“Like night and day.”

That’s the phrase some have been using to describe the fresh, new positive air surrounding the Guilford County Animal Shelter now that new Animal Services Director Jorge Ortega is on the job – even though he’s only been on that job for about four weeks.

Ortega, who started as Guilford County Animal Services director on Tuesday, Jan. 2, isn’t a miracle worker; however, since his arrival at the start of the year, the entire conversation around the shelter has shifted from doom and gloom and lots of public criticism to optimism and encouragement.

Ortega hit the ground running on Jan. 2 when he arrived. Since then, he’s been meeting with staff to examine shelter policies and procedures, reaching out to animal welfare groups in the community, and discussing plans for the county’s new animal shelter that’s now in the design stage. On Thursday, Jan. 11, Ortega attended his first Guilford County Animal Services Advisory Board meeting where many members of the animal care community came out to greet him and hear what he had to say.

Ortega has more than 20 years of experience in the animal care field, and experience is something county animal lovers really wanted to see in a new director. Before taking the job with Guilford County, Ortega worked for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York City as senior director of the Adoption Center, Kitten Nursery and Canine Annex there. He has also served as vice president of operations for the ASPCA in Houston and for the Humane Society of Charlotte.

Ortega said things have been moving at a non-stop pace since he first walked through the door of the shelter at the start of the year.

“It’s been a whirlwind; it feels like one long day,” Ortega said.

On that first day, and ever since, he’s been preaching the message that it takes many community groups working together – not just one county department – to solve the county’s animal problems.

That message is clearly resonating with members of the local animal support community. Shawn Henegar, who runs a Facebook page – the Unofficial Guilford County Animal Services Watch page – has been an outspoken critic of shelter operations in recent years when she’s seen problems at the shelter. Some county officials said last year that Henegar was the shelter’s most persistent faultfinder. Last week, Henegar wrote in an email that Guilford County Animal Services seems to be moving in the right direction under Ortega.

“I am so impressed the shelter planned to only be closed one day this week on MLK Day,” she wrote. “They opened to the public Tuesday (the regular closed day), so the animals wouldn’t lose an adoption day. That, plus the recent job postings [seeking shelter workers], make me believe Mr. Ortega is already showing the animals matter more than ‘business as usual.’”

When Ortega spoke about the challenges facing the shelter at his first Animal Services Advisory Board meeting in the Blue Room in the Old Guilford County Court House, his comments were well received, as were his often humorous one-liners.

For instance, when one board member spoke about the many shelter issues that needed to be handled, she told Ortega, “Don’t worry, we’ll let you get settled.”

“No one else has,” he replied without missing a beat.

At the meeting, Ortega said he already has many ideas on how to address issues at the shelter.

“I know there are a lot of challenges,” he said at the advisory board meeting. “Some of those challenges I see as opportunities. Not to sound cliché, but a lot of those opportunities are low-hanging fruit.”

He said everyone needs to work together to solve the problems such as animal overpopulation in Guilford County.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to not only work with the staff at Animal Services but also with the community,” he said. “You all have heard this before: This cannot fall just on Animal Services – this needs to fall on the community with all of us working together with a common goal.”

Ortega said all the partners shared a vision of saving as many animals as possible.

Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad, who was serving as the Board of Commissioners’ point man for Animal Services issues, played a major role in finding Ortega and in convincing him to come to Guilford County. Conrad said he’s thankful the county’s animal advocates seem to be giving Ortega the opportunity to get things on track at the shelter.

“Now I feel like everybody can take a deep breath and they are cautiously optimistic,” Conrad said. “I hope that honeymoon period lasts a while. I’m looking forward to helping him.”

Commissioner Alan Perdue is the Board of Commissioners’ new liaison to the Animal Services Advisory Board. Perdue said this week that the commissioners would be rotating in that job.

Conrad said he’ll remain very involved with Animal Services activities even though other commissioners will be acting as the liaison. Conrad said that having a larger number of commissioners act in that capacity will broaden the board’s knowledge of and insight into shelter operations and will familiarize commissioners with the concerns of those who operate it and use the services.

Perdue said he’s pleased with what he’s seen so far out of the new director.

“I was impressed with Jorge,” Perdue said. “He seems to have a no-nonsense approach.”

Perdue also said the Animal Services department needs consistent stable leadership.

The shelter has been in disarray for years. In 2015, state inspectors found over 60 cases of animal neglect and abuse at the shelter. Since then, Guilford County has run through a string of directors, with Deputy County Manager Clarence Grier and even County Manager Marty Lawing claiming that title for some of that time.

Guilford County is scheduled to approve $9.7 million in funding to move forward with the design and construction of a new animal shelter at the commissioners’ next meeting on Monday, Jan. 29.   That meeting is being held to make up for a scheduled Thursday, Jan. 18 meeting that was cancelled due to snow and ice.

Grier said that right now county officials are trying to determine the ideal size of the new shelter.

“What we’ve been doing is talking about some of the specifics of the design,” Grier said. “We’re trying to get the right sizing.”

Guilford County is hoping Ortega’s hiring and the construction of a new state-of-the-art shelter can turn things around for the county’s Animal Services. Based on the past two-and-a-half years, there’s really only one direction to go. After the revelations of 2015, the United Animal Coalition, the nonprofit running the shelter at that time, was fined $300,000 – by far the largest fine leveled for animal neglect in the history of the state. The last time the shelter passed a state inspection was in March 2017. The county got a Notice of Warning on April 20 and another warning on June 23. It failed an inspection on July 18 and received a Notice of Civil Penalty on July 26. That was followed immediately by the resignation of former Animal Services Director Drew Brinkley. The shelter failed another inspection on Sept. 21 and got another civil penalty notice on Oct. 4, as well as another warning on Dec. 4. Some of those violations found were for such basic care items as not providing dogs drinking water on hot summer days, while other violations were ones that the state had previously warned the shelter about but shelter staff had not corrected.

At the Jan. 11 Advisory Board meeting, Animal Control officials announced the latest statistics for 2017. Those stats made it clear that the county’s animals keep staff busy and Ortega has a lot of activity to oversee.

The numbers don’t include High Point, since that city has its own animal control department. Last year, Guilford County’s Animal Control officers answered 15,023 calls. There were 715 animal bites and 888 welfare checks on animals. Out of those checks, 21 were found to be possible cruelty cases. Also, in 2017, there were 11 cases of rabid animals in Guilford County.