Chapel Hill: Opinion

Bob Marotto: Animal Services: Our first decade

By Bob Marotto

Orange County Animal Services

Bob Marotto
Bob Marotto

Since being established in July 2005, Orange County Animal Services has become a model for quality care and service. Such development was not a foregone conclusion, but it reflects the hopes, aspirations and efforts of many concerned with animal protection and welfare in our county.

The department opened its doors in the aftermath of community controversy over the quality of animal care at the old shelter. The controversy was stamped by the character of Orange County, but it expressed more pervasive change in the meaning and significance of animals in our culture.

At that time, there was considerable concern with the bond between humans and animals. There was also a turn away from traditional catch and kill practices and calls for the reform of the philosophy and practice of animal sheltering. Entwined with these changes, of course, was the growth in popularity of limited or closed-admission shelters that became known as “no kill.”

As the director of Animal Services since 2005, it has been my privilege to have a front seat view for the unfolding of this fascinating historical process in Orange County. These are the notable “phases” of the process:

Animal Services creation – Charged with integrating the previously separated sheltering and animal control services, Animal Services became a free standing county department in 2005. It was created a year after the county assumed direct responsibility for operating the animal shelter and involved bringing together the shelter and Animal Control personnel who were previously part of the Health Department.

Animal Services Center opening – After years of planning, the county’s new Animal Services Center opened in June of 2009. The center brought staff together from three different locations and it has been a physical medium for integrating operations and services. The center also became a public destination, helping overcome the trepidation people historically have had about visiting their community animal shelter.

Innovative programming – Innovative programs were developed as part of the department’s broadened scope of service. Foremost are our community spay and neuter program, which has helped reduce animal intakes and euthanasia to a historical low; and our volunteer program, which adds substantial human resources we use not only in animal care and enrichment but public outreach and the actual adoption process.

All of these phases have involved the community. Critical to this has been the Animal Services Advisory Board, consisting of appointed county residents from a variety of backgrounds. The board has helped ensure that Animal Services remain connected to stakeholders, and more generally the changing values and concerns people have about animals. The board has worked with staff and county commissioners to develop a strategic plan for managing pet overpopulation, amend the animal control ordinance to limit tethering, and prepare and propose a unified animal ordinance for Orange County.

A deep connection with the community will remain the life-blood for Animal Services in the coming decade just as it has in the past. Seeking to end the use of euthanasia as a means of population control is about community capacity and outreach as much as shelter operations. Similarly, reshaping our bond with cats, dogs, and other animal companions is about norms and standards and education. As we move into future together, we very much expect to sustain close contact with all county residents and to elaborate community programs in new and even more proactive directions.

Robert A. Marotto is the director of the Orange County Animal Services department.