Guilford County Animal Services director talks about future of animal shelter

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Let’s face it: The Guilford County Animal Shelter’s probably not on your list of top “destinations” in the Piedmont Triad.

But Jorge Ortega thinks it can be. He just needs a new building.

After nearly four years of dealing with an animal abuse scandal, state fines and a revolving door of three top administrators, the shelter’s a year-and-a-half into new leadership.

Ortega, as director of Guilford County Animal Services, not only supervises the shelter, but also all the county’s animal control officers. (High Point’s animal control officers are still all under the realm of that city’s police department.)

At the shelter, he’s helped the numbers move in the right direction.

The number of what he calls, “happy endings” — animals that were able to move into permanent homes after being a shelter stay — was just 50 percent in 2016. Last year, it was 80 percent.

The shelter’s euthanasia rate was 74 percent in 2016. Last year, it was 51 percent.

“Here’s the challenge with animal welfare,” he told me when I visited the shelter recently. “We can’t help animals unless we help people. We need people. We need adopters. We need fosters. We need volunteers.”

But he also believes making the shelter experience better for humans will also produce better outcomes for the animals.

Since arriving, Ortega’s turned an old storage building into the new intake facility. It replaced a narrow hallway and provides more space for visitors and arriving animals. It also helps shelter staff members complete their assessments more efficiently.

The people who walk into the shelter lobby to surrender animals also get more “human” attention. They now have to sit down for interviews during which the staff learns more about why the animals are being surrendered. This also allows staff to make sure the surrendering pet owners understand the challenges the animals could face at the shelter.

But Ortega feels it’s going to be difficult to keep the numbers moving downtown if the shelter remains in the current facility off West Wendover Avenue.

Plans are in the works for a new $12-plus million facility off Guilford College Road just a few miles from the current facility. But how big this new place will be is still subject to a lot of scrutiny.

Much to the dismay of many local animal advocates, county commissioners are in the process of considering a facility that’s about 8,000 square feet smaller and one capable of holding about 70 fewer animals than what Ortega originally wanted. The reason: the original plans were $3-4 million over budget.

But Ortega says a smaller building isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“We should not be building bigger shelters,” he said. “We build bigger shelters, we just hoard more animals. We hoard more animals, that costs us more money because each animal per-day is a cost.”

Ortega feels he and his staff must figure out how to manage a smaller footprint in which there is steady progress in terms of improving the number of happy animal endings.

He hopes to have the new shelter up and running within the next couple of years.

“We need to catch up. We are way behind the eight ball. But we have hit the fast-forward button and we’re moving in the right direction,” Ortega said.

For more information on the Guilford County Animal Shelter, including pictures/descriptions of animals available for adoption, click here.

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