The Guilford County Animal Shelter, under new Animal Services Director Jorge Ortega, has reached a major milestone: It passed a state inspection with flying colors and with the inspectors commenting that “great improvements” are being made.

Passing an inspection is a run of the mill occurrence for most cities or counties with animal shelters, but the Guilford County Animal Shelter has been operating under a “disapproved” status for nearly a year after failing several inspections in 2017. That was a black eye on the county given that, of 125 publicly operated shelters in North Carolina, Guilford County was the only one that wasn’t operating under an approved status.

The Animal Shelter received warnings from state inspectors in April and June 2017 and, then, in July, it failed inspection and was hit with civil fines. A follow up inspection performed on Sept. 17, 2017 also found major problems.

All of that happened before the arrival of Ortega, who started as the county’s Animal Services director in early January 2018.

The new results are based on an inspection conducted on Friday, April 13 by two state inspectors who wrote they were very impressed with what’s going on at the shelter.

“We noted numerous improvements and changes during the inspection,” the report states.

The inspectors noted improvements in several areas that were major problems last year when the shelter was unable to get state approval. The cat adoption playroom, for instance, was much more sanitary than it has been in the past. Before, many cat enclosures were dilapidated and very difficult to sanitize because they weren’t “impervious to moisture.”

Another improvement noted was the relocation and enhancement of the shelter’s animal intake area.

“The old intake area has been cleaned out of all cages and only has an office space available for staff in that area,” the report notes. “A new intake area has been set up … This area consists of office space for staff to enter the animal in, scales, stainless exam table, etc. Animals are vaccinated on intake in this area as well. Plans are to set up a bank of stainless kennels in the future in this area.”

Many cages at the shelter now have hooks that allow staff to hang up a Plexiglas shield on the front to act as a sneeze guard if a dog or cat shows signs of disease and can’t be immediately moved into isolation. Last year, one of the major concerns inspectors cited was the spread of disease among the animals since the facility didn’t provide all the needed safeguards and staff didn’t take the appropriate precautions.

The sanitation improvements, animal treatment practices and disease prevention strategies have helped lead to an animal population that is much healthier as a whole this time around.

“At the time of inspection there was no illness/disease present in the general population which has been an ongoing problem at previous inspections,” the report states.

In addition, all animals being treated for communicable diseases are now housed in properly marked isolation areas. That wasn’t the case in 2017.

During this latest inspection, the animals were found to have access to fresh water. Last summer, inspectors found dogs that were exposed to the hot sun without a constant supply of water to drink.

There are other improvements cited in the report, such as thermometers in each room, with the temperature in those rooms being kept in the acceptable range.

State inspectors also noted that there were now posted instructions on proper cleaning procedures.

“Overall great improvements are being made,” the report stated. “We noted that the numbers are down which has helped to improve the overall health of the animals. Staff is having weekly meetings and gathering ideas to help maintain the population within manageable numbers and have been working with outside sources on ideas to help with this. Daily observation logs are being completed on each animal and are located on the enclosure with the kennel card for easy access.”

Though the inspectors must go through an extremely long checklist of detailed items during an inspection, the Guilford County shelter was, remarkably, only out of compliance on one: “Interior building surfaces are impervious to moisture and can be readily sanitized.” The shelter is addressing that by sanding down the surfaces in question.

In all, the new inspection is unquestionably an A grade for a shelter with a dismal history of major fails dating back three years.

Roberta Wall, a local real estate agent who was a primary founder of Susie’s Fund – a fund used to help shelter animals that need special medical treatment – said this week that she was absolutely delighted with the report. She said it was a verification of her initial impression earlier this year that Ortega had been an excellent hire for the county.

“That is no easy feat given that the shelter is so old and on its last legs,” Wall said of the state’s glowing report.

She said she hopes area citizens can get behind the new shelter and realize that it is a new day.

“I wish everyone would get on board,” Wall said.

Wall said animal lovers in the local community can be overly critical at times but they need to recognize the immense challenge the shelter is dealing with given limited resources, aging buildings and a constant stream of new animals being brought in.

“If people want to focus on negatives, there are things that you can find anywhere,” Wall said.

Wall added that Ortega had inherited a problem-filled shelter and had been working hard to bring the population down – something that also wasn’t lost on state inspectors.

Last week, the shelter’s population was 274 animals. In the past it has been at levels nearly twice that number.

Shawn Henegar, an animal advocate who in the past has been critical of the shelter’s policies and operations, said she has been encouraged in her conversations with Ortega as well as by the new inspection report, but she added that there are, of course, still concerns to be addressed. Those she mentioned have to do with more timely release of shelter statistics and better communication with the public.

“I believe we may actually have a great new director,” she stated, “although I have concerns about the confidentiality wording in the volunteer agreement, lack of transparency with money used from Susie’s Fund, cancellation of the May public Animal Advisory Board meeting and the new policy to stop full treatment of heartworms in shelter pets testing positive.”

Henegar said that to help assure that the animals get the best treatment, members of the community must remain part of the process.

“The community has to stay involved and keep asking the hard questions,” Henegar said. “We should have all learned that already the hard way.”

Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips said he’s been extremely pleased with the direction the shelter is headed.

“I had a recent conversation with Jorge and we talked through some of the progress we’ve made,” Phillips said.

He added that challenges remain but he’s encouraged and excited about the future.

“It’s obviously still early on but that conversation confirmed in my mind that he was the right pick,” Phillips said of the new director. “I really do believe he’s got things going in the right direction.”

Many of the challenges the shelter faces result from the aging structure. Guilford County is planning to build a new Animal Shelter at a cost of about $13 million. Some county officials say that shelter should open in 2020.