(Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series about the crisis at the Valencia County Animal Shelter. The series will include articles about successful adoptions, rescue group efforts, overcrowding and euthanasia rates and the ongoing struggle toward the solution.)

Every day there are new faces and names, new stories and pleas for help. A seemingly endless stream of animals in need of a forever home – young and old, male and female, alone and in pairs, mothers with litters.

The Volunteers of the Valencia County Animal Shelter Facebook page, which as per its name is run by the volunteers at the shelter, usually has multiple posts a day. Sometimes it’s a funny animal video or relatable meme, but mostly it’s a gallery of furry faces looking out of cages, hoping for a second chance.

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Joaquin Lara, 8, and Zia, share a moment at their Taos home. Zia was adopted by the Lara family after they saw a video of her on the Volunteers of the Valencia County Animal Shelter Facebook page.

In the first eight months of 2019, the shelter has taken in 3,661 animals, an increase of 146 from the same time period last year. The shelter took in 5,136 animals total in 2018. For two months this summer ­— June and July — intake rates jumped by 205 additional animals compared to last year.

Jess Weston, the VCAS director, said he didn’t have a definitive reason as to why numbers have increased, saying there are several variables at play most likely.

“Our population over the last several years has increased, so more people, more animals,” Weston said. “There has also been a cultural change in the county. We have higher transfer and adoption rates, and we’ve stepped up our willingness to handle the numbers.”

In 2018, 1,462 animals were adopted from the shelter, 501 were reclaimed by their owners and 1,739 were transferred to other shelters. Through August of this year, those numbers are 1,207, 419 and 1,042, respectively.

The cultural change Weston referred to is largely the public’s perception of the shelter and its staff. The director said thanks to the staff and volunteers going above and beyond to educate the public, do out reach through the schools and do the heavy lifting to get animals out of the shelter via transfers and adoptions, lowering its euthanasia numbers, county residents understand when an animal is surrendered it will get quality care.

“That has increased our numbers, which is good. We want them to trust us,” he said. “We aren’t just putting dogs down. We try to have, at the end of every day, five to seven open kennels.”

There is still the need to euthanize for space, Weston said, but that is increasingly rare, unlike 10 or 20 years ago when it was a daily occurrence.

And when space gets tight, the volunteers leap into action, posting photos and descriptions of animals at the shelter on the Facebook page. Videos of dogs that showcase their personalities are often included, along with reasons for their surrender, if known.

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On their way home from the Valencia County Animal Shelter, Taos family, Aubriana, Rudy, Joaquin, 8, and Santiago Lara, 5, are all smiles with their new dog, Zia.

One such call for help brought a family down from Taos to adopt a pet. The video of Baby, a small black and white dappled shepherd mix, caught Aubriana Lara’s heart two months ago. Thanks to the ways of the internet, the video had made its way to a friend of hers in Las Cruces before being shared north to her.

“I’m not one to collect dogs, but the video caught my heart,” Lara said. “We usually adopt older dogs and we already had two.”

Her husband, Rudy, needed to be in Albuquerque the following Saturday, so Lara decided to stop by the shelter in Los Lunas, just to see.

“I said, if she’s still there we’ll stop and see her,” she said.

When they arrived, Lara learned that despite a lot of interest and several visits, Baby was still there. She was shy and nervous as they took her outside to one of the shelter’s shaded interaction areas.

“She was really reserved and nervous but then she loved on my boys. That was the tell tale sign for me,” Lara said.

While price wasn’t a consideration, Lara said she’s never seen a good reason to pay hundreds of dollars for a dog from a breeder when there are so many dogs in shelters.

“There are so many dogs, many of them older,” she said. “You don’t have to pay thousands of dollars to get a great companion.”

There was a bit of an adjustment period once the family returned to Taos. Now named Zia, Lara said it was evident the dog hadn’t had much human interaction before being surrendered to the shelter.

“You know how when you talk to a dog, they’ll look at you? They know you’re talking to them. There was no reaction from her, no idea you were talking to her,” she said. “She didn’t know how to come closer.”

In two short months, things have improved.

“Now, she kind of rules the house,” Lara said with a laugh.

The original video of Zia got an “insane amount of interaction,” she said, so, “the fact that we got her was amazing. The videos give them so much personality. I did keep up with the (shelter Facebook page) for a while, but I had to stop or else I’d go back and get them all.”

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After months of searching, Kathy Holliday found her perfect companion animal, Lizzie, at the Valencia County Animal Shelter.

Closer to home, Kathy Holliday, of Belen, had been searching for just the right pet for months. Her childhood spent on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, Holliday said there is a need in her to have animals. As an adult, she has adopted several shelter dogs, taken in strays and even rescued a horse.

“I was given a shelter dog once and he always knew he was rescued,” Holliday said when asked why she prefers to adopt rather than buy her companion animals.

After the recent death of her husband, she began looking for a dog for company and to train to help others. Holliday was looking for something mellow and less than 12 pounds to train as a “senior cuddler” for nursing homes and to take into children’s hospitals.

“At that size, they are small enough to give cuddles and people can hold them as well,” she said.

Several visits to the VCAS had left Holliday empty handed, but one rainy day while running errands, on a whim, she stopped in.

“I thought, at least I can go play with the puppies; that always makes me feel better,” she said.

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Even though she’s only been with her new owner a few months, Lizzie, a dachshund/terrier/shiatsu mix, knows to sit quietly when Kathy Holliday is talking to others.

A familiar face to shelter staff by then, Holliday was directed to the last row in the shelter, the last kennel on the right.

And just like that, there she was she was, laying there, dejected, head on her paws, trembling. Holliday opened the door to the kennel and started talking to her, gently, quietly, like a person, telling her all the plans she had. How she would visit the sick and infirm to make their day better.

“Then I told her, ‘Now the big question … do you want to come home with me?’ And the puppy just leaped into my arms,” Holliday says, her voice filled with emotion. “I mean, who adopted who?”

After being returned to the shelter twice for being “too shy,” Lizzie’s third time was the charm and she found her home with Holliday.

That day, she was able to adopt Lizzie for half price, a practice Holliday says the shelter should consider doing monthly. The regular shelter adoption fee is $92 for dogs and puppies, and $72 for cats and kittens.

The fee covers surgical sterilization, a one year rabies vaccination, microchip and a booster vaccination. If the animal is already spayed/neutered, the adoption fee is only $10.

“She just jumped in my arms and wouldn’t leave. She knew she was home,” Holliday said.

(For more coverage and a video, visit news-bulletin.com.)

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