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Coalition uniting animal rescuers

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By Birdie Jaworski

A string of large wire cages sits in the open sun next to a deserted lot covered in wood scrap and rusted debris. The dogs pace, eyes wary, sometimes dipping inside plastic igloos and beneath makeshift shelters to hide from June’s relentless solar rays.

Electra, a boxer mix with wiry yellow fur, leans her pug nose through a space in the chicken wire. She seems to smile despite the meager surroundings.

“She’s an incredible dog,” explains Maureen O’Brien, interim director of The Animal Support Center, a no-kill shelter housed on Seventh Street for the past several years. “She’s one of the lucky ones. Her spirit hasn’t been damaged by her past or by staying here. She’ll make a wonderful, gentle companion.”

O’Brien oversees the dusty island of forgotten dogs and cats. She walks from one cage to the next, squatting low to the ground to communicate, to extend a steady hand. Ralph, a shepherd mix with soulful eyes, barks and whines as he presses one paw then another against the fence. O’Brien consoles him, promises a home with room to explore. Della, a mother to seven fat, healthy puppies, watches her charges with expert care, as she paces the cage in front of their shaded nest. Her coat carries burn-crusted scars of torture, but she runs to the cage door to greet O’Brien with kindness.

“TASC is closing after all these years of struggle. Our projected end date is June 30. We still have 10 dogs to place and are looking for good homes in the community,” says O’Brien. “The dogs we have are shy dogs that need a lot of care and love. Nobody is aggressive. We have red heelers, shepherd mixes, a Belgian wolfhound, plus several ‘mutts.’ We also have 30 domesticated cats and about 10 kittens who need homes. We need the community’s help.”

Las Vegas residents often see stray dogs and cats travel the overgrown alleyways traversing town, searching for their next meal. The only available options concerned citizens could take involved calling TASC or the City of Las Vegas to pick up stray animals. Neither TASC nor the City and San Miguel County Animal Control programs have adequate resources, however, to house and care for the growing number of unwanted or feral animals.

At a meeting on Las Vegas animal welfare, held on May 22 at the CCHP building, city Community Development Director Elmer Martinez expressed his desire to help both the animals and regional animal control officers.

“The city officers enforce ordinances, but shift into welfare mode to care for animals once they are picked up,” Martinez said. “The staff has to constantly shift between ‘caring’ and ‘enforcing.’ There is a perception that animal control officers are the ‘bad guys,’ yet they contribute a lot to the welfare of these animals. The city’s animal problem is, in reality, a people problem.”

In a move to help allay the growing burden of assisting for unwanted pets with the coming close of TASC, concerned citizens and representatives of the local population met for four hours to discuss the development of a strategic, long-term plan for collaborative animal welfare for the City of Las Vegas-San Miguel County area. In addition to O’Brien and Martinez, participants included Rep. Richard Vigil, Lisa Gipe and Gabrielle Amster of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter, Las Vegas City Councilman Andrew Feldman, and San Miguel County Manager Les Montoya.

“Animal control is just one part of animal welfare,” said Feldman. “Citizen perspective is important, too. We need to focus on education in order to help minimize services needed, and help develop partnerships between the city, county, public organizations, and private citizens.”

The group made a decision to band forces, and begin working together to aid the animals of Las Vegas and surrounding areas. Initial decisions included development of an agenda and planning committees with the hope that a vision statement and concrete goals can be achieved in a reasonable amount of time.

“This was a choice we all made together,” says O’Brien, “the TASC Board of Directors, concerned citizens for animal welfare, the City of Las Vegas, San Miguel County officials, and the Santa Fe Animal Shelter. We’ll continue to have ongoing meetings with the hope that we can bring about a much larger facility and a shelter that can serve Las Vegas and the surrounding areas, a spay and neuter clinic, and a wellness and shot clinic. Everyone is on the same page now, working together for the benefit of the animals.”

Meanwhile, Electra, Ralph, Della and the others wait. Two puppies, just four weeks old, scamper across the hard mud floor of their cage, adjusting to captivity after being tossed out of a moving car two nights ago. O’Brien pours dog kibble into a donated metal pot. As the food hits the pan, every pair of canine eyes rises, hopeful, aware.

“We need help.” O’Brien wipes her hands on her jeans and moves to the next cage. “We need folks to foster dogs, and a networking system in place to help these animals until the new sanctuary is done. We need a Web site, volunteers to help walk dogs, and especially new permanent home for these loving animals.”

She pauses, surveying the sun-bleached pens with a determined expression. “Out of the ashes of TASC will rise a new beginning with new facilities that will be much more pleasant for the dogs of Las Vegas.”

For more information, or to adopt a dog, call Maureen O’Brien at 426-8203. For cat adoptions, call Linzy Behrs at 699-6018.