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Adopt a Furry Friend from the Hendricks County Animal Shelter

Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing

When LaDonna Hughes was hired as chief animal control officer and shelter director of the Hendricks County Animal Shelter in 2013, her first priority was making sure that all animals got the best health care possible. This includes vaccinations, heartworm treatment, flea treatment, spay and neutering, and for cats, an FIV test.

“Everything a normal person would do with their pet we do here,” Hughes says.

In recent years the shelter has steadily grown its volunteer program. Thirty volunteers come faithfully to walk and train the dogs, transport animals to events and dole out plenty of TLC. One volunteer recently coordinated a fundraiser to buy new playground equipment for the dogs.

“Honestly, it’s better than what I had access to as a kid,” Hughes says. “It’s got slides, ramps and little houses they can run in and out of.”

Hughes hopes to recruit additional volunteers and also start a foster program. Tanya King has volunteered at the shelter for three years, calling it “the best decision she’s ever made.” King also sits on the board of the Hendricks County Friends of the Shelter and is the newly appointed Director of Social Media.

When Hughes first arrived at the shelter, euthanasia rates were high. She made it her top priority to dramatically reduce those numbers. One way is by promoting animals on social media. Posting a sweet furry face with a name tugs at heartstrings and encourages the public to consider adoption. Shelter alerts on social media also help reunite lost pets with their owners.

Since Hughes took over, the shelter has not euthanized an animal due to lack of space.

“I refuse to do that,” she says. “I’ll go into overdrive to find someplace for them, even if I have to take them home and foster them myself.”

In four years’ time, adoptions are up as are owner returns thanks to an increase in owners tagging and microchipping their pets. Space in the shelter fills up fast as Hughes has 30 regular kennels on the adoption floor. They also have one large cat room that holds 20-plus cages as well as two evaluation rooms that hold 10-15 felines each.

“If I have to, I’ll put cages in the hallway,” Hughes adds. “If I get really desperate, I’ll put more in the garage.”

The shelter employs 10 staff members (four full-time animal control officers, three kennel attendants, two office workers and Hughes). The staff and all volunteers are wholly invested in each of the animals.

“We work every day to find the happy-ever-afters they so deserve,” King says.

Thanks to cartoons, movies and television shows, a stereotype exists that animal shelters are full of “mean ‘ole dog catchers” who want nothing more than to nab wayward pooches and toss them in the back of a dirty van. That cruel mentality couldn’t be further from the truth.

“We’re caring for these animals, many of which have been neglected or abused,” says Hughes, noting that they see a startling number of animal hoarding cases involving ordinance violations. When they bring in those creatures, they must first rehabilitate them, which in severe cases, may take months as they work to not only restore them to good physical health but also to socialize them and make them more adoptable.

Several years ago, there was a dog hoarding situation where 60-plus feral border collie mixes where brought to the shelter.

“Even though these dogs wanted nothing to do with humans when they first arrived, I saw the potential in them and knew that they would thrive if they got affection,” says Hughes, who reached out to various organizations for help. After months of being acclimated to humans, some of the dogs were adopted by the public. Others were taken by rescue groups. None were killed. Hughes even adopted one herself.

For cats and dogs who have been neglected or abused, it takes ample time and effort to earn the animal’s trust.

“They’ve been hurt so they’re understandably skittish and scared. We’re here to assure them that we love them,” says Hughes, noting that volunteers are so critical because it’s that regular interaction that fosters trust.

“These precious animals arrive here in such disarray — broken, injured, lost, thrown away — but we love them back to health, treat them with kindness and respect and show them they are not worthless or disposable,” King says. “By showing them love, we give them hope.”

Adele, a senior pit bull mix, was the typical shelter story. She came in as a stray, was getting up there in years and was a breed that scares people off. As a result, she remained a permanent fixture at the shelter — and in the hearts of the staff. After living at the shelter for over a year, in April the grandmother of one of the animal control officers adopted sweet Adele. But not before she provided therapy to one of her own.

Earl was a 3-year-old black pit who came to the shelter as a stray in August 2016. Sweet and shy, he was anxious anytime he stepped outdoors.

“He had some quirks about him,” Hughes says. When Adele came to the shelter, however, they took to each other and she helped coax him outside — just a few steps at first, then onto the grass, then past the parking lot.

“When the staff saw Earl making these little strides, we were in tears,” Hughes says.

A woman recently came in, requesting to see the “long-timers” and immediately fell in love with Earl, quirks and all. During their initial visit, he even went up and sniffed her, which was a big deal for shy Earl.

“We definitely shed some tears when Earl left,” Hughes says. But make no mistake. When these dogs and cats get adopted into a loving home — especially those that came from neglect or abuse — the staff celebrates.

“To see them happy and know they’re going to be loved, that’s the best feeling in the world,” Hughes adds.

Typically, it’s the senior cats and dogs (especially pit bulls) that get passed over for adoption as folks hesitate to invest emotionally and financially in a pet they fear won’t be around much longer. There are, however, those kind souls who seek out elderly animals.

“These people touch your heart because they want to provide a loving home for these pets to live out the remainder of their lives,” Hughes says.

Sadly, people often think of animal shelters as being dark, dirty, dingy, places. It’s a total misconception.

“I take pride in how clean we keep everything,” Hughes says. “It’s cleaner than my house.”

At the Hendricks County Animal Shelter, canines have the run of the outside kennels. They also get comfy beds and heated floors as well as automatic water dispensers and chew toys. The felines have big cages with toys and hiding boxes in them, plus perches to jump onto. Both cats and dogs get enrichment toys that help keep their minds sharp. In addition, in the summer, employees set out little pools for dogs to splash in.

King looks forward to her volunteer hours because the animals regularly restore her faith in humanity.

“No matter how disenchanted I am with the human race, when I walk into the kennel area and see every tag wagging, every scruffy face barking and every furry soul happy to see me — my faith is restored,” King says. “They make me feel needed and loved. So, seriously, who’s saving whom?”

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