By PAIGE DAUGHERTY • Photos by AUSTIN BRITT
Shelter built with passion and compassion is bettering animal welfare in the Delta
Deep in the Mississippi Delta, past the cotton fields and juke joints of Clarksdale, sits the little shelter that could. CARES (Clarksdale Animal Rescue Effort and Shelter), the nonprofit organization where I serve as executive director, is making steady strides of progress in animal welfare in the area, for possibly the first time ever. Focused on more than housing animals and finding them homes—though that’s the priority—we are trying to nip decades-old problems at the source, and we are using a can-do attitude to parlay our modest resources into something truly successful.
I never meant to work at an animal shelter. I joke that I woke up here! Let me be clear—I love my dog, Reba, but beyond signing her adoption paperwork ten years ago, I had never stepped foot inside of a shelter. Why would I? They seemed smelly and sad. I assumed that homeless animals were somebody else’s responsibility as a vital part of any functioning city, like trash pickup or street sweepers.
After living away, I moved back to the Delta in 2014 when my father was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away later that same year, but afterward, I found myself making a life here—finding freelance work doing public relations in my hometown of Cleveland. One day, a pal of mine called saying she had a website client who was starting a nonprofit animal shelter in Clarksdale, and in need of some PR help. A few weeks later, I was meeting with them. The client admitted she wasn’t positive about what was to come, but that she definitely needed help with the communications. She was determined and extremely focused. “I like dogs,” I thought to myself as I agreed to the part-time position, thinking that this would just be another client. How hard could it be to post pictures of adorable pets that needed homes?
I soon learned it wasn’t easy at all. Packs of loose dogs and cats roamed the streets freely, and neglect was commonplace. The locals were used to it, and visiting tourists were horrified as they swerved around animals en route to their evening plans. The Clarksdale city/county shelter itself had a long history of struggle, piqued by a cruelty tip that led to a raid by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in 2010, where more than four hundred animals were discovered in an overwhelmed space designed to hold sixty. Dozens of animals were euthanized, and the New York Times published it all in a harrowing article, leaving a traumatized public in the wake. In the five years to follow, Clarksdale’s shelter saw a rotating door of hands in charge, with hardworking volunteers pushing it along for sake of the animals there. It was during this time that a group of like-minded citizens banded together behind the scenes and began laying out plans for a radical change.
By early 2015, the group had secured its nonprofit status as CARES, formed a Board of Directors, and negotiated with the city and the county to officially accept the responsibility of all homeless animals. Just before that was set to happen, I was invited to tag along to a sheltering conference in New Orleans with two of the board trustees. Needless to say, we all left inspired.
From the start, the CARES team knew that Clarksdale did not need any more sadness. We wanted to do things differently and focus on long-term, sustainable progress that served the Mississippi Delta particularly well. What makes people feel joy—and what makes them repeatedly visit, follow, donate, and adopt—are happy animals, an uplifting newsfeed, and a community-centered shelter. CARES invested in a new logo that features a dog and a cat in front of a large, orange sun—symbolic of the change that was coming.
Getting CARES off the ground took a tremendous amount of grit, planning, and hard work. We are lucky to have a handful of committed professionals in our corner to help figure it out. Jody Swartzfager of Cleveland Pet Clinic, and Mississippi State’s School of Veterinary Medicine have assisted us throughout every step. When two hundred animals came in 2015, we thought that was a lot. But by the third year, we saw 1,300 animals annually without nearly enough adopters to make the numbers balance. Fortunately, there was an answer.A connection had been made at the NOLA conference with PetSmart Charities’ relocation program, and following a tedious application process, we were accepted. This was a game-changer!
These relocation transports save lives by moving healthy, behaviorally sound animals from areas of the country with an overabundance (like the Mississippi Delta) to regions with waiting adopters and very few shelter animals at all (like Northeastern states). We’ve witnessed our Delta Dogs leave the CARES shelter and instantly find wonderful homes in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. We currently average at least two ground transports per month, now through the ASPCA, with at least one air transport per quarter via Wings of Rescue. To date, we’ve relocated a whopping 4,782 dogs and cats and know each one of them by name. These efforts, combined with local adoptions and fosters, have allowed us to maintain a no-kill status since inception.
As CARES grew, we operated out of the old city shelter building for nearly two years, with improvements added as funds allowed. We quickly outgrew the small space. The board initially planned to start a capital campaign to build a brand-new building. But after some scouting, the perfect property was found—a vacant building on Highway 49 in Clarksdale, just down from the historic crossroads.A former tractor sales building that had been closed for twenty-two years, it had good bones and it sat on more than five acres of grassy yard. But, there was a catch— it wasn’t for sale—it also lacked a roof. Thankfully the owners saw the vision of what the space could become. The board agreed to secure a loan, which allowed CARES to buy the building. This was the turning point!
The building was transformed improving not only the physical sheltering of the animals, but also the public’s perception of shelters. It was now a bright, pristine animal shelter with a cool mid-century vibe. For the first time ever, there was adequate room! All dog kennels were finally indoors. There was also a cat wing, a medical room, multiple offices, an educational room for children, and private adoption rooms for visitors. CARES was becoming a physical place that could make Clarksdale proud.
In our six-year history, we’ve taken in over 6,200 dogs and cats. Most need immediate TLC upon arrival. Our Director of Animal Care, Mary Brock Crumpton, does a beautiful job of overseeing the day-to-day operations, and she does it with tenderness and purpose. Daily treatments, intakes, charting records, and behavior exams are handled by our two woman strong med team. A compassionate team of caretakers do the feeding, cleaning, and caring of animals 365 days per year. It’s a far cry from the sad shelter I had once imagined. The dogs go outside each day, and all pet housing has enrichment and comfort items, such as toys and blankets. The entire process is not cheap—and it’s a complicated, multi-pronged system. And though in contract with our city and county, we fundraise to cover 75 percent of our operating budget each year.
As much as we focus on sheltering—and we do—we’ve always known that the future of animal welfare in the Mississippi Delta depends greatly in what happens outside of our walls—out in the community.
Each year, we’ve worked toward expanding our services to fulfill the “big picture” goal of one day having far fewer animals that need our shelter services. In 2017, we launched a community pet food bank (supplied by Chewy) that has grown to serve over fifty families monthly. We followed that with a $38,000 grant in 2018 to spay/neuter five hundred owned pets for free! We “spay or pay” moms of litters brought to us to prevent future unwanted litters. This is in addition to the field trips, partnerships, volunteer programs, and shelter extensions that are also part of our model. But still, we knew we weren’t reaching the Clarksdalians that needed help the most.
In 2019, after years of applying and an in-depth community assessment, we became the very first shelter in Mississippi to be awarded a private grant through the Humane Society of the United States to bring their coveted Pets for Life (PFL) program to Clarksdale.
Pets for Life targets animals and families in underserved Clarksdale neighborhoods with little to no access to pet care resources. It confirms the notion that most people love their pet, but perhaps they never knew about preventative medicine or spay/neuter. And now, providing this information has prompted a cultural shift, right here in the Delta. We are seeing people seek veterinary care for the first time, perhaps realizing that their dog from childhood might have died from heartworms, or that altering pets can prevent litter after litter of homeless kittens or puppies. PFL actively replaces chains, hands out fly repellent, and makes owned pets comfortable at home, giving options without judgment. We go from door to door, making connections and a plan, so people’s beloved animals can be healthy and stay with them.
Soon we’ll start our newest grant program, Dogs Playing For Life, which will teach our team how to effectively run playgroups in our own yard. Dogs will get to interact with each other, enjoy a break from their kennels, and in turn, become more adoptable.
It’s taken a village to get here, and it wouldn’t have been possible without a multitude of contributors, volunteers, and staff coming together to see it through. Together, CARES is building something special in Clarksdale—come see for yourself!
CARES can be found online via Facebook, Instagram, and at caresclarksdale.com.