Whitfield County’s campaign to control the dog and cat population is paying big dividends, local officials said Friday at the dedication of the county’s new Animal Shelter. 

Located next to the old facility at 156 Gillespie Road, the recently completed 1,800-square-foot building contains an intake space to quarantine and examine new animals, a bonding room that allows people to interact with a dog or cat they might like to adopt, and expanded office space for the four-person staff, along with a large fenced-in area next door to give dogs a safe place to run and play (including authentic fire hydrants provided by Dalton Utilities) as well as 20 new stainless steel cages purchased with a  $30,000 grant from the Atlanta Humane Society. The old office, meanwhile, will be converted later to provide even more kennel space. 

“We’ve already been working here for two weeks, and it’s been a dream,” Shelter Director Diane Franklin said during a dedication ceremony for the facility. “The transition’s been smooth so far, and you would not believe how hard my team has worked together – Whitney (Weaver), Brandon (Norwood), Craig (Trollinger). If it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t be here today. They have really, really done a fabulous job. I’ve got the best team in the United States.” 

Construction of the new building – paid for with funds from the four-year, $66 million 2020 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) – was completed pretty much on budget, despite unforeseen challenges caused by COVID and inflation, she said. After the pre-fabricated shell was delivered last October, the staff pitched in to save money and completed much of the inside of the building, doing painting and electrical work, for example – “a lot of things we just knew how to do ourselves,” Franklin said.  

“I feel like it’s a labor of love here,” she said, praising other county employees from the Buildings & Grounds, Public Works, Engineering, and Human Resources departments for their contributions to the project. 

“We came in at about $230,000, which is a great deal for the building we have,” Franklin said. 

The shelter is licensed by the state to hold 60 dogs and 20 cats, “so a lot of times we are right at that threshold,” she said. 

Thousands of dogs have been saved over the past few years, however, through the county’s transport program, which delivers animals to out-of-state ASPCA shelters in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida, where rescue animals are in high demand. 

“We’ve been transporting a lot of dogs out of state since I came back here in 2017,” Franklin said. “We just had a 100 percent live release rate in May, which we’re very proud of, and we have not gone below 96 percent in a long time. We’re officially declared a no-kill shelter now, and it’s just through the generosity of the county commissioners – providing the transport van and their dedication to help the department.” 

The county is also starting to see intake numbers decline “a little bit because of the spay/neuter program we have,” she said. “You can get your animal spayed for $20 in Whitfield County, and that’s just through the generosity of the county commissioners. That program has really started to pay off for the county. I haven’t run the total numbers on the decrease, but I can tell you as far as our intake, instead of those months where we were getting hundreds of animals, sometimes we’re only getting 50 now, which is a miracle, so if it stays on that trend, Whitfield County citizens have really stepped up to the plate and become responsible pet owners.” 

During the ceremony, the new facility was dedicated in honor of long-time veterinarian Dr. Emily Felker, who was recognized with a plaque for her dedication that noted she “has made Whitfield County a better place to live for the residents and their pets.” 

An emotional Franklin, with her voice cracking and tears rolling down her cheeks, presented the plaque to Felker after saying, “She came to us in 2010, and let me tell you what, it’s a godsend that we have a vet that answers her phone all the time and says yes every time. I don’t think no is in her vocabulary because she comes whenever we ask her for help.” 

Commission Chairman Jevin Jensen commended the staff for their efforts in making the new shelter a reality. 

“We didn’t want to build a multi-million-dollar building; we wanted something that was modern and safe and healthy for our own employees and for all the dogs and cats that are coming through here,” he said, “and I think we’ve achieved that. And we did it on budget – had to get some donations to stay on budget – but Diane came through. It’s just a true passion project for them to save [these animals], and you can see it on their faces.” 

Dr. Felker says she’s known she wanted to be a vet since she was a child and fulfilled that dream after earning a degree from the University of Georgia in 1984. She then honored a promise made before being admitted to veterinary school that she would relocate to a rural area in Northwest Georgia and work in a mixed practice. Over the past 38 years, she’s worked at Murray County Vet Service, Animal Hospital of Whitfield County, and Dalton Animal Care, as well as taking care of animals at Whitfield County Animal Shelter. 

From her own experience, Dr. Felker  knows all about rescuing animals. For example, she saved a mixed breed puppy who’s now 16 years old and blind and deaf. A few years earlier, she had bought a 4-year-old horse who’s now 28, and lately she’s been caring for four off-the-track thoroughbreds for a friend who broke her leg.