At the peak of last week's triple-digit temperatures, the dog kennels at Jackson County Animal Care and Control bustled with activity.
Fans blasted cold air down the corridors, and volunteers from Friends of the Animal Shelter — FOTAS — offered canines treats frozen inside ice cubes to keep them cool. Other volunteers took turns with cats, allowing them some temporary play time out of their cages or stroking their backs until they purred.
It's a snapshot of an evolving facility that, for some volunteers and staff, looks completely unfamiliar. The facility's 10 staff and 300-plus volunteers are working in a new environment, one they say has changed for the better.
"It really has improved dramatically in the last year," said FOTAS volunteer Jane Babbitt.
The changes started with a December 2011 incident in which a 4-year-old house cat named Max, belonging to Medford resident Priscilla Farrel, was mistakenly euthanized. Staff had labeled Max as a feral animal and said he was unmanageable.
The public outcry that followed swept over the shelter and prompted the county to seek a review. The shelter's director, Colleen Macuk, stepped down in the midst of the controversy, citing health reasons.
The Oregon Humane Society began a review of the shelter's practices a few months later at the county's request. The agency scrutinized shelter facilities, operations and procedures, and produced an 85-page report. The document praised some facets of the shelter, including cleanliness and well-intentioned staff, but was critical of other aspects, citing high euthanasia rates and inadequate medical care.
"(This) was strictly initiated by a desire to do better," said Brenda King, Humane Society operations director. "There are new practices. There are always new things to learn."
Shelter workers say they took the report to heart, and a year later many of the changes recommended by the Humane Society have been implemented, with more improvements to come.
"We still feel it's just as busy, but I think we feel better about what we're doing," said shelter Manager Barbara Talbert, who stepped into the position after serving in a volunteer capacity as FOTAS president.
Evidence of the changes that have taken place can be found in the shelter's numbers.
In 2011, the shelter took in 2,757 cats and 2,064 dogs. Of that number, 400 cats and 591 dogs were adopted, 51 cats and 674 dogs were returned to their owners and a handful were transferred to other facilities. The remaining 2,224 cats and 725 dogs were euthanized.
For 2012 and 2013, the shelter's live release rate for both cats and dogs has improved, with more animals being retrieved, adopted or transferred to other animal care facilities, such as the Southern Oregon Humane Society.
Numbers for 2012 show 626 of the 1,685 cats brought in were adopted, transferred to another shelter or returned to their owners, meaning about 37 percent of cats left the shelter alive, more than double the 2011 rate of 17 percent. The shelter is on track to improve again in 2013, with 254 of the 613 cats brought in to date leaving the shelter alive, over 41 percent.
The dog numbers saw a similar trend in 2012, with 1,246 of the 1,609 dogs that were brought in being returned to owners, transferred to other agencies or adopted. That 77 percent rate was up from 2011's 61 percent rate.
"Our biggest goal this last year has been to improve the save rates, and that's happening," Babbitt said.
Stray and domestic cats are being held for longer periods of time, up to five days for stray cats that appear to have no ties to an owner.
"If it's got some type of identification, we hold it for at least 10 days," Talbert said.
In addition, animals now receive three scans for embedded identification chips, as not all chips come from the same manufacturer. Photos of all the animals are still advertised on the shelter's website and other sites such as www.petharbor.com.
"We've gotten better at identifying those true ferals," Talbert said of wild cats that are eventually deemed unmanageable. "We're doing everything we can."
The number of runaway pets returned to their owners has also improved, due in part to the success of a new program that gives licensed pets on the run a free ride back to their home. Since March, the program has resulted in about 30 returns. New technology has contributed, with portable microchip scanners and laptops in shelter vehicles to better assist controllers in identifying runaways.
"We can get animals back to their owners quicker," said animal control supervisor Brittany Whitmire.
Between new software and the new scanners, Talbert estimated, the shelter spent upwards of $50,000 to improve its operations. The technology upgrades had already been in the works before the Humane Society report was issued.
"If anything, the report accelerated the process," Talbert said.
While more animals are going out, fewer are coming in, too.
A key recommendation in the Humane Society report was to reduce the number of cats the shelter accepts in order to increase the survival rate for those they do accept.
"The hope is that with fewer to deal with, the better the care individual cats will receive, and ultimately a live outcome for some of the cats will be possible," the report read.
The numbers show significantly fewer animals being accepted. For cats, the intake number dropped from 2,757 in 2011 to 1,685 in 2012. Through June 2013, 613 have been taken in so far. The shelter took in 2,064 dogs in 2011; that dropped to 1,609 in 2012, with 756 tallied through the first half of 2013.
"It may just be five dogs here or three cats there, but it really affects the overall capacity when you're not building up so many animals," King said.
But the shelter is not merely turning away the excess animals, said Jackson Baures, Jackson County's public health division manager. Instead, it has been providing more options for where the animals could go. The shelter will sometimes direct people who want to drop off an animal to facilities such as the Committed Alliance to Strays and Southern Oregon Humane Society, and Web-based resources such as the state Humane Society's site and Craigslist.
"The shelter should be your last choice if you want to re-home a pet," Baures said. "(But) if you ever tell someone no, provide them an option."
The methodology appears to be paying off. Since 2011, the Southern Oregon Humane Society has taken more than 200 cats and dogs from the shelter and was able to find homes for all of them.
"We already had started that partnership, and then it accelerated as we got better at coordinating and communicating," said SOHS director Kenn Altine.
The Oregon Humane Society report also highlighted "significant concern" when it came to medical care available for animals.
"Staff are in need of additional training to diagnose disease, dispense drugs and manage the health of the population as a whole," the report read.
Shelter officials said they are taking that advice seriously, from the moment animals arrive.
"We vaccinate upon entry," Talbert said. "That's standard now for both cats and dogs."
Shelter officials closely look for medical conditions the animals may be suffering from when they arrive. They also scrutinize their temperament to gauge their adoptability and how well they will adapt in the shelter.
"Kennels are inherently stressful situations. No one does well in a kennel," Altine said. "You try to eliminate as many stresses as you can."
The shelter plays classical music in the kennels to reduce stress among animals, and it is developing an enrichment program for dogs, which provides them with toys to play with in their kennels.
"I think it helps with the aggression issue," said shelter supervisor Rebecca Long. "It's really important to maintain their health."
Facility volunteers and employees are trained to continually monitor the animals once they are inside, checking them for ailments such as kennel cough and other respiratory infections that can easily be picked up in a shelter. The animals' dental health is also routinely reviewed.
Animal care professionals also continue to look to the community for help in lowering the shelter's euthanasia rate.
It's the busy season for animal adoption agencies. In summer, more pets are surrendered, and the shelter is currently overflowing with cats and kittens due to a burst of litters that often come in the warm-weather months.
"You end up with large kitten populations," Long said.
Making sure animals are spayed and neutered is the key to driving these numbers down, Altine said. But the shelter's function is more directed at dealing with existing animals rather than trying to prevent more births.
"Jackson County's mandate is to deal with the symptom," he said. "Not the cause. The cause is animal overpopulation and lack of spay-neuter."
Jan Whetstone, volunteer executive director for Committed Alliance to Strays, agreed, saying an education campaign of some kind is needed. How to go about it is a challenge, she said.
"We need to make sure that everyone knows that there is no excuse to not have your animal spayed or neutered," Whetstone said.
Shelter officials said they hope to have more low-cost cat adoption clinics — such as an upcoming "Nine Lives for $9" event planned for July 9-17 — to boost the numbers of animals being adopted.
For the shelter's overall efficiency, switching from a paper-based system to a digital system has been helpful, but it's a transition that's still in process.
"Not everybody was computer savvy. I think we made that leap pretty quickly," Talbert said.
Humane Society officials said they have visited the shelter three times since issuing the initial report.
King said it's apparent from those visits that everyone involved with the shelter is making a real effort to improve the operations.
"The current management really wants to facilitate change," King said. "What we've seen since then on every subsequent visit is that desire for change. They're really putting a lot of effort into it. They've really looked at their practices from start to finish."
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or email@example.com.