Editor's Note: This is the first in a series looking at Fort Smith's animal overpopulation. Part two will appear in next Sunday's edition.

Take one look around HOPE Humane Society or peek at its social media profiles and it’s pretty clear: Fort Smith has an animal problem.

A few dogs are kept in makeshift kennels on the adoption center floor with at least another dozen or two ready-to-adopt cats and dogs. Just a few days ago, there were dogs in plastic kennels and metal crates stacked on top of each other in another area of the shelter, because it’s having to care for so many.

Interim Director Raina Rodgers announced at the Humane Society’s board meeting Thursday a new building had been completed to move 43 dogs from their cramped crates to full-sized kennels where they can move around as they await sterilizations and later, a transfer to the adoption center.

The shelter’s social media posts also make it clear the facility needs help, from sharing fundraising events, asking for donations, promoting animals and publicizing population reduction efforts. (It recently transported 167 animals via two flights to shelters in Idaho and Oregon.) Despite its best efforts, there are still concerns about the shelter’s financial viability, primarily due to an inability to enforce current city ordinances.

That’s where the Animal Services Advisory Board comes in.

“Every dog at the shelter was someone’s pet,” said Brandon Weeks, ASAB vice president. “There’s an owner in this town somewhere that gave up on that dog, and we need to do something that helps hold those people accountable.”

‘I don’t know what we’re going to do’

The Sebastian County Humane Society, now known by its state-approved “fictitious name,” is the official animal impoundment facility for Fort Smith, according to city ordinance 4-132. It is where animal control officers are required to take any pets without proper identification.

From 2015-17, the shelter brought in more than 8,600 total animals. This year alone, there have been more than 1,500 animals that called the Humane Society home for a period of time. More than 700 were on-site at the end of August, and through various transports and adoption events, there were 473 Thursday morning. While it’s a big improvement, the shelter is only able to hold approximately 350.

“We keep chipping away at it, and we’re trying to keep it low,” Rodgers said.

Former Director Joe Sprague and the board made a decision to attempt to become a no-kill facility in 2016 and has been mostly successful, Humane Society Board President and ASAB member Sam Terry said, but it’s come at a cost.

Rodgers said she knows that decision probably hurt the shelter, because it increases operating expenses when there are more mouths to feed, alterations to perform and microchips to implant.

“It would’ve been nice to have some legislature put in place that would’ve made people more responsible before we went to a no-kill shelter,” Rodgers said. “Unfortunately, that’s not the way it went, so that’s why we’re stacked on top of each other with animals.”

The Humane Society has been over budget the past several years, according to its federal tax returns from 2015 and 2016. According to a current profit and loss summary, the shelter was $256,500 over budget at this time last year. A 2017 tax return and full audit was not available at the time of publication.

Some may accuse the shelter of careless spending, but the majority of areas of loss, according to current financial records and tax returns, come due to operating expenses — the utilities to run the Humane Society, supplies to care for the animals — and not director salaries or other unnecessary costs. According to the 2016 tax return, the shelter director’s salary is listed at $25,200. More than 99 percent of its income that same year came from donations, grants and other “activities related to its exempt functions.”

As of Thursday, the Humane Society made a profit in September and cut into its debt, bringing the losses to $76,100 for the year.

While this is progress and financial documents don’t indicate a loss as large as 2017, Rodgers knows this can’t continue.

“It’s gotten to a point where I’m not sure. I don’t think we’re going to be sustainable,” Rodgers said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. If we cut more employees, there won’t be enough people to clean the cages that have and feed the animals that are already here, let alone any of the animals that are already coming in. That constituted an emergency.”

Julie Morton has been a longtime donor to the shelter and said it would be “catastrophic” if the shelter would have to close.

“It’s never been a money-making operation,” Morton said. “That’s not the point. Break even and they would be happy, but even doing that is hard and has been for years.”

Morton told the shelter board at its Thursday meeting she didn’t think no-kill was feasible in the area at this time. LeeAnn Hicklin Cox, HOPE treasurer and ASAB member, said at the services board meeting Thursday night said going back to euthanizations isn’t an option.

“The shelter was going under when it was killing everything, because none of the community supported it,” Hicklin Cox said. “Now, the community is supporting the no-kill shelter, but it’s just overwhelming, because of the number of animals.”

The ASAB board also noted it believes people would pull donations if it returned to euthanizations, something the Humane Society can’t afford. Rodgers just wants people to know what it’s up against and what it needs from the community if it wants to continue the no or low-kill practice.

“Everybody in the public really loves the idea that we’re not euthanizing them all the time, but they really need to get on board with being more helpful about it,” Rodgers said. “Not to be mean or about it or anything, we just need more assistance. If we want to be a no-kill facility, until things change with the spaying or neutering situation and people registering their pets, then we’re going to need nonstop community involvement.”

Animal services board

Fort Smith has struggled with its animal population for years. The city implemented a temporary animal services task force in 2011, before the Animal Services Advisory Board was introduced.

The task force was responsible for looking at the animal situation in the city at the time and making recommendations to the administration and board of directors.

Some of its findings and recommendations include:
1. Pet licensing was not feasible due to cost and lack of compliance
2. Responsible pet ownership should be encouraged through microchipping
3. Pet alterations must be encouraged and not forced, though cats who roam outside and tethered dogs with insecure enclosures or owners who are unable to watch them at all times must be altered
4. Require the Humane Society to host microchipping, alteration and vaccination events
5. Require one- or three-year rabies vaccinations for all animals
6. Dogs caught running at-large three times may be required to be microchipped and sterilized
7. The creation of an advisory board to continue looking at animal topics in the city

Most of the task force’s recommendations were implemented into city ordinances, including the advisory board.

“We worked steadfastly and presented our findings to the city directors,” said veterinarian and former ASAB chairman Jon Remer. “One of our recommendations was the formation of a citizen animal advisory board that no one group or faction would have so much power or sway. It would be a collective; everyone would be able to sit and discuss it and determine what was best.”

The purpose of the board is to serve in an advisory capacity to the administration and directors on issues related to the welfare of animals, lawful ownership education, and, according to municipal code 4-22, encourage conversation in the community to ensure “the programs, goals and objectives of the city in relation to animals are consistent with the community’s needs and desires.”

There were some changes from what the task force recommended in regard to board membership, but according to municipal code 4-13, there must be one licensed vet; someone who works at or owns a business related to the production, sale, distribution or care of animals; one board member from a nonprofit tasked with the health and welfare of animals; and six members who are not required to have any affiliation with a certain organization.

Remer expressed this year concerns about the number of HOPE board members on the ASAB, according to the service board’s minutes and interview, and said he felt it was a conflict of interest.

The Fort Smith municipal code says “a conflict of interest occurs when an individual’s private interest interferes in any way, or even appears to interfere, with the interests of the city as a whole.” Because of this, Remer resigned in June.

City Administrator Carl Geffken told Remer in June that it was not a conflict of interest and reiterated the point Friday morning.

“I have spoken to the city attorney, just to confirm, and it is not a conflict of interest,” Geffken said. “Because the way it is written, they don’t need to have an affiliation, but there’s no problem if they do. That issue has been put to bed.”

Proposed 2012 licensing ordinance

The ASAB tried unsuccessfully in 2012 to get an animal licensing ordinance passed. It required pet owners to register their altered pets for a fee, unless they applied for a hobbyist permit — dogs for hunting, breeding or show — or fell under exempt categories, including service animals and those with life-threatening risk if the procedure is performed.

Residents would have been required to prove their animals were altered and vaccinated in order to receive the permit. The animal was also required to wear its license tag at all times for identification purposes.

The ordinance was permanently tabled Sept. 4, 2012.