Animal Allies

With support from the community and a loyal band of volunteers, the Young-Williams Animal Center has steadily grown in size and scope. 

Eleven years ago, Dawn Childress walked into the Young-Williams Animal Center in Knoxville looking to meet her next family member. “We had lost a couple of our dogs and decided we wanted to adopt instead of buying a purebred,” she recalls. And that’s when she met Nala, a Golden Retriever-Australian Shepard mix whom she locked eyes with while there.

Fast-forward 11 years and Nala is just one of thousands of pets who have found their forever homes in East Tennessee. They have been brought to the center, the individuals dropping them off always knowing that those four-legged friends were in good hands with a future home on the horizon. “Without this, I just can’t even imagine the animals that wouldn’t be saved,” Childress says.

As a volunteer of three years, but a supporter of much longer, Childress has watched the center grow and evolve over the last decade. Resources never before available are accessible now. Programs that were either non-existent or brand new are now staple services at the center. So much has changed, and yet, at its core, Young-Williams has always had the same mission in mind: to lead the community to end pet homelessness, promote animal welfare and enhance the human-animal bond.

Changing the Shelter Culture

Young-Williams is an open-intake shelter. Nearly 10,000 animals a year come through its doors by way of animal control, good samaritans who simply find strays, neglect/abuse cases, or what the center calls “managed intake” (appointment-based surrender).

The center has been running since 2001. Originally a government-owned entity, the center became a nonprofit back in 2012. They still contract with the city and the county for work. “Animals are a passion for a lot of people,” says Janet Testerman, the organization’s CEO. “It’s given us the ability to implement new programming initiatives and really change the landscape of animal welfare both in our county and region.”

Testerman came to the center about three years ago and spent time learning the ins and outs of the organization. But as time progressed, she felt the culture needed to progress as well. “We taught the community for so many years that we were a dumping ground for animals,” she says. “We were really intended to be the last resort, not the first resort and we needed to shift that.”

Childress has noticed the difference. “They’ve done a lot to try to save as many of the animals as possible,” she says. “And in the three years that I’ve been there, I can see a huge difference. Animals that maybe they wouldn’t have been able to save before, they are now able to.”

She credits this in part to the addition of the center’s behavioral department, an opportunity to better understand and serve the animals that come through its doors. “Sometimes it just takes a little bit of time to work with them and figure out what’s going on to save an animal,” Childress says. “That wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have the shelter the way it is currently.”

Making it Easier to Save

One of the first operations Testerman tackled was the adoption process. “We needed to stop policing people that came into our center. We needed to make it easier for them to get these animals into their forever homes,” Testerman says. And so the center created a process that was more than simply filling out an application. It became focused on dialogue. Folks still have to fill out the paperwork, but potential pet owners are engaged in conversation about their mindset, their lifestyle, where they live, if they have a yard, kids, and so much more.

That mindset continued into the organization’s owner surrender program. Those looking to surrender their animal make an appointment with the center that can take up to two weeks. “We know that 40 percent of people who relinquish a pet, don’t want to,” Testerman says. “They just had a life hurdle or they’ve encountered a medical issue themselves or the animal has a medical issue that they can’t afford. Or maybe the animal has a behavior issue that they don’t know what to do about.”

So they created their Pet Resource Center, which does, in essence, social work for pet owners to try to keep their animals home. The organization is now able to provide services like pet-friendly housing deposits and a pet food pantry. And with an extra emphasis on education with these pet owners, more than 1,000 animals have been able to stay in their homes, reserving space at the center for animals with truly no other place to go.

Ever Evolving Programming

The programs at Young-Williams weren’t created overnight, nor have they been fostered in just the three years Testerman has been at the helm. They’ve simply taken on refreshed forms. For years, the center has taken abuse and neglect cases, where animals have gone through the judicial system, whether it was a charge related to the animal or not. Those animals come into the care and custody of Young-Williams Animal Center.

The organization’s Spay-Neuter program spays and neuters roughly 10,000 animals a year who come into the center, and an additional 10,000 that are privately owned. And with mobile units on the road four days a week in Knox County, and a satellite location at the Young-Williams Animal Village, the organization has their work cut out for them. “The other thing we’re starting to move into with the public spay-neuter program, is that a lot of pet owners can’t even afford our already low costs, so how do we create better access? How do we get these animals vaccinated?” Testerman says. The organization has been looking into grant funding that would provide subsidies to help pet owners on this front.

Just this year, Testerman and her team worked hard to create a trap, neuter, vaccinate, and return program. In fact, the organization helped to change city and county ordinances to support a community cat program, whereby if a cat comes to the shelter, they are spayed or neutered, vaccinated and then sent right back to where they came from. “They’ve got a 70 to 100 percent chance of finding their way back home,” Testerman says. “They’re healthy coming in, and they’re going back out healthier.” The center has returned roughly 1,100 cats back into their community.

Critical Volunteers

With this and so much work to be done, Young-Williams staff of 70 needs volunteers to make it all happen. With more than 900 volunteers in their system, 75 of which they see regularly, there’s much to do at the center to keep things moving. Childress, who helps on a lot of fronts for the center, runs the Canine Caretaker class, which helps volunteers learn proper animal handling and care. Through this and her other administrative work for the organization, she sees first hand how critical these extra bodies are.

“You get a pretty eclectic mix of people that want to come in and help these animals,” she says. “They try to figure out different roles for people…They couldn’t function as a shelter without all the help from the volunteers. There’s just so much that goes into running this place on a daily basis.”

Programs like Doggie Day Trips help the center understand more about the animals they take in. Anita Milstead, a long-time volunteer of the organization, runs this group. “This is another opportunity for volunteerism for people who maybe have the ability to volunteer on a regular basis, but they just want to do a little something,” she says. But that little something goes a long way. When volunteers take a dog out for the day, be it to their home, on a hike, or a walk around Market Square, it’s actually providing the center ample information about that animal, from an adoption perspective.

Similarly, a volunteer-run dog play group helps the center understand a little bit more about the animals coming through their doors, how they get along with other dogs, how social they are with people, and whether aggression is an issue. “What we’re trying to do is capture as much behavioral information as possible so we can find the best match for them,” Testerman says.

And of course, a foster program gives pets a chance and opens up shelter space for other animals who need it. “We’ve been able to really increase our impact by having that,” Childress says.

Milstead can attest to that. After adopting her dog, Izzy, from another shelter, she knew her pup needed a playmate and so while doing her normal volunteering with Young Williams, she found Izzy’s new sibling, Sophie. Animal Control found Sophie and her six puppies under an overpass downtown, and after coming in to the shelter all seven of the dogs went in to foster care. Eventually Sophie made it back to Young-Williams on a day when Milstead was volunteering, and she knew Sophie needed to come home with her. “I saw her and thought, this is the one.”

All of this work is to ensure that every cat, dog, guinea pig, rabbit, hamster, and more are given a home and a proper chance at a life well-lived. “They can’t just close their doors when they’re full. They can’t turn away an animal because it’s too old or too sick or too injured,” Milstead says. “Their doors are open to anything.”   

At the end of 2018, Young-Williams Animal Center reached no-kill status, a first in the organization’s history. According to Best Friends Animal Society, a national nonprofit focused on saving homeless pets and ending killing in animal shelters, “no-kill” status means a 90 percent save rate for animals entering a shelter. 

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