Atlas, Hugged
Charlotte Magazine|May 2020
Staycations are Animal Care & Control’s most successful dog adoption program, a powerful tool in its mission to become a no-kill shelter. But staycations come with a dare: How long can you borrow a shelter dog before you fall in love?
By Jen Tota McGivney

THE DOG LAY NEAR THE INTERSTATE 85 ENTRANCE RAMP just off Freedom Drive, curled on the grass where people dump trash. Three people had called the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department about the brown-and-white pit bull, so Officer David Woody went to retrieve the dog, which someone had likely dumped with the garbage. In his 16 years on the job, he hadn’t seen many dogs in such bad shape. A gaunt body revealed outlines of ribs, spine, and hip bones. Woody gave a friendly whistle, but the dog backed away. He acted with caution to keep the frightened dog from running into highway traffic. With patience and three cans of dog food, Woody earned the dog’s trust and lured him closer. He leashed the dog, now calm, who jumped right into the Animal Care & Control van.

After three days in the stray ward in February, dog #A1164940 remained unclaimed.

A vet exam revealed heartworms and hookworms, both lethal if untreated. The dog had abrasions on his front legs and scratches across his face, and the tip of one ear was missing. But a temperament test revealed his good manners and social nature. A dog the world hadn’t loved somehow loved it back.

It would be understandable for a crowded municipal shelter to euthanize a dog in this condition. Adult pit mixes aren’t exactly the goldendoodles of the dog market, much less one with heartworms, hookworms, and protruding ribs. But the shelter had hope for dog #A1164940. AC&C microchipped, vaccinated, and dewormed him, began flea treatments, and moved him to the adoptable kennels. His run displayed his new name, Atlas, and another label: Staycation Approved.

THE PREMISE OF AN AC&C STAYCATION IS SIMPLE. Borrow a shelter dog for up to five days. Give it a break from stressful shelter life. Give it cuddles and treats. Give it walks and love.

Then, the hard part: Give it back.

Last year, the program’s first, 671 dogs took staycations through AC&C. These dogs were the long shots, overlooked by most adopters—senior dogs, big dogs, and pit mixes, mostly. Yet 384 of them never returned. More often than not, staycation hosts did what’s nearly inevitable—they fell in love—and asked to keep their guests forever.

“When we started this program, we hung our hat on the idea that we wanted dogs to get a break from the shelter, get some marketing, and come back with more information so we can find the best homes for them,” says AC&C spokesperson Melissa Knicely. “That so many staycations turned into adoptions was almost a miracle.”

Staycations began in January 2019, which kicked off the shelter’s record-breaking dog adoption year. Inspired by a similar program in Washington, D.C., the program allows people to borrow often-overlooked dogs for mini-getaways. Staycations came at a crucial time for AC&C. Renovations that began last year and continued into the spring required the temporary closing of kennel sections and limited AC&C’s capacity for stray and surrendered dogs. Staycations opened spaces in private homes. Some people host a staycation dog to test how it does with their kids or with other dogs—a rent-to-own tactic. Others merely want a fun weekend playmate and find something more.

Knicely’s worked at AC&C for 13 years. When she arrived, 34 percent of dogs here had live releases—they were adopted, transferred to a rescue group, or reunited with owners. In other words, not euthanized. In 2019, the live release rate for dogs was 79 percent.

AC&C hopes to qualify as a no-kill shelter, which requires a 90 percent live release rate for all animals, according to the No Kill Advocacy Center. It’s close. In January and February 2020, the shelter maintained 89 percent. For a municipal shelter with limited space that’s required to accept all stray and surrendered animals—even aggressive and ill ones, even pet snakes and chickens—that’s a feat.

“I SHOULD TRY A STAYCATION—FOR JOURNALISM,” I told my husband, Jimmy, as I reported this story. He gave me the look I deserved. He’s heard this before. Four years ago, I wrote about AC&C for this magazine and fostered a dog—for journalism—and that dog snores beside me as I write this. As much as we love our two dogs, we don’t want a third. As much as we don’t want a third, we know what suckers we are for a dog with a sad story.

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