On a paw and a prayer

Walking into the Rita B. Huff Humane Society for the first time, visitors are caught with not only a whiff of the many stray animals housed there, but also one of vast despair.

Puppies whimper in their crowded cages. Dogs clamor for five minutes of attention. Cats cling to students for as long as it takes to capture their heart.

All that’s really missing is Sarah McLaughlin’s gut-wrenching song “In the Arms of an Angel,” which ideally would be playing over the loud speaker, but isn’t.

That’s when it normally hits people.

They discover that they aren’t sitting behind a TV in the comfort of their own home.

They realize that many of these animals won’t ever know what a “home” is.

Last week the shelter, which is set to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, shocked the Huntsville community when it announced that it has been struggling financially and may have to close its doors if the trend continues.

“Our budget runs at $311,000, [and] we have a shortfall of about $60,000,” Executive Director Marjolein Lemmon said. “We’re reaching out to the community to help us out so we can make up that deficit that we have every month in order to keep going.”

Nearly 500 animals are dropped off at the shelter each month – up to 100 a week – a problem that is not altogether uncommon, Lemmon said.

“It’s pretty much constantly, all day long,” she said. “Of course, they don’t go out the door as fast, as far as adoptions go.”

She also said the current shelter suffers from the strain of serving many of those neighboring counties without shelters such as Grimes, San Jacinto and Polk.

“I’m a strong believer in that every town should have a shelter because every town has this [animal over-population] problem,” she said. “It’s not fair to put that all on the one county that happens to have a shelter.”

These factors, she believes, should serve as a reminder to Walker County and its lawmakers that the shelter’s closure could have disastrous consequences.

According to Lemmon, with the absence of a shelter, as many as 500 abandoned animals could run loose in the area, carrying diseases, breeding with one another and even biting people.

“You’re going to have your hands full with a county inundated with animals,” Lemmon said. “It wouldn’t be a pretty picture … [but] that’s our biggest thing. To stop this over population…”

The lack of funds may also postpone the construction of a new shelter, one that Lemmon says is desperately needed in order to keep pace with the community’s growing needs.

“Five years ago, we did decide we needed a bigger place, and we bought a piece of land and it has now been cleared,” she said. “In the mean time, we’ve been raising the funds to build that shelter.

The new shelter, which will be located on I-45 north near the city’s sanitation department, will cost an estimated $3 to $4 million to construct.

With more land – eight acres to be exact – and amenities, it will be more than just a place to house unwanted animals, Lemmon said.

“The whole set up will be different,” she said. “We’re going to have a dog park, a columbarium…where people can come to memorialize their animals…There will [also] be education going on [and] obedience training. [It will be] more like an animal center than a shelter.”

At the moment though, Lemmon said the current shelter needs to stay open and operational.

The shelter’s closure would wound Huntsville’s spirit, especially those affiliated with the university, Lemmon said.

“I know a lot of students will come here to visit with the animals because they live in a dorm and their animals are at home and they need that puppy or cat fix,” Lemmon said. “It’ll be a lot tougher for them to find a pet and be able to come visit and help us out.”

Either way, she said she’s happy with what the help the shelter has been able to provide the impoverished animals so far.

“Knowing that we’re able to take in stray and unwanted animals, that we can take care of them for as long as we can, that we can find homes for maybe 50 percent of them, that’s what’s important to me,” Lemmon said. “Just knowing that, I can go to sleep every night.”

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