The Hanover County Animal Shelter’s employees arrive to work at 8 a.m., two hours before it is open to the public. During the time between walking in and opening the doors, kennel attendants feed and care for the animals.
On this particular morning, kennel attendant Travis Worrell cleans kennels in the main room, where about 16 dogs are being held. They bark and yelp for attention when they hear us getting closer to their room. Tiny, high-pitched poodles leap to the tops of their kennels and big mutts stand their ground with deep barks when we walk into the concrete room.
This main room is where dogs who have been found or relinquished by their owners stay for 10 days before becoming available for adoption. These 10 days serve as a quarantine period where attendants monitor the dogs for any potential illnesses or behaviors that could make them unfit to be later adopted. The dog’s pictures are taken and put on the door of their kennel, and uploaded online in the hopes that an owner may recognize their lost dog and pick it up.
Worrell’s first task of the morning is to feed each of the dogs. He scoops several bowls full of dry food and drops them quickly into the kennels. While they’re eating, he shows me to the shelter’s other rooms.
In one room, dogs ready for adoption wag their tails and try to lick human fingers through their kennel doors. These are the dogs who have already done their time in the main room and would rather be snuggled on a living room couch than be housed in a shelter. There are far worse places for a dog to be, though, than in this shelter.
“These pups were pretty much raised here,” Worrell said of a few Pitbull puppies kept on a second level of kennels in the adoption room. “We’re waiting for a trial before we can adopt them out.” The puppies stood on their hind legs and smiled at us, little tails wagging, as we talked to them in their kennels.
Some animals come to the shelter because their previous homes or owners hurt their wellbeing. In cases of pet abuse or neglect, animals are kept in the kennel until the owners lose custody of them in court. They can then be adopted out to more suitable, safer homes. In the meantime, they receive regular meals, attention and baths when necessary.
Worrell graduated from Patrick Henry High School in 2013, intending to pursue a career in law enforcement. He received a certificate in criminal justice at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, and began working at the shelter last year.
Worrell said that he had worked part-time at the shelter since last summer, and became a full-time employee just months ago.
“It was right when all of those dogs had been seized,” Worrell said. He is referring to a major animal case that occurred this past May, when animal control received a tip/tips that nearly 70 dogs were being sold from an unfit location in Montpelier.
“So we had the animals that we normally had here, plus the 68 new ones,” Worrell said. “It all worked out, though.” He said that community members made generous donations of food, towels and toys for the unexpected influx of dogs.
Worrell took me to the cat and kitten room, where cages smaller than the dogs’ faced each other from opposite walls. These cats also spent their 10 days in a quarantine room next door before coming to the cat room.
“Cats can get and spread sickness really easily,” Worrell explained. Upper respiratory infections are one of the major concerns that the shelter has about holding cats in close proximity with one another.
Adult cats rubbed their sleek bodies against the front of their cages before turning around and heading to the back, like models on aptly-named catwalks. They played it cooler than the kittens, who mewed in tiny voices and swatted their paws at anyone who walked near. Some of the younger kittens share their cages with a littermate to keep each other company.
Later in my visit I experienced the kittens’ meal time with Vicky Powers, the shelter’s unofficial “cat lady.” The attendants share tasks and take turns in the different rooms, but Powers prefers to care for the felines. Two 5-week old kittens needed feeding, so I would hold one in my hands while Powers fed the other.
Like dogs, cats may come to the shelter not because they’re “wild” or “dangerous,” but also because the owner might be unable to care for an entire litter. Worrell said that sometimes people relinquish cat carriers full of kittens to the shelter.
Back in the main room, Worrell begins cleaning each individual kennel. He leashes two or three dogs at a time and links the other end to kennel doors, so that the dogs may roam short distances in the main room while he sprays down their kennels. I designated myself as the dog entertainer, playing with the pups and talking with Worrell as he ducked into different kennels.
I was impressed with how thoroughly he cleaned the dogs’ living spaces. Granted, an animal shelter with several transient guests can only be but so beautiful, but the living areas were soaped, rinsed and disinfected. Every day, kennel attendants change out the towels and blankets that dogs sleep on for clean ones. The shelter even has a washing machine on-site to ensure that the animals have clean towels and blankets.
A few owners came in to claim their dogs while Worrell and I were in the main room. It was interesting to see how the dogs and owners reacted to being reunited.
“Yep, that’s her,” an owner said of his beagle in one of the cages. She barked excitedly, standing in her kennel trying to lick him through the chain link door. One of the shelter workers was talking to the owner and explaining the paperwork process, but he seemed to not notice and tried giving the beagle a treat.
“She’s spoiled,” he said.
One puppy in particular, a young, reddish hound-looking dog, caught my attention from inside his kennel. He was spending his second or third day at the shelter, and was heart breakingly trusting of the humans around him. I hoped that he hadn’t been purposely abandoned by someone who had broken this trust, or was in any way mistreated before coming to the shelter. I sat on the concrete floor and he walked onto my lap like he belonged there.
“He was just riddled with fleas when he came in,” Worrell said of the puppy crawling on me. His expressive puppy eyes looked at me as if apologizing for his previous infestation, and I couldn’t bring myself to shoo him away. “We’ve already given him two flea baths, and we’ll give him another if he needs it.”
The shelter has a full bath tub installed into a wall at about hip-height just outside the main kennel room. Animals get their flea baths and general cleaning here during their time at the shelter.
Worrell said that the shelter is equipped to handle minor injuries like cuts and scrapes, but more serious issues are directed to Chenault’s Veterinary.
I left the shelter a few hours later feeling uplifted after holding delicate kittens and snuggling puppies all morning. My feelings deflated a bit when I held the door open for what looked like a mother and daughter relinquishing their dog. The daughter was crying, while the dog looked incredibly happy, oblivious to the fact that this may be the last time they see their owner.
When I got in my car, I noticed a girl in the car next to me, presumably with the family that just entered the shelter’s office. She was sobbing, and I gathered that she probably didn’t want to watch her beloved dog being locking up in a kennel amongst strays and court cases.
Animals who come to the shelter may not have been abused or left in the woods after hunting season. Sometimes, they come from incredibly loving owners who don’t want to let them go, but due to various circumstances can no longer provide a proper home.
The shelter’s employees care for animals regardless of their age or history. The job may not always be glamourous or particularly “good”-smelling, but the employees certainly do their best to ensure that each animal who comes through the door is treated with as much respect as possible.
Natalie Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org