381 McDow Road in Columbiana, has seen intake of unwanted pets decrease by thousands since she began as a volunteer at the shelter about 10 years ago. She is confident Shelby Humane and its staff and volunteers are making a positive difference in the lives of innocent animals.

Her cluttered office has the look of that of any hands-on manager, except for the big, sleek black cat, Percy, curled up on a box by a window, and Willie, a three-legged, shaggy mixed breed, also asleep on the floor by Shirley’s chair. Both were dumped at the shelter years ago and now call it home.

“The state of the animal population in Shelby County is better than it has been. When I got involved years ago, I believe our intake was hovering around 8,700 animals a year. The last two years, our intake has been right at about 5,000. There is a direct correlation between the emphasis on spay and neuter and the decrease in intake. Five thousand is still a huge number, and we don’t get them all. Particularly with cats, we have a lot of cat-friendly people who do so much and they never come here,” Shirley said.

A lifelong resident of Shelby County, Shirley and her husband of 28 years, Kenneth, are the parents of two dogs, which they consider like children. Maggie, a Labrador, is 12 years old. Pearl, a bulldog mix, was taken in as a foster puppy. “She is my foster failure. I raised her on a bottle, and she loves her Maggie. They are a very bonded pair.”

Shirley has thousands of other “babies,” those she helps care for every day at the Shelby Humane Society.



Shirley was a 23-year employee of EBSCO when she felt a yearning for something more in her life.

“It felt like someone was speaking to me. The best way I can explain it was like an empty feeling. I often would find myself at work at EBSCO thinking, ‘I’ve got to find something that gives me meaning, gives me purpose.’ I decided I was going to volunteer, and ran into some people I knew who were working here and I started volunteering.

A puppy, one of many, awaits a forever home at the Shelby Humane Society’s shelter in Columbiana.

A puppy, one of many, awaits a forever home at the Shelby Humane Society’s shelter in Columbiana.

“I started cleaning in the puppy rooms and I would do outside adoptions at Petsmart on 280. I would come in on Saturday morning and get the animals ready, spend the day there adopting the ones we could and bring back those that didn’t get adopted,” she said.

Soon after, the position of volunteer coordinator opened up and Shirley was offered the job.

“I have the most wonderful family. I recently lost my dad and that was extremely difficult. The one thing he always told me was to go for my dreams. I’ll never forget that. My mom, she is so supportive. I have two sisters and she has always encouraged us girls to pursue our dreams, and to always do the best we can do at whatever we do.

“It was scary to think about doing something different. Mom had the more logical response. She said, ‘OK, you’ve been there 23 years, making good money, great benefits in a secure job…’ So, I kind of went along with what Daddy said! And I have not had one regret.”

After working as volunteer coordinator, Shirley was promoted to director of operations, a position she held until May 2012, when she was named executive director of Shelby Humane Society.

“I have now held every position here, which makes for a well-rounded understanding of what works and what doesn’t work and what may not work today, but is worth trying again tomorrow,” she said.

Shirley has always been an animal lover and was known to bring home strays as a child. She and her family lived on a small farm in the U.S 280 area between Chelsea and Inverness.

“I think people knew they could dump them at our place and we would take care of them. But we couldn’t keep them all. Some of them we had to take to the Birmingham animal shelter. I don’t even know if there was a Shelby animal shelter back then,” she said. “Those that we did keep were spayed and neutered, even back then. Other relatives of ours didn’t understand that sometimes, but Mama always knew that needed to happen.”



“We are still reaching for that goal of no kill,” Shirley said. “And, I think no kill is a strong term. The reason I say that is this: Can there every really be a no kill shelter? There are always going to be animals that do not need to be in the community. If you can’t safely handle an animal, it doesn’t need to be in the community.

“People can have negative thoughts about an organization that does euthanize, but there will never be an open admissions shelter that will be no kill. We are open admissions. That means we must take anything that comes to our door, whether we are at capacity or not.

“Ideally, the no kill phrase really means no adoptable animal is euthanized. That’s our goal. And we are pretty much there with canines,” Shirley said. “I have not used the reason for space to euthanize a dog in three years. There is an excuse now when we euthanize and that excuse is medical or behavior. Some medical things we euthanize for that, with unlimited resources, we could correct. But we have to make a decision such as, do we spend $3,000 on this one dog, or spend it on taking care of 100 dogs? Cats? Oh, dear Lord, that’s a different story.”

Sara Shirley, executive director of the Shelby Humane Society, holds Abigail Lilygirl, a shelter kitten. The Society’s friends on Facebook named the kitten as part of a contest. She was quickly adopted.

Sara Shirley, executive director of the Shelby Humane Society, holds Abigail Lilygirl, a shelter kitten. The Society’s friends on Facebook named the kitten as part of a contest. She was quickly adopted.

In early fall, the Shelby Humane Society was caring for more than 100 cats.

How do Shelby Humane officials decide when to euthanize an animal?

“We don’t have a time structure. We do not go by that. For cats, they do not handle shelter life well. If they are here for any length of time, they are going to get sick. Usually, it’s something that is easily treated, but there’s that excuse that we use. It helps our heart and our soul a little bit to have that excuse,” she said

Shirley and her staff and volunteers at Shelby Humane are working hard to find other ways to save the lives of cats.

“We have started something new with our feral cats. We are asking them if we get this cat spayed or neutered and rabies vaccinated, will you return it to the area you picked it up from and let it live out its natural life. And we’ve had some pretty decent response to that. We are trying to think about anything we can do other than trap them and bring them in and kill them,” Shirley said



Shelby Humane Society uses a sodium phenobarbital injection to euthanize animals. Only those certified by the Alabama Veterinarian Board can perform the deadly procedure.

“My first few weeks and months here, I had a curiosity about it. I wanted to know what happened in that room, and I was allowed to observe. Once I saw it, it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, and it wasn’t easy. Observing it isn’t easy, but it’s not like doing it.”

She said her first experience with euthanizing an animal produced much the same emotions as one goes through when losing a loved one.

“There’s shock and anger and you look for someone to blame. I’m going to tell you, there is a lot of soul searching and a lot of praying. We are God’s stewards and here I am killing animals, and at that time, it was just for space. There was nothing wrong with these babies. You think, why are we having to do this? It was like losing a loved one.

“The most difficult part of that is being the one to hold that animal and feel the life leave it. And I’m going to say this and I say it every chance I get. Those of us here who do euthanasia — no one does it any better than we do. Those animals, if they will allow it, are loved and held and they know the touch of a kind hand and a good heart when they take their last breath. And that may be the only time they’ve ever felt it, but they felt it then,” Shirley said.

Animals are euthanized “every day” at the Shelby Humane Society, Shirley said. However, while one animal may be euthanized each day, that’s a big drop in the number euthanized daily before the shelter’s program of transporting dogs to the New England area in 2006.

“While we may euthanize one today, before our transport program, before we began spay and neuter, I literally spent hours of my day walking through the kennels saying, ‘OK, you have to go today, you have to go today, you have to go today.’ Now, with the program, we get to walk through and say, ‘Hey, you get to go to New Hampshire. You get to go to New Hampshire. You get to go to Maine. And with cats, I get to say, ‘You get to go up for adoption.’ It’s totally different.”

Since the shelter transport program began, Shelby Humane has sent about 6,000 dogs to the northeastern United States. The shelter tries to send three vanloads of dogs to that area each month, “but that really depends on the shelters there and how their intake has been. Right now, the program is going strong.”

The thought of the program ending, “scares me to death. I do not know that my soul could take going backwards. That’s what scared me so much about this spay and neuter stuff,” Shirley said, referring to the recent threat by the Alabama Veterinarian Board, which proposed a measure that would have effectively ended the low-cost spay and neuter program in Alabama. That measure failed.

“If we regress, now that I’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel, I just don’t think I could do it. And I do see a light and it’s bigger than it was. When I started, couldn’t even see a light, then it got to be a pinpoint. And today it’s a little bit bigger. It is so much better than it was nine years ago. I could not do this if progress was not being made and I think by seeing where we’ve come from, that progress is huge.

“I try to share that with all new employees. Some of them think, ‘Oh, this is horrible.’ And I tell them, ‘Oh, no. You don’t have a clue what horrible is,” Shirley said.



“There are many things I’ve seen here I will never forget. One is this lady who came in and you could tell she was down on her luck. She had two small mixed-breed long-haired dogs that were seniors. She had lost her home and was living in her car. We had zero space and because the way the law is, we have to keep strays for seven days. And you’ve got 30 animals that you know you can’t adopt. They are either not healthy or are a danger to the community. But because of the law, you must hold them for seven days. And you’ve got this homeless person who is bawling her eyes out because she is having to give up her animals so they can eat. You have to tell her that we are full and we may have to euthanize her animals. We tell everyone there is that risk.

“That is the most horrible, gut-wrenching thing to have to do. At the same time, you promise them you will do the very best you can. In that case, which was seven or eight years ago, we were able to save those dogs. We don’t have that problem now with dogs often, but we still tell people there is that risk,” Shirley said.



Shelby Humane Society operates on a budget of about $1.4 million a year. About 25 percent of that comes from the Society’s contract with Shelby County for the animal control portion of its mission.

“Any stray animal that comes in must be held for seven days. From day eight on, all that falls under the Shelby Humane umbrella, from grant money and donations we are able to secure,” Shirley said.

Shelby County owns the facility in which Shelby Humane is located “and thank them for letting us use it,” she said.

The Humane Society contracts with Dr. Rhonda Ellison for veterinarian services.

“She handles all of our rabies vaccines and is in house typically once a week.

There is a lot of animal medicine that must be done by a licensed vet and even with our transport animals, we have her come in and do a thorough exam on every one of them because we don’t want to take any chance on missing something. We can’t lose that program so we make sure those babies are in good shape. Calera Animal Hospital does all of our spaying and neutering. We take animals over Monday through Thursday,” Shirley said.

Alabama state law requires that all pets adopted from an animal welfare organization be spayed and neutered. Even so, some people are still resistant.

“People come in often and say ‘I’ll take that one if you don’t cut him,’ and we say, ‘I’m sorry, you won’t be taking him,’ ” Shirley said. “The biggest problem is men — the older generation and the younger generation. We’ve gotten to where we can pretty much tag them when they walk in the door: what kind of dog they want and whether they are going to argue about getting them spayed or neutered.”

Shirley said she receives calls from time to time from people who want to bring their children in to see a mother animal give birth.

“They want them to see the miracle of birth. You know what I see when I hear that phrase, ‘miracle of birth?’ I think of a photo I saw on the internet of a 55-gallon drum slap full of deceased puppies and kittens. That’s the miracle of birth. The miracle of birth in the unwanted animal population is no miracle. It’s a tragedy. With affordable spay and neuter from local veterinarians and from our programs, there is no reason that any animal in Shelby County is not spayed or neutered. No reason,” Shirley said.



The mission of the Shelby Humane Society is to improve the lives of all animals in Shelby County.

“We want to be able to help every person who needs help with their animals,” Shirley said. “If you are going to surrender your dog or cat, we’re going to ask you, ‘What can we do to help you keep this animal? Can we give you some resources so you can re-home this animal so it never comes in here?’ We want to try to give people the tools they need.

“Whether you are a pet lover or not, the unwanted, stray animal population effects you. The animal control portion of this facility is funded through your tax dollars. Every citizen has a vested interest in Shelby Humane. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t need these tax dollars to house these animals for seven days and that money could be used to fund a children’s or a senior citizens’ program?

“So many of these animals have been stray for so long, we can’t adopt them. It’s a wasted life that didn’t have to happen,” she said.

Shirley said in the years of her involvement with the Shelby Humane Society, she knows of only three truly feral dogs brought to the facility.

“The rest of the dogs that come in here are strays who were owned by a human at some point. And they’ve been dumped on the streets. Don’t dump them. Bring them here. What is worse? Even if they are humanely euthanized, isn’t that better than living on the street where they could be attacked by other animals or hit by a car or shot? We had one yesterday who came in here who was shot. The person who shot him didn’t have good aim, so he survived,” she said. “Every person in this county is responsible in some form or fashion. Don’t dump them. Bring them to us.”



Thanks to volunteers and dedicated staff, Shirley said the future for animals in Shelby County is improving.

“We have some amazing volunteers. We can send a plea out today that we need X-Y-Z and people will work hard to help us get it,” she said.

Shirley told as one example of volunteer generosity the story of a Shelby County couple who heard Shelby Humane was in need of a fan to help the dogs and staff cope with oppressive summer heat.

“It was triple digits, and where our dogs stay in back is not air-conditioned. The dogs go into temporary holding kennels for about 40 minutes a day while we sanitize that area. The heat was just unbearable for them and for staff. In mean, if you are back there for even a few minutes, you are just dripping.

“Mark and Dena Yearwood brought a big, huge black floor fan to circulate the air on the dogs outside. They brought in misting hoses and put them all around the top of the runs. They just walked in and surprised us with them. They got it all hooked up. The dogs enjoyed that and the staff enjoyed it, too.”

The shelter is in constant need of cat litter and canned cat and dog food, as well as cleaning supplies and towels and in the winter, blankets and bedding.

“We use the canned food for a lot of different things, including giving the animals medicine. Sometimes you can’t get them to take a pill, but they will eat it if it’s hidden in a meatball. And the canned food is used for those animals who need a little push to eat,” she said.

Any donation, no matter the size, is a big help to the animals at Shelby Humane.

“Anything that someone uses in their home to clean, we can use it here. If you buy a bottle of Dawn, buy two and send us one. There is a misconception, too, that donations need to be big ones. If all you can do is bring in a bottle of Dawn or give $5, that can go so far. Every single item donated goes a lot farther than people think and it’s so appreciated,” she said.

“I am optimistic. I have my days, trust me, but I just know, I just have that feeling, things are going good and something is telling me, watch out for Shelby Humane!”

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