The Flathead County Animal Shelter, an open-admission shelter and adoption center, provides safe haven and humane care to homeless dogs and cats in Flathead County while they await permanent, loving homes.
Please don't breed or buy when you can opt to adopt and save a life! All animals at our shelter are sterilized prior to leaving our facility. Please help end the cycle of pet overpopulation and have all your pets spayed or neutered.
Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake
Cliff Bennett, director of the Flathead County Animal Shelter, poses with Blue, a German shepherd available for adoption.
.Posted: Monday, June 7, 2010 2:00 am | Updated: 8:58 pm, Sun Jun 6, 2010.
By CANDACE CHASE/The Daily Inter Lake | 0 comments
Cliff Bennett, a fifth-generation farmer, has gone to the dogs — and cats — as the new director of Flathead County Animal Shelter.
Bennett has applied one major farm and ranch skill during his first two months on the job.
“Mending fences,” he said with a laugh. “Dogs find the weakest part of a fence. ”
A animal lover for all his life, Bennett grew up on a farm in Sutter County, Calif., with horses, dogs and cats. After graduating from tiny East Nicolaus High School, he attended and graduated from an agricultural school.
“I was a business major,” he said. “I went to work for a fertilizer company.”
Bennett couldn’t ignore the farming in his blood. Since his brother had taken over the family farm, he bought his own in Sutter County where he raised wild rice and a little wheat on up to 1,500 acres over the next 16 years.
He first fell in love with the Flathead Valley, particularly Flathead Lake, during his boyhood.
“I came through here with my folks on a driving vacation,” he said. “Ten years later, I brought my wife here.”
In the late 1980s, they bought property in Lakeside, planning to relocate when they retired. Instead, Bennett, his wife Jane and sons Scott and Jim sold the farm and moved 10 years earlier than they planned.
“We live on top of Political Hill,” he said, turning his computer monitor to show the beautiful view on his desktop.
Free from farming responsibilities, Bennett relished parenting his boys who were in the third and fourth grades. He attended all the parent/teacher conferences and coached football and baseball.
“We went camping, fishing and hunting,” he said.
When the boys became teenagers, Bennett said he had so much time on his hands that he found himself “meddling in their lives.” He needed a job and he found one in economic development as the small business development director with the Chamber of Commerce.
In that position, he helped a local car dealer and sporting goods store substantially expand their businesses.
“Other than raising kids, that was about the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
After six years, Bennett moved into sales and management with Meadow Lake Resort in 2003. As the economy and property sales slowed, he began looking at other opportunities when he noticed the director opening at Flathead County Animal Shelter.
“I always enjoyed animals and, with my business and management background, I decided to apply,” he said. “For some unknown reason, I got the job.”
According to Bennett, his biggest challenge is keeping a lean budget with a staff of four animal keepers, a part-time veterinary technician and an office manager. The shelter also contracts with local veterinarian Kate List, who treats shelter animals two days a week at the shelter clinic.
Operating within the health department, Flathead County Animal Shelter now houses about 50 dogs and 50 cats in the facility and about 20 dogs in foster care. At any one time, the shelter may have 120 animals in the building, creating a real challenge for the staff to keep them all fed and healthy.
“We’ve got a great staff,” he said. “Very committed and very skilled. We have a tremendous volunteer network.”
Bennett also relies on assistance from several local groups. The shelter advisory commission provides community input while Flathead Shelter Friends, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, raises money for projects that benefit the animals.
“One of the best things the Flathead Valley has going is the spay and neuter task force,” he said.
Bennett said the shelter and its support groups work to educate people about the benefits of spaying and neutering their pets. Altered animals live longer, fight and escape less and don’t contribute to the population of unwanted and stray animals ending up at the shelter.
Bennett sees his mandate as continuing the facility as a “low kill” facility, only euthanizing animals that are very ill, critically injured or vicious. To achieve this, he said the staff and volunteers join forces to move animals out of the facility to adoption or to other rescue organizations as quickly as possible.
Volunteers such as Tom Marino take the animals out for adoption days held at Petco and Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply. Bennett said Marino spends a lot of time with cats and recently found homes for five in one day at an adoption event.
“He was rightfully proud,” Bennett said.
Since starting his position on March 1, he has overseen the completion of Chipper’s Smallville, a new area built with money raised by Flathead Shelter Friends to match a large donation from a private benefactor.
He said the project was conceived to alleviate the intimidation factor of mixing small and large dogs.
“This was a great idea to have separation for the smaller, younger dogs,” Bennett said. “We got it done in time for the April 24 open house.”
A number of pets were adopted during the open house. Bennett was particularly pleased that Laurie, an older Lab mix, was among the dogs who found new homes.
“Laurie had been here for nine months,” he said.
To make the stay for dogs like Laurie as pleasant as possible, Bennett said the shelter has completed a new, large exercise yard in an unused area next to the cemetery. He said employees from several other county departments pitched in to clear and help fence the area.
Also during his watch, the facility added a walkway for dog walkers by re-purposing kennel panels that were used to contain 40-plus huskies received in the infamous animal abuse case. Bennett hopes to find money for other projects, especially air conditioning for the cat area.
“The cat area is on the south side of the building with a lot of glass so it gets pretty hot,” he said. “We humans can put in fans and we’re not wearing fur coats.”
Bennett wants to get the word out to all county residents about the requirement for annual dog licenses.
He said the fees — $15 for altered dogs or $30 for others — help pay expenses such as Science Diet food, vaccinations and micro-chipping animals brought to the shelter.
All county residents must purchase a license tag for any dog more than four months old from the shelter or a participating veterinarian, according to county ordinances. City dog licenses meet this requirement.
“A lot of people don’t realize that,” Bennett said. “With a license, if the dog gets out, we can find the owner right away. That’s the big incentive.”
He said the county’s four animal wardens make a concerted effort to find a dog’s owner before bringing the animal to the shelter, avoiding the payment of additional fees for impoundment and daily care. Bennett recalled that a warden recently drove around with an animal for two hours on a cool day.
“He thought he knew who the owners were but they weren’t home,” Bennett said. “The wardens aren’t grinches — they’re our partners.”
Even with all its partners working together to keep animals out and move them through, the shelter remains full of adoptable pets on most days.
Bennett said about half come in as strays while the others arrive from owners. Many people leave in tears after turning in their pets as a last resort after losing their jobs and/or housing due to the recession.
Bennett, who has a dog and plans to adopt two cats, said that working at the animal shelter can be an emotional roller coaster for all the staff.
“You focus on the positive,” he said. “Adoption days are happy days. Every adoption is worth a lot.”
Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at email@example.com