At the Rockwall Animal Shelter east of Dallas, canine distemper was the mother of invention. Probably passed from raccoon droppings, the disease was affecting more than half of the dogs at the shelter when a nonprofit founded by Molly (Theis ’03) Peterson took over from the city in 2012.
Although she was used to working with abused and neglected pets, Peterson had never seen an epidemic like this in her experience with shelters or animal fostering. Distemper symptoms mimic a cold at first, but the disease is deadly for dogs. The cats were also sick with feline herpes and ringworm.
She knew the first thing she had to do was to establish protocols for sanitation. Workers began stepping in bleach buckets to pass through doorways and dipping leash leads in bleach. They sprayed the yard with chlorinated water after each dog’s turn at exercise.
As she came up with additional ideas for keeping the infection in check, Peterson found that she could also improve the animals’ experience at the shelter, and even boost their chances for adoption.
So the shelter laid down artificial turf in the yard and put up metal sheeting all the way to the top of the kennels. No more bumping noses and paws between cages, and the stress level of the dogs decreased.
In an especially creative moment – “I don’t know, I saw a movie once, and it worked with criminals” – Peterson decided to put up one-way tinted glass on the kennels so that the animals would not see approaching visitors, but the visitors could see the animals. The glass tinting changed the atmosphere at the shelter, doing away with the familiar scene in which dogs rush to the front of their kennels to bark at all comers.
“If they’re not charging the pens, acting crazy, then people want to actually meet them,” Peterson said.
The glass even helped to fight disease, by reducing animals’ stress levels and because workers could now check on them without touching.
Peterson started her North Texas nonprofit in 2008 with a network of foster homes for pets, and it immediately began taking in between 650 and 1,000 animals a year. Last year, following the addition of the shelter in Rockwall, the group accepted 2,300 animals in all and had a “98 percent live outcome,” so that more than 2,000 healthy pets found homes. Only sick, aggressive or injured animals had to be euthanized. (Almost every day, however, the shelter turns away pets whose owners are not residents of the North Texas city.)
The contract with Rockwall to run the shelter is exclusive, so Peterson’s group won’t be expanding to new cities right away. Instead, this year it plans to launch an investigative unit, complete with hidden cameras, “to shut down organizations that are inhumanely treating animals.”
In addition to the problem of puppy mills, which has been addressed in part by a new state law, there are animal rescue operations in the region that follow their own standards of humane treatment, Peterson said.
“That’s great that you’re taking care of 200 animals, but how often is your vet there? What are you doing for sanitation protocol? What are you doing when an animal is injured or there’s a dogfight? Is somebody licensed around the clock for euthanasia?” she said.
It was during her first semester at Cal Lutheran, after a trip to a poorly managed shelter in downtown LA, that Peterson began taking responsibility for animals in need. She spoke with people from animal rescue groups who were there taking photos, and the conversation had a lasting impact on her life. So did Charlie, the puppy she took in that day on a temporary basis, the first of many.
For eight years after graduating with a degree in psychology, Peterson worked in California as a field counselor with mentally ill adults. She grew frustrated with the system, she said, and with the high percentage of patients who seemed to her determined to remain within it.
On the other hand, animals always want to improve their lot. Do what you can for them, she said, and you’ll find them “undyingly appreciative.”
Molly Peterson is the founder and president of the Collin County Humane Society.