FARMINGTON — Virginia Jim has waited 24 years for the Farmington Regional Animal Shelter, and today, it is open.
"It feels good," said Jim, an animal control officer and park ranger with the city of Farmington. "It's a special day for the animals, something completely different for them, a place to stay warm."
Jim loves animals. When her son was killed in Iraq in 2005, it was the animals that pulled her through, she said. Now, after decades of working with animals, she said those without homes will have a safe place to stay.
"Everybody that made this possible, thank you," she said on Thursday.
At 14,542 square feet, the new shelter is almost twice the size of the old building and can hold 358 animals. The old shelter's maximum was 146, but, at times, it teamed with nearly 200 animals. Money from the state of New Mexico and San Juan County helped fund the $4.6 million building. The city began soliciting donations in 2008.
The new shelter opens its doors today. A grand opening is planned, but its date has not yet been announced.
On Thursday, 64 dogs and 31 cats arrived at the new shelter. One at a time, U-Haul trucks and vans delivered the animals, dropping them at the new shelter's intake garage. Doors opened to walls of kennels, and dogs were leashed to red ropes and led howling down florescent-lit hallways. Inside, cats curled in cages.
At the old shelter at 1395 S. Lake St., Animal Care Technician Autumn Wright cared for cats five days a week -- and sometimes on weekends.
There, Wright washed kennels, scooped litter boxes and performed basic medical checks for cats. It will be difficult to adjust to the newer, bigger building, Wright said, but she will continue to care for the cats.
"I know the cats," she said. "I'm the mom of the cats."
She said she works hard to keep the cats alive and healthy and to find them homes. Many people think shelter staff only impound and kill animals, she said. But that is not their purpose, Wright said. Hopefully, she said, under a new roof, the community will understand that.
Inadequate staffing, an large influx of animals and a high euthanasia rate are among the issues the Farmington shelter has faced.
A recently adopted spay and neuter initiative is intended to reduce euthanasia rates, and the new shelter has a room for feral cats. Wright said domesticating the wild felines will be tough, but she plans to try.
Staff are ready for the new space. The former shelter was close enough to the Farmington Wastewater Treatment Plant that staff could smell the sewage, said Administrative Volunteer Coordinator Samantha Embry.
"We're looking forward to starting out fresh," Embry said. "(We're) looking forward to the future of being a good animal welfare program. I think the dogs will be happier, and I think the employees will be happier."
The new shelter is an animal lover's dream, said Shaña Reeves, the city of Farmington's recreation superintendent. It's close to Animas Park. It's right in the community. Many, she said, have waited a long time for the new shelter.
From the garage, Reeves led a dog down the hall to its cage on Thursday. It's a new beginning for the dogs and cats, too, she said.
Embry swung open a cage door inside the room for canines and ushered in a dog, while others pawed at their cells' silver bars.
The new shelter is warm, clean and inviting, Reeves said. She looks forward to the community embracing the building.
Embry closed the cage door and helped staff load another dog.
"Today's going to be the best day of their lives," Reeves said.
Behind a desk in a front room, Marcy Eckhardt, consultant and former acting director of the shelter, spoke with the building's new director, Stacie Voss.
Voss started work Tuesday, after she arrived Sunday in Farmington. Previously, she was the director of veterinary services at the Nebraska Humane Society in Omaha. During her tenure, she helped dramatically reduce the number of animals killed at the shelter.
Voss said she has been busy meeting with staff and learning the shelter's day-to-day operations.
"It's been a whirlwind," she said.