Jefferson County’s Animal Shelter Advisory Board heard the concerns of a packed room Wednesday night when several concerned animal lovers, employees and volunteers showed up to ask for changes in the management and operation of the facility on Hannah Drive.

The meeting started out focusing on the shelter’s problems — a shortage of staff and volunteers, lack of leadership and unresponsive communication in returning phone messages, responding to emails and social media among others — but eventually turned to ways to solve those problems that included the Board adopting several recommendations for consideration by the Jefferson County Commissioners.

According to Valerie Harness, a long-time volunteer who has taken on more responsibility since the departure of Shelter Manager Jenny Slover on a short-term disability, much of facility’s problems were created by the COVID-19 pandemic that cost the shelter much of its reliable help and closed the facility to most visitors.

She said the shelter was operating pretty well until state inmates assigned to the shelter from the Indiana Department of Correction’s Madison Correctional Unit were recalled due to coronavirus protocols. With so many residents working from home, or not working at all due to COVID shutdowns, the shelter saw an increase in animal adoptions that helped offset the lack of help initially but exacerbated the problem once people went back to work and flooded the facility with animals they could no longer care for.

That caused the shelter to overflow with more dogs and cats than the facility could handle while dealing with staff shortages and a building lockdown that made adoptions more difficult. The impact left staff and volunteers so busy feeding and cleaning up after animals that some of the other aspects of the agency were not getting done — like returning phone calls, answering email and responding to social media. Some of the paid staff have worked enough overtime hours to accrue two months of comp time.

Harness said the perception was that there was nobody at the shelter and that phone calls and email did not matter.

“We were struggling to take care of the animals,” she said. “We always managed to feed and water the animals and clean the cages but there was no time to answer the phone and do social media. We were doing the best to come in and take care of the animals and I think we’d all agree that’s the most important thing.”

Advisory board member Warren Auxier said the shelter has not always been in such disarray but that a downward spiral reached a low point recently when Slover’s departure left no one officially in charge and not enough staff and volunteers to handle the work.

“It was actually good for a period of time,” Auxier said. “It came to a head last week but a lot of the writing was already on the wall in problems that were not addressed in the past.”

Since then the shelter has been getting some help from advisory board members. And some volunteers who said working with Slover was difficult have agreed to once again volunteer their time so the facility is making a bit of a comeback despite the ongoing pandemic and its other problems.

“I feel good about where we’ve come and people have really stepped up to the plate,” Harness said, later adding, “I just need help folks. If everybody in here would help me, we’d be OK.”

Several of the former volunteers said they are willing to come back but not under the direction of Slover, who they said made them feel uncomfortable and unappreciated. The extent of Slover’s medical condition is not known but the Advisory Board indicated Wednesday that it wants to move on a different direction in the future.

Among the proposals the board approved for recommendation to the Commissioners is the hiring an interim director with the idea that person would become the director full-time with Slover offered reassignment once she is again able to work. The proposal would also include hiring an assistant director as well as the equivalent of two full-time staff positions that could be divided into part-time positions at the option of the new director.

Since the shelter currently has no staff members trained to humanely euthanize animals, the Advisory Board will also recommend that the county obtain the services of a veterinarian or veterinarians to provide that service as needed until a staff member can be trained to do what is needed. The hope is that healthy animals can be adopted out but sick or seriously injured animals can be euthanized to prevent suffering and/or the spread of disease or illness to healthy animals.

Since the shelter is currently overcrowded and its older outdoor cages are in poor condition, board members will also recommend the purchase of 10 new cages for outdoors location to provide more and safer holding areas for animals house there. Since the long-range plan is for construction of a new, bigger shelter, the design of the cages will allow them to be relocated at a future date to a new facility.

Hannah Fagen, who represents the City of Madison on the board, also urged that a full-time position be created to deal with the public, correspond to emails, run the shelter’s social media page and assist with adoptions. Board members liked the idea of having someone responsible for those tasks but delayed a recommendation pending the preference of the new director.

Auxier noted the better course might be to hire a director and then let that person help determine what positions and facilities are needed most and where.

The board, which has been meeting quarterly, also agreed to begin meeting monthly in an effort to better manage the situation.

The shelter is currently open by appointment only with times from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and noon and 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The number to call for an appointment is 812-273-1788 and visitors are asked to please wear a mask.