Behind closed doors of the Jackson County Animal Shelter

JACKSON COUNTY, Ore. – The Jackson County Animal Shelter is home to adoption and animal control services for the entire county.

It sees thousands of animals through its doors on an annual basis.

This year however, its relationship with the volunteers who spend so many hours there…  has been the focus of *many county leadership meetings.

“We never know exactly who is going to come through our door and what they’re medical and behavioral needs are going to be,” said shelter supervisor Lauren Burke.

The Jackson County Animal Shelter doesn’t get to pick and choose which animals let in.

As a result, staff at the shelter need a lot of help.

“We gotta make sure the dogs are taken care of,” Candy Jackson, a kennel attendant, told us.

That’s why it was so surprising to many when early this year,  shelter leaders and the county board of commissioners decided controversially not to allow volunteers on Mondays.

Friends of the the Animal Shelter (FOTAS) had an office at the shelter up until this year. Its hundreds of volunteers helped shelter staff get the dogs out on walks and to give them a little extra love.

When the FOTAS office closed and volunteers were not allowed on site Mondays, many local animal lovers protested.

“We want to do what’s right for the welfare of the animals, we want what’s ethical,” said Ashland resident and FOTAS volunteer Tony Davis.

Last month, Davis gathered over 1,200 signatures on a petition to try and undo some of the county’s recent changes.

Those include reopening the shelter on Mondays to volunteers, allowing volunteers to transport animals off site for any care they need, and ensuring conditions at the shelter are adequate for both animals and volunteers. 

“By making these simple changes that again just involve reverting to what was a previous policy… You can help make the shelter again a place that all of us can be proud of,” Davis continued.

Davis tells us he never heard back from the county.

Commissioners originally voted to make the decision about not allowing volunteers on Monday’s temporary.  They have since chosen to make it permanent, though volunteers are still allowed on site the other 6 days of the week.

Laura Ahearn, a current FOTAS volunteer, says county officials have given multiple explanations as to why.

“The diminution in what the volunteers at the shelter can do has had an impact I will tell you on disabled people who have found this a great opportunity to give their time and to help our community,” Ahearn said.

Fellow volunteer Linda Barnett says she tried to raise concerns about the decision at the shelter in a local paper.

“That same day, I read a letter from our local veterinarian to the commissioners regarding best practices for animal shelters,” Barnett continued. “I went to my dog walking job at the shelter that same afternoon and I was immediately terminated.”

Barnett says she hasn’t fought the ban because she doesn’t want to make things even harder for FOTAS than it already is.

“I don’t wanna jeopardize them because they’re already been so reduced in what they can do for the dogs right now,” Barnett said.

The head of the non-profit Sky Loos said she couldn’t do an interview, but told us over email that the organization will always strive to have a volunteer presence at the animal shelter as they have for decades.

At the shelter itself, county employees say the decision regarding FOTAS and its volunteers were simple program decisions.

“All of the decisions that we make are program based,” said Animal Services Program Manager Kim Casey.  “They’re all based on what the needs of the program are even the determinations about which roles the volunteers play.”

The back and forth surrounding the dispute and FOTAS’ outspoken volunteers has been a part of a handful of county meetings this year.

Even Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan, who runs the county, has gotten involved.

“Certain people, not unlike today have represented that the dogs are confined for 48 hours,” Jordan said. “That’s a false narrative being spread by FOTAS.”

Jordan denies the animals are being left alone.

“The animals are moved Monday and Tuesday from their kennels. All the kennels are cleaned.”

While volunteers want to be back on site Mondays, their main concern are the animals themselves.

“They absolutely don’t have the staff to get them out. It has to be volunteers.,” Barnett said.

Michelle Fox is a former dog technician at the animal shelter.

“It’s so busy there’s so many dogs there’s so much to do and it’s really hard to stay on top of all of that,” Fox said.

She claims she was fired without cause this April after being involved with the shelter for over a decade.

Before officially becoming a staff member in 2021, Fox was a volunteer at the shelter, helping care for the dogs wherever she could.

“The truth is Jackson County’s shelter faces the same issues that every other shelter in this country is facing,” Fox said.

Fox said staff relied heavily on volunteers to provide enrichment for the animals and reduce kennel stress.

“As a staff member, you have literally have no time to provide enrichment.”

“The sheer volume of everything that needs to be done can be a challenge,” Lauren Burke said.

Both volunteers and shelter leaders say they want what’s best for the animals.

The county says while conditions aren’t perfect at the shelter, they are improving and staff are trying their best with what they are given.

“It’s impactful for people that are working really hard to be accused again of just not even meeting an animal’s basic needs much less going above and beyond which we do in so many situations,” said Kim Casey.

Right now, the animal shelter has multiple job openings for two animal technician positions starting at $18 an hour.  You can find out more about those job descriptions here.

Coming up in part 2 of this exclusive special report, we’ll look at the facility improvements the county’s making at the shelter, the dangers of kennel stress, and how the county is working to get animals adopted out of the shelter and into homes as quickly as possible.

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Taylar Ansures is a producer and reporter for NBC5 News. Taylar is from Redding, California and went to California State University, Chico. After graduating, she joined KRCR News Channel 7 in Redding as a morning producer. She moved to Southern Oregon in 2022 to be closer to family and became KTVL News 10’s digital producer. Taylar is currently finishing her Master's Degree in Professional Creative Writing through the University of Denver. In her free time, Taylar frequents independent bookstores and explores hiking trails across Southern Oregon and Northern California.
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