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Project of the heart: Bitterroot Valley nonprofit works to eliminate euthanization of healthy animals

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A little over 10 years ago, Bitterroot Valley veterinarian Alan Applebury had the unenviable job of euthanizing litters of unwanted puppies that came into the local animal shelter.

He didn’t like that one bit.

“It’s one thing to kill an old, sick dog that’s suffering at the end of its life,” Applebury said. “It’s something quite different when you kill a whole litter of healthy puppies. That’s really tough.”

And so, when he opted to sell his business, Applebury and his wife Jesse decided they were going to do what they could to cut down on the numbers of unwanted animals in this part of the world.

In a old farmhouse set on a piece of land homesteaded by his family, the Appleburys and a few other dedicated volunteers created the nonprofit Fox Hollow Animal Project as their way of working toward ending the overpopulation of unwanted pets by offering high-quality, affordable sterilization services for companion animals.

“We provide spay or neuter as a non-lethal solution to the homeless, abandoned and feral animal populations to ensure that euthanasia is no longer an acceptable means of population control,” their website reads.

The project officially began in 2003.

Every year since, they have spayed or neutered 2,000 to 3,000 animals. When they finished counting at the end of 2014, the Appleburys and others had sterilized 32,306 dogs and cats.

In the Bitterroot Valley, their efforts have made a difference.

In 2013, the Bitterroot Humane Association did not euthanize a single animal due to the lack of an available home.

When the Appleburys first started their nonprofit, the Hamilton animal shelter was euthanizing 58 percent of the cats that came in the door and 29 percent of the dogs. In 2003, 639 were killed and 153 dogs.

Last year, the shelter euthanized 14 cats and 7 dogs. All of them were either too sick or too aggressive to be adopted.

“We’ve come a long ways,” Applebury said, as he and a crew of volunteers prepared to begin working on more than 20 dogs from a Thompson Falls animal shelter that had arrived at the little white farmhouse just off Quast Lane that houses the nonprofit.

On this afternoon, Allison Hale of Corvallis is one of several volunteers who are helping prepare the dogs for surgery and then providing additional support to Applebury during the surgical procedure.

Hale is a junior at the University of Idaho, where she studies animal science with a dream of eventually becoming a veterinarian. All of that began years ago when she jumped on her bicycle and pedaled over to the farmhouse to help Applebury’s newly created venture.

“I just really liked the experience that I got here from the very beginning,” Hale says, as she prepares to give a nice little terrier/poodle mix a shot of vaccine. “It was a place I had a chance to learn through hands-on experiences. That’s really going to be important for me as I work my way through school.”

Jesse Applebury is all smiles as she carefully cradles the terrier’s head in her hands.

“The volunteer game is usually an old person’s game,” she said. “It’s really nice to have these young people step forward and volunteer to help. … I can’t tell you how proud we are of her and all the other young people who volunteer here.”

On average, it takes Applebury about 10 minutes to neuter a male dog. The operation on a female can last between 10 minutes to a half hour.

“There are only so many homes for these pets,” said Jesse Applebury. “People are coming to understand that. There are local vets around the state who are now offering this low-cost service in an effort to address that issue. As a result, euthanasia has been dropping at many animal shelters. In some places, it’s down to zero.”

Feral cats are one of the more recent challenges Fox Hollow has taken on.

Its volunteers have developed a trapping and sterilization process that has been singled out by the Humane Society of the United States.

“We’ve become really good trappers,” Jesse Applebury said. “They’ve told us we were the best in the nation.”

Their focus over the last few years in the Bitterroot Valley has been capturing and sterilizing entire colonies of feral cats.

“One lady had a colony with 90 feral cats,” Jesse said. “The last really big one we had numbered about 60. They were living under the porch and in a barn. We’re not seeing colonies that are that big anymore. That’s a good thing.”

The non-profit does what it can to keep costs low. Everyone is a volunteer. They don’t pay for a landline telephone. And the Pet Smart Charities have been supportive by providing some grant monies.

“We really do watch our pennies,” Jesse said.

People wanting to learn more about the organization can go online to http://foxhollowanimalproject.org/.

“This is becoming a national movement,” Alan Applebury said. “This is what should be happening everywhere. Montana is leading the way.”

Applebury likes to show people a graph that shows a dramatic plunge in the number of the animals being euthanized at the Bitterroot Humane Association shelter over the past 10 years.

“I think that graph says it all,” he said. “Those results are why I’m here.”

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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