By Christin Rzasa
Eve Burnsides, Operations Manager for the Bitter Root Humane Association (BRHA), expressed frustration recently that “too many people don’t seem to know we’re here.” Referring to the Dr. Seuss book (Horton Hears a Who!), Burnsides declared, “Sometimes I feel like a little ‘Who’!” In fact, the shelter has been housed in the same building at 262 Fairgrounds Road since 1985, on land gifted to the BRHA by the estate of Countess Margit Bessenyey, the granddaughter of Hamilton founder Marcus Daly. This cheerful facility serves as the heart of an amazing body of public service, fueled by a tremendous compassion for animals and the seemingly boundless energy of ten board members, eight staff members and over a hundred volunteers. Open six days a week, the shelter houses an average of 35-100 animals at a time who require care – feeding, exercising, training, medical treatment – 365 days of the year, and that’s just the group’s most basic function.
According to board member and past-President Sue McCormack, the BRHA is an “open admission shelter,” taking in lost and found pets as well as animals who need a new home, turning no one away. Not including the last three months of 2018, the shelter has cared for nearly 280 owner-surrendered animals and over 350 lost-or-found pets – including pigs, goats, birds, rabbits and other rodents. Both McCormack and current Board President Sue Devlin echo Burnsides’ frustration with the facility’s apparent low public profile, especially when it comes to lost animals.
“Too many owners don’t think to check with the shelter when they lose a pet,” Devlin said. Her frustration is grounded in experience. She regularly compares lost pet ads in the local papers to profiles of stray animals who have arrived at the shelter. (All found animals are also listed on the Facebook site “Bitterroot Animal Lost and Found”.) Her efforts and those of the BRHA have yielded impressive results, with over 500 contacts yielding matches of around 40%. These foundlings are welcomed, cared for and returned to their owners at no charge. The BRHA asks for a donation, but it’s not required of the owners recovering their pets.
The group’s “live-release” rate average (adoptions and reclaimed animals) is similarly noteworthy at 94% for the past five years. Adoptable animals “can stay for as long as it takes,” McCormack says. “Technically, we’re not a ‘no-kill’ shelter. Some animals with severe medical or behavioral issues do have to be euthanized, after consultation with a veterinarian, but we give the animals every chance.” In fact, it’s not uncommon for an animal to stay two or three years at the shelter, waiting for the right home.
“They can stay as long as it takes,” says Burnsides, who regularly meets with shelter directors from across the state, working toward common goals and occasionally exchanging animals for better exposure to potential adopters. The BRHA even goes the extra mile for animals with on-going medical problems, finding “end-of-life” fosters or adopting the animals themselves.
“The animals come first,” McCormack stresses, “and this staff is dedicated! They take animals home, they nurse them.” Charlotte Springer (Head Kennel Person) even “gets calls on her personal cell phone from local veterinarians needing help with newborn kittens or pups who require more individual attention.”
When a pet enters into the care of the BRHA, it is evaluated by the staff who then address any medical problems and suggest needed training. Volunteers — trained by Coordinator Judy Allison — and the staff work with the animals every day. “The dogs don’t stay in their kennels all day,” according to Burnsides. “They’re walked, they go to outside runs for fresh air, and they have ‘play time’ with other dogs in the ‘play yard’. We take them to the grade schools, to meetings, to public events. They get out a LOT!” The cats are “colony-housed” in two communal rooms with a collection of toys, carpeted towers, cubby holes, elevated perches and constant access (except in the winter time) to screened-in porches. Volunteers and staff regularly interact with them, coaxing out the shy ones, keeping the litter boxes cleaned, and noting any suspected health concerns.
The BRHA is also an important resource in times of disaster. “The Red Cross takes care of people, but people have animals,” McCormack points out. “That’s where we come in.” During the fires of 2005, for example, the shelter handled over 250 dogs from Ravalli County – at no charge – while their owners were evacuated. Volunteers and staff worked “twenty-four hours a day for two weeks straight,” caring for displaced animals and creating a database for available emergency pasture for livestock. Burnsides was able to secure a grant to produce a handout, “Emergency Preparedness for Companion Animals and Livestock” that describes “evacuation kits” for domestic pets, livestock, birds and exotics, outlines evacuation planning and lists important phone numbers for assistance. These flyers are available at the BRHA shelter, local veterinary clinics and through the Ravalli County Sheriff’s department.
“We receive no funding from Ravalli County,” Devlin points out. “The city of Hamilton provides us with a small stipend, but we serve the entire county at no cost to the county government. We are entirely funded through donations, grants, bequeaths and fundraisers. I don’t know what the county would do without us.”
Funding is a perennial problem, despite the tireless work of the Board of Directors and BRHS volunteers. McCarthy notes that it costs $1000 per day just to keep the shelter doors open. And the shelter itself has seen over thirty years of hard use. The dog kennels — made of concrete — are outdated and noisy. A frustrating plumbing leak that could never be traced left holes in the sheetrock and replacement pipes that run outside the walls. Since the BRHA doesn’t turn animals away, the cat “colony” is often bulging at the seams.
“I don’t know how this staff does what they do, considering what they have to work with,” Devlin sighs. “It’s truly amazing!” Still, the facility is bright and clean, the staff and volunteers are cheerful and positive, and the board members are resolute, endowing homeless animals with love and the possibility of ‘forever homes.’ And the animals — “no matter how small-ish” – are waiting to be noticed.