The puppies are terrified until volunteer Jamie Miceli steps out into the courtyard. The pack of German shepherd-mix pups keeps a wide berth around strangers, gathering courage to smell the ground around a shoe but fleeing an extended hand.

It’s been a long few months of life for these dogs, who were transferred to Stray Hearts Animal Shelter after Taos County Animal Control seized them from their home with a hoarder who kept some 14-16 dogs.

They’ve come a long way with Miceli’s help, and when she kneels in the shelter’s toy-littered yard, they gather as if magnetized. Walking and socializing shy dogs is Miceli’s specialty as a volunteer.

“I love shy dogs, they’re my favorite to work with,” Miceli says. “The hardest thing is letting them go, but it’s so rewarding when they find a good home and if they’re in Taos, I get to see them again.”

Miceli, a nurse who works 12-hour days three days a week, is one of Stray Hearts’ most devoted volunteers. She is also an example of something shelter director Jan Gordon hopes to expand to combat the shelter’s massive population: foster homes.

Since The Taos News’ last visit to the shelter July 4, Gordon says the shelter’s dog count has consistently been more than 120 dogs. The shelter’s some 115 cats are also available to foster.

“Every time we get some out, we get 10 in,” Gordon says from her office Sept. 21. “We’re finally under 100 for the first time in months. I hope it lasts a little while. Everybody’s working their tail off.”

Because of its contracts with Taos County and the town, Stray Hearts can’t turn away animals law enforcement bring in. In September alone, county animal control brought in 18 dogs, while the town’s animal control brought in 24.

With the shelter frequently at capacity, Gordon says that euthanasia is still at an all-time low at the shelter thanks to transfers and foster homes like Miceli’s, but more foster homes are desperately needed. To keep it that way, Gordon says the shelter needs help.

“We’ve been operating like a no-kill shelter, but the public needs to know that if we’re full and we get 20 dogs, we’re in trouble,” Gordon says. “Our euthanasia rate is lower right now than a no-kill facility. Not that we can keep that up.”

Part of Gordon’s role as the new shelter director is to maintain public outreach while also expanding the shelter’s budget. She says she also has ideas about the shelter’s five-year plan. The public can learn more at the shelter’s Oct. 13 open house, which begins at noon.

“Right now, we scrape by every month. Maybe, in five years, we can be in a new facility,” Gordon says. “Let’s make this place unique. It’s Taos. It can be. But, we gotta increase the budget first.”

The main group that needs fostering is Stray Hearts’ special needs crowd: Dogs that are elderly, injured, recovering from surgery, pregnant, or have just been in a kennel too long. Stray Hearts supports its foster homes by covering the animal’s needs, such as food and any subsequent medical treatment.

The success rate of a fostered dog is incalculable, but makes a huge difference.

“They just heal better when they’re loved and they’re in a home,” Miceli says.

Miceli has been fostering special-needs dogs for the past five years. For the past two months, she’s been foster mom to a 6-month-old dog shelter staff christened “Peggy,” who came in with a partly-healed hip fracture, most likely from being hit by a car. While Miceli conceded that many people might be nervous to foster a dog with specific needs, she says the payback is tremendous. Talking about it, Miceli gets choked up.

“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Miceli says of fostering. “When we get a really shy, frightened dog that won’t even look at us, that just sits and faces the back of the kennel, it’s so rewarding to just sit in that kennel with them and read to them until eventually, you can touch them. Then, just watching them transform from that petrified dog to a normal dog. It’s pretty addicting.”

‘Inevitable’

Shelter volunteer Divya Nowland is making her rounds early Tuesday morning (Sept. 25), doling out an herbal remedy from an eyedropper. The remedy, a locally made potion called Pet Essences, will keep the 10 dogs being prepared for new surroundings calm on the long drive to Colorado. Nowland is a longtime dog foster parent.

“It’s a joy. It’s rewarding because you get to see them experience normalcy and that’s a big step toward having them attract the perfect match, the perfect home,” Nowland says. “Especially with the elderly ones, it’s amazing to give a dog the dignity of some end-of-life happiness. It teaches you about compassion.”

The 10 are going to The Buddy Center, a larger adoption center in Castle Rock, Colo. Tuesday’s transfer will be the fifth this month, and Gordon estimates the shelter has relocated between 45-50 dogs in September alone. Volunteers have been walking and exercising the chosen dogs since 7:30 a.m., giving them as much movement as possible before they are put into travel kennels. Gordon runs around the shelter, filling water jugs, double-checking paperwork, ensuring each dog will have extra blankets and padding.

When loading time comes, it’s like a game of Tetris. Kennel staffers José Meléndez and Anthony Trujillo map out the layout of the kennels in the back of the shelter’s van, stacking and unstacking for the best, safest fit for the drive.

“At one point,” kennel director Martina Trujillo says, “we even took out the front passenger seat to make room for one more.”

With emergency numbers exchanged, the staff and volunteers wave as the van takes the dogs to their new facility, hopefully their last stop for new homes. The staff gets a momentary coffee break before two Taos County Animal Control trucks pull up.

“I’ve got six,” officer Richard Sánchez tells Gordon before going inside. The other officer, Joe Fernández, has one friendly shepherd mix.

Gordon shrugs.

“It’s inevitable,” she says, sipping her coffee.

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