A narrow two-lane drive winds north up and off Carol Brown Boulevard to the handsome, sandstone block and red-roofed building that houses Ardmore Animal Care Inc.’s humane shelter, which the civic leader for whom the road is named helped found.
Climbing the gentle rise — and before a visitor reaches the parking lot fronting the shelter — a turnoff allowing “service vehicles only” veers to the rear of the building. It is from there that most of the animals that have been brought in, be they captured strays or owner-surrendered former members of the family, go out, once and for all.
Far fewer leave through the front door, typically on a leash or in a new owner’s warm embrace. They’re the lucky ones.
Yet, the Ardmore Animal Shelter has in the past decade greatly reduced the number of animals, unwanted, unadopted, that end up euthanized.
That accomplishment is a result of a dedicated staff, dozens of volunteers and a litany of benefactors whose generosity made the modern, sanitary and compassionate shelter possible — as well as because of the animal shelter’s steadfast spay-and-neuter policies and programs.

A community initiative
Prior to August 1986, stray cats and dogs, be they soloists or running in packs, as well as surrendered pets, were dropped off at a ramshackle facility on Park Street SE, a low-slung, dilapidated building overcrowded and unsanitary with a chronically leaking roof in a neighborhood that would-be volunteers shunned.
“It was probably worse than you would expect of any animal shelter,” Ardmore Animal Care’s executive director, Jeannine Jackson, said, noting that such facilities have not always been known to be clean and well run. And the Park Street shelter was prohibitively small: “It could probably hold no more than 10 or 12 animals at most.”
That all changed 30 years ago when Carol Brown, among others, organized a fundraising campaign that reached out to everyone living within Ardmore to find a site and build a facility that could accommodate the growing number “of unwanted, neglected, abandoned, and abused animals in our area,” Brown recounted before her death in 2014.
The Ardmore City Commission, to enable the project, leased to the organization just more than 13 acres to the immediate west of the Valero refinery off Veterans Boulevard.
The city also helped with infrastructure for the site, but, Brown wrote, “most pleasing was the cooperation of the citizens of Ardmore who gave their money. That money came in from donations of one dollar to donations of several thousand dollars. The new shelter was completely paid for with these donated funds.”

Making every effort
The Ardmore Animal Care facility — “it’s best known locally as the Ardmore Animal Shelter,” Jackson said — can house up to 250 animals, which, with the exception of those arriving terminally ill, are kept longer than the state-mandated 72 hours, a period designated to give lost animals and their owners time to be reunited.
“There’s no set time on how long they can stay here,” Jackson said this past week while showing a visitor around the facility. “If an animal stays healthy and we believe it can be adopted, we’ll do everything we can.”
Some animals, mostly strays, arrive in such poor condition that putting them down is the only humane course to follow, and, as a result, Jackson said,  “our euthanasia is up because we work so hard at not letting them sit in the kennel and suffer.”
Yet, the shelter in the past decade has euthanized fewer animals than in past years while, at the same time, the number of those adopted has risen.
During those 10 years, the number of cats and dogs, strays as well as owner-abandoned animals, has steadily declined from 7,037 in fiscal year 2005 to 5,202 most recently.
Jackson believes that has been due in no small part to the shelter’s spay-and-neuter efforts.
During the same period, animals that died of illnesses they had acquired prior to arriving at the shelter fell from 550 in 2005 to 74 this past year.
Adoptions, on the other hand, rose from 1,534 in 2005 to 1,585 in that period.
The adoption rate over those 10 years has risen from 23 percent of all animals brought to the shelter to 31 percent most recently. “Our adoption rate,” Jackson said, with undisguised pride, “is the highest it has been since 2001.”

A costly proposition
On one recent morning the shelter’s census stood at 75 — 68 dogs and seven cats — not an unusual number during the winter. The population tends to rise as the cold months give way to spring and then to summer, primarily, Jackson said, “because you get your litters in the spring and early summer.”
Given the number of animals admitted, caring for them and maintaining the shelter itself is a costly proposition.
Ardmore Animal Care charges $40 to adopt a cat, $60 for a dog — a fee that includes recommended vaccinations, deworming, treatment for ear mites, a wellness examination and mandatory spaying or neutering. Those expenses collectively far exceed the adoption fee.
“Obviously, we lose money on each adoption,” said Ardmore Animal Care co-director Kasey Renteria, who has been with the shelter 13 years.
All told, the shelter’s operating budget for fiscal year 2015, which runs through April 30, is projected at $600,000. The City of Ardmore, in addition to leasing the 13 acres on which the shelter sits, provided, in its most recent annual allocation, $127,000, or slightly more than a quarter of the anticipated operational costs.
The rest comes from donations — Jackson oversees a campaign that sends out as many as “1,400 Christmas cards, asking for donations. It’s our biggest fundraiser. (In 2014), the Christmas cards raised $40,000,” she said — and from investments made on a trust fund predominantly seeded by the largesse of late Ardmore petroleum landman and animal lover Charles Smith, who did well in his chosen career and left the nonprofit shelter a sizable donation after his death in 1995.
Ardmore Animal Care Inc. has a 10-member board, “and they have done a very good job of investing, though we always need more,” Jackson said.

An ongoing struggle
The problem of stray and otherwise unwanted cats and dogs isn’t confined to the city limits, or to those of the county. So it is that Ardmore Animal Care has arranged to take in such unfortunates from a number of neighboring communities.
 “On Wednesdays, we take animals from out of town,” Jackson said — from Davis and Durant, from Healdton, Kingston and Lone Grove, and, too, from Madill and Merietta, Tishomingo and Wilson.
Those animals, like the strays rounded up by the Ardmore Police Department’s two animal control officers, are delivered to the rear where they are sequestered until it is determined they are potential candidates for adoption.
Yet, strays are vastly outnumbered by pets — members of the family — given up by their owners.
“Between 30 and 40 percent typically are strays,” Renteria said of the animals arriving at the shelter. “The rest are owner-relinquished.”
Last year was even worse. Only 891 cats and dogs dropped off at Ardmore Animal Care in 2015 were brought in by animal control; the other 4,157 were given up by their owners.
Overall, 255 were reunited with their owners; seven were dead on arrival; 57 died of illnesses they had contracted prior to arrival; 1,585 joined new families; and 3,146 had to be euthanized.
The latter outcome is hard for the staff to deal with.
“There are days that are rough, there are times we go home upset,” Jackson said. “We’ve got employees who’ve been here years and they still cry.”
One such staff member, Tena Layton, has been with the shelter for 18 years and is its co-director in charge of operations. She also is one of the shelter’s two certified animal euthanasia technicians, licensed by the Oklahoma State Board of Veterinarians, which requires annual continuing education for license renewal.
Layton concedes that in that the past 18 years she has developed a discernable distaste for pet owners who don’t see that their cats or dogs are spayed or neutered to help control feral and otherwise unplanned breeding — as well as for those who adopt an animal and fail to care for it.
“Sometimes you wonder when one of them gets adopted and goes out the front door if they’d be better off going out the back door,” she said.
The latter is painful.
“There are certain animals that you get attached to and they become your favorites and you can’t get them adopted,” she said. Her voice clenched. “And you have to put them down. That hurts. “I never used to cry growing up. Now, I do.”
Worse, “People say, ‘Oh, you’re a murderer.’ I say, ‘No, you’re the killer, not me: My animal is spayed, yours isn’t.’
 “I never used to cry growing up. Now, I do.”
“It hurts. What keeps you going is you think, ‘if I don’t do it, who will?’ It has to be done.”

Making an extra effort
The shelter does everything it can to mitigate overpopulation.
In addition to requiring that adopted animals be fixed, it hosts, 10 times a year, a mobile spay-and-neuter program on the shelter grounds, a clinic overseen by Stillwater veterinarian Brent Pitts.
Pet owners pay a reduced cost of $50 for the service, and, typically, some 120 animals each of the 10 weekends are spayed or neutered, roughly 1,200 a year in the Ardmore area alone.
Pitts brings his surgical van to various cities throughout Oklahoma on other weekends, reducing the number of animals that otherwise would face what for many are short and brutal lives without a human family to care for them.
Yet, as the numbers show, far too many of the former pets that end up at the shelter are surrendered by their owners.
“It’s a sad statistic,” Jackson said, “but we don’t turn down any animal that comes in the door.”
She is decidedly an animal lover; it was that passion and compassion that originally led her to join the center’s board of directors. After several years serving in that capacity, “we lost our director, and I did some soul-searching and thought I could make a difference. I went to the board and said, ‘I think I can do this.’”
That was six years ago.
Today, her bona fides in that regard live with her. There’s Pistol Pete, a 92-pound, 8-year-old black lab, and Athena, part-lab, part German Shepherd, that she adopted from the Ardmore shelter, and Molly, a 13-pound Chihuahua-dachshund mix who despite her physical stature keeps the others in line; and, too, the 9-pound tabby Tom, who similarly was a rescue from the shelter.
Jessie Stearns, who lives in Overbrook and is a stay at home mom while also pursuing a degree in special education through Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and her mother, Melinda, have, Stearns said, adopted any number of dogs from Ardmore Animal Care and currently care for six between them.
 “When I was growing up, the big thing was that we didn’t like that the shelter euthanizes animals, so we would go and adopt the ones that were about to be,” she said. “If instead you go to a breeder, you’re going to get a pet, but you’re not going to save a life.”
Others express their compassion through volunteering at the shelter, exercising dogs, taking them for walks or keeping them company on romps in the facility’s large, fenced-in recreation yard.
And maybe their charges will be adopted, although, Renteria said, “we say no to a lot of adoptions.”
She looks to a cocoa-colored dog, a 2-year-old female roaming the lobby that the staff has named Mary Jane. She is friendly and quiet yet energetic. She has been adopted twice with the understanding that given her personality, she needs to be the only dog in her adoptive family.
“She gets along great with people and children but she wants to be the Alpha dog when she’s around other dogs. We let people know that. ‘Oh, no, we don’t have any other dogs,’ they said.
“Well, twice she’s been adopted out and twice she’s come back and both times the people said, ‘she doesn’t get along with our other dogs,” Renteria said, shrugged and shook her head. “You never know about people.”