Ranger, an 8-month-old German shepherd mix, was dropped off at the Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoption Center in September because his owners had a new baby and the dog was too exuberant. He’s become a staff favorite—he needs extra attention, so they spend lots of time with him—but he’s struggling in the kennels.
“At this point, he’s best with only adults,” says Tom Koenig, the center’s director. “He can jump over 6 feet high and tends to muzzle-punch or nip the handler.” A few people have put in applications to adopt Ranger, but he doesn’t do well with other animals. The staff is looking to transfer him to a rescue organization with experience handling high-energy dogs. The hope is that he’ll get trained there and become more adoptable. “He’s a puppy, so this behavior can be worked with, but not as well in a shelter setting,” Koenig says.
Each year, about 6,000 animals come into the center, which opened in Derwood in 2014. In addition to cats and dogs, the center cares for rabbits, guinea pigs, reptiles, birds and the occasional stray farm animal, usually a goat, pig or sheep. On the adoption wing of the facility, which staff refer to as the “happy side,” retirees, young couples, and parents with children start showing up at noon most days with hopes of finding the perfect—or near-perfect—pet. They walk through the facility in search of an animal they think might be the right fit, sometimes having already spotted one on the center’s website, and then meet with an adoption counselor. Some go home with a new pet the same day.
The intake area—known as the “sad side” of the house—is where animals come in after they’ve been picked up by animal control officers or surrendered by their owners. About 1,000 of the lost animals, generally dogs, that end up at the facility are reunited with their owners; another 1,000 are transferred to rescue organizations, shelters or sanctuaries. Less than 10 percent are euthanized. The decision to euthanize isn’t an easy one, Koenig says, and it involves input from on-site veterinarians and staff. The focus isn’t on breed, age or time spent in the shelter—some animals stay more than a year—but on the animal’s medical condition and behavior.
Nearly 2,000 animals at the facility find new homes each year. Visits and adoptions are up since the center moved from Rockville to the $17 million facility four years ago, Koenig says. “Many people want to go to a shelter to give an animal a home that no longer has a home. It makes more sense to them,” he says.
On the day of an adoption, it’s all smiles at the center. As each animal leaves with its new owner, staff members initiate a round of applause. Those waiting their turn in the lobby join the celebration, wishing the family well as they depart, often accompanied by wagging tails.
Bethesda Magazine spent a day at the county’s animal services and adoption center in October.
For Bethesda’s Zsuzsi Zetlin, a personal trainer who volunteers at the Derwood shelter about six afternoons a week, socializing with cats is part of her daily routine. “We are here for the cats, their emotional well-being is as important as their physical well-being,” says Zetlin, one of more than 200 volunteers at the center. She has three cats and a dog at home, all rescues. “It’s the most rewarding feeling when a scared cat eventually opens up and gains our trust.”