Up until a half-century ago, animal control in Columbus was largely handled by what locals called the pound.

An open chute allowed anyone to shove any type of animal into a pen at the Water Street facility. When food was thrown in, the animals would fight and sometimes even kill each other over it, according to Republic archived news accounts.

While the foul stench and inhumane conditions sickened some Columbus residents, local news accounts suggest neighboring Brown County may have inspired action that would eventually close the pound.

In the Feb. 7, 1966, Around Town column of The Evening Republican, forerunner to The Republic, one writer used the successful establishment of a Nashville area animal shelter to take the Columbus community to task.

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“Why can’t Columbus also have a humane society and a shelter program?” the writer asked.

Four months later, the Bartholomew County Humane Society was formally incorporated during a meeting of about 30 people at Donner Center on June 15, 1966.

Besides improving conditions at the Water Street facility, the organization’s initial four-member board — led by chairman James Murphy — also identified finding homes for animals and humane treatment as the society’s goals.

Today, in its 50th year of operation, the 11-member Bartholomew County Humane Society board of directors — headed by Rick Kleine — has placed animal health as its No. 1 priority, said Cheryl Zuckschwerdt-Ellsbury, a board member for all but four of those years.

Opening in 1971, the first shelter was made up of eight dog kennels, four cat cages and a small office next to the City Garage. It cost $15,000 to open.

It didn’t take long for the start-up organization to expand, the first of several steps to meet a growing need.

The second shelter was a 2,400-square-foot facility that opened on County Road 200S in 1982. It had a price tag of $85,000.

Two years ago, the Bartholomew County Humane Society moved into a $1.5 million, 8,000-square-foot facility at 4415 E. County Road 200S that includes:

A community education room

Two family greeting rooms

Animal training area

A surgery room and a separate recovery room

With a nearly $300,000 annual budget, the Humane Society now employs six people, three of them full-time, Zuckschwerdt-Ellsbury said.

But in one respect, the mindset of some Bartholomew County residents hadn’t changed with the times — still thinking of the organization only as a place to drop off unwanted animals, said Jane Irwin, the shelter manager for more than four decades.

“Our new building was never intended to be a bigger warehouse,” Irwin said. “It was built to have more functions, such as training and education.”

Instead of just finding homes for the animals, a new emphasis assists financially struggling families in keeping their pets, Irwin said.

That involves providing families with a little help with food or vaccinations while they are getting through a tough time, Irwin said.

Many of those families also are finding assistance from local food pantries who are now keeping dog food and kitty litter in stock, she said.

Back in 1966, the biggest canine problem in Columbus was finding homes for litters of puppies.

“It’s rare to see those litters these days,” said Irwin, who credits a community awareness of the need for canine spay and neuter programs.

However, geriatric dogs suffering from illnesses, physical ailments or behavioral problems are a substantially greater concern, Zuckschwerdt-Ellsbury said.

The shelter’s biggest challenge today involves cats. More cats are being admitted into the shelter than dogs, due to what Irwin describes as society’s utilitarian attitude toward felines.

“There are still municipalities that say cats have the right to roam free because it’s their nature,” Irwin said.

While the shelter normally cares for about 200 animals each day, it has 125 cats at the shelter. Each feline has an average stay of more than a year, board member Trudi Smith said.

Since cats use litter boxes, many families with busy lifestyles prefer them as pets to avoid worrying about getting home in time to let them outside, Smith said.

But in rural areas, there’s often no attempt to contain outdoor cats to one area or put an identification tag on them, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

And when Tabby doesn’t come home for days, many owners won’t proactively contact shelters to look for their lost pet, the national organization also stated on its website.

“Cats are thought by many to be a disposable barn animal, instead of indoor pets,” Smith said.

While there is a widespread public acceptance of spay and neutering programs for canines, that attitude has not yet been extended to felines, which has resulted in a skyrocketing number of feral cats, Zuckschwerdt-Ellsbury said.

In an effort to address the problem statewide, House Bill 1201 was signed into law in March, requiring animal shelters to spay or neuter both dogs and cats prior to adoption by July 1, 2021.

Zuckschwerdt-Ellsbury said the measure, which offers little in direction, places the financial and enforcement burden on city and county leaders.

“Most (local leaders) either see it as fairly cumbersome or don’t even know it’s a requirement,” Zuckschwerdt-Ellsbury said. “It’s one step, but I’m not sure it’s the right step yet.”

What the organization has discovered to be most effective in accomplishing today’s goals is networking with other organizations.

For example:

After the Kitty Education and Placement Project (KEAPP) was approved in April, a relationship with Canine Express, a Brown County pet transport service, was established that resulted in dozens of cats being shipped off to other states with a higher likelihood of adoption.

A partnership with the Humane Society of Indianapolis now brings in pet food to regional rescues and shelters.

Collaboration with Community Animal Rescue Effort (CARE) secured a part-time veterinarian. CARE also agreed to take in nervous dogs and cats that fear other animals in the shelter.

Working in association with the Petco store in the Clifty Crossing Shopping Center, animals are transported twice a month to Pets Alive, a low-cost animal wellness, spay and neuter clinic, in Bloomington.

Discussions also are underway with the Litter Box Kitty Rescue, a local nonprofit organization, about broadening a trap, neuter and release program for feral cats.

Humane society staff and volunteers are often lauded for programs that also include vaccinating, disease-testing, micro-chipping and grooming, Irwin said.

“We’ve had so many compliments from gracious and kind people about our mission and new building,” Irwin said. “But we didn’t do it by ourselves. It was this community that helped us do it.”

With a larger facility and more complicated responsibilities, that support is needed now more than ever, Zuckschwerdt-Ellsbury said.

Humane society upcoming events

Dec. 2: “Holiday Whiskers & Paws”, 7 p.m. buffet and entertainment at Mill Race Center, 900 Lindsey St., featuring skits and music by The Lasting Impressions. Door prizes, silent auction, raffles and cash bar. $25 tickets are available at Athens Animal Clinic, Mill Race Center and the Bartholomew County Humane Society.

Dec. 3: Bake and gift sale at FairOaks Mall, 2380 25th St. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. near Carson’s entrance.

Dec. 4: Photos with Santa at FairOaks Mall, 6 to 8 p.m. Cost is $10 for a 5-by-7 photograph, with all proceeds going to the Bartholomew County Humane Society. Admission tickets must be picked up in advance at the mall office, the Humane Society or at Athens Animal Clinic.

Dec. 11: Christmas Open House for the Animals, 2 to 5 p.m. at the shelter, 4415 E. County Road 200 South. Free luminaries to remember deceased pets will be available, and lit from 5 to 6 p.m.

Information: 812-372-6063 or online at bartholomewhumane.org

Bartholomew County Humane Society milestones

1966: The Bartholomew County Humane Society is established.

1971: First animal shelter built off Kreutzer Drive at the current location of the recycling center.

1982: Second shelter built behind the Duke Energy substation south of Columbus.

1989: Addition made to shelter.

2004: Humane Society announces need to build a new facility.

2014: Current shelter opens at 4415 E. County Road 200S.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.