Chris Nelson has decided the fate of thousands of dogs and cats as director of Animal Services at the La Plata County Humane Society.
For 18 years, he’s determined when to put animals down and what homes will be best for dogs.
“Those decisions can be tough and not popular,” he said.
But over time, the number of homeless dogs and cats that must be euthanized at the shelter has been radically reduced. When Nelson started about 30% of the homeless dogs and cats faced euthanasia because the shelter did not have space to house all the homeless pets.
Since then, the percentage of animals that must be put down annually has dropped to less than 5% because of a focus on spaying and neutering animals in the county, Nelson said.
Now, the shelter only euthanizes animals with incurable health problems or with unsolvable behavioral problems that make them dangerous to the community, he said.
To some degree, working in a shelter is similar to a prison system, he said. The staff is often working with dogs that don’t have any “life skills.” Some of the dogs brought to the shelter never learned how to interact with people or other animals and so it falls to the staff to train the dogs and help their new families work with them.
“Getting them in homes and loving them isn’t always enough,” he said.
Nelson has often wished he could simply ask dogs about what home environment would be best. He would ask questions such as: Would they prefer a home with kids? Do they want to sit on the porch or go paddle boarding?
Without the ability to interview the dogs, sometimes it can take several tries to find the best home.
That was the case for a semi-famous German Shepard-mix named Lieutenant Dan.
Lieutenant Dan was found on Colorado Highway 172 in 2014 covered in feces and urine and suffering from severe sores. He also seemed to have paralyzed back legs.
The La Plata County community donated $32,000 for the dog’s care in seven days. Through hydrotherapy, acupuncture and chiropractic adjustments, the dog regained use of his back legs.
Lieutenant Dan’s initial owners didn’t work out, but he found a home at Harmony Acres Equestrian Center, an equine-assisted therapy facility, in Grand Junction, where he is now a mascot of sorts, Nelson said.
Nelson was also able to find the right home for Radar, a partially blind German Shepard, who was found walking down the center of Colorado Highway 172. Radar went home with a police officer, Nelson said.
Dogs like Radar and Lieutenant Dan keep Nelson going, he said.
“I have a passion for the mission. ... I speak for those who can’t speak for themselves,” he said.
He spends the most time with older dogs and cats, that are likely to be at the shelter longer, he said.
At times, he is frustrated with those who surrender older dogs or cats for reasons that don’t seem to make much sense, such as moving out state, he said.
In one memorable case, a 7-year-old black Lab was surrendered because it didn’t match the new white couch, he said. Nelson said he didn’t fully believe the owner’s reasoning, but he didn’t argue.
“I just laughed and I took the dog,” he said.
While Nelson can’t understand some individual pet owners, he is heartened by the larger national trend toward a more humane environment for pets.
In the 1970s, an estimated 30 to 40 million animals a year were being euthanized. Now, The Humane Society of the United States estimates 3 million dogs and cats a year are euthanized.
The La Plata County Humane Society does its part to reduce euthanasia by bringing in 500 animals a year from outside the area to find homes, he said.
Nelson’s ultimate vision for the shelter is to shut it down because it’s no longer needed. But he knows that’s not realistic. So he wants to ensure the shelter is a model of what a small town shelter can do on a small budget and he has no plans on leaving.
“I plan to be here for as long as they will let me,” he said.