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New Blog Series: Rural Challenges in Animal Welfare

October 13, 2021, Cole Wakefield

We’re thrilled to kick off a new blog series from Association member Cole Wakefield, Animal Services Director for Good Shepherd Humane Society in Eureka Springs, AR. “As we develop new programs and models, we mustn’t assume resources available in most urban areas will also be available in rural areas,” Cole writes in today’s introduction to the 4-part series. Join us on this journey as Cole explores human resources, fostering, and animal services through a rural lens.

We are living in a very exciting time in animal welfare. Over the last few years, a new paradigm has emerged, and we have seen tremendous strides in our effort to end unnecessary euthanasia. As funders embrace the value of the holistic animal-human approach, we have witnessed innovative pilot programs take off and change our perception of how to save lives. These new models are exciting, and they are vital. Notably, most of these programs are developed in large urban areas. That makes sense. Organizations in these areas see huge volume, have more significant resources, and are often part of a network of like-minded agencies. Getting programs running and developing models for similar areas is the best bang for the buck.  The problem comes when trying to translate these programs to rural areas directly. While the theory may be sound, the method of execution is often out of reach. This series seeks to explore this challenge. 

The hardest part of writing about rural issues is defining what exactly “rural” is.  Various federal agencies have a least half a dozen different definitions. People living in a city of one million may see the 20,000-person town as a rustic escape; however, both would generally be considered urban by current Census standards. In this series, I define “rural” primarily by the Census Bureau understanding that rural is the area of our country not contained within an urbanized area or Urban Custer. I will make the concession that many of the issues facing rural communities are also faced by smaller, isolated Urban Clusters (often poor) that are not connected to a more significant metro population center. An example of this would be Berryville, Arkansas. Berryville is a city of 5,550 that’s classified as an Urban Cluster by the Census Bureau. However, Berryville is over 40 miles from the nearest, larger urbanized area and does not generally benefit from that area’s services. So, despite being “urban,” Berryville faces the challenges of a rural community.

I am Animal Services Director for Good Shepherd Humane Society in Eureka Springs, Arkansas—just  down the road from Berryville. Good Shepherd is a private non-profit tasked with serving Carroll County. Carroll County spans 630 square miles and has a population of 28,380. That equals 43 people per square mile. In comparison, Little Rock, Arkansas’s largest city, has 1,642 people per square mile. In other words, Carroll County is decidedly rural. 

Soon after arriving at Good Shepherd, I began shifting from the traditional animal shelter model to a more modern services agency model. Several of these changes, such as opening the adoption process, bore fruit almost immediately. Others, like developing a foster-centric program, fell flat—despite the record success many of my counterparts were experiencing with pandemic-driven foster programs. We were running the playbook but were not seeing the same results. It was, honestly, disheartening. I started talking to others in rural areas, and many were running into similar problems, though some were able to make it work. The more I looked, the more disparity I noticed in operational capability between urban and rural agencies. I quickly realized that our industry was not adequately addressing this disparity, and that we would never meet our goals if we didn’t find solutions that worked for the 1 in 5 people who live in rural areas.

As we develop new programs and models, we mustn’t assume resources available in most urban areas will also be available in rural areas. 85% of Carroll County has no public animal services. That is over 250 square miles without any animal control officers or significant animal regulations—and Carroll County is one of the better-resourced rural Arkansas counties! I firmly believe in the direction our industry is headed, and I believe there is a solution for rural areas. However, to find that solution, we must have this conversation now and build programs that consider rural areas from the start.  Please leave a comment or reach out to me at if you have a perspective you would like to add to this conversation. I would love to hear success stories and specific challenges.

I look forward to this journey, and I thank The Association for granting me the space to have this critical conversation. 

More from Cole

Member Spotlight: Get to Know Cole Wakefield
Video Interview: Are Rural Shelters Ready For Covid-19 Changes?

About Cole Wakefield
Cole Wakefield is the Director of Animal Services for Good Shepherd Humane Society in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Prior to his time at Good Shepherd, Cole served as Clinic Manager for HOPE Humane Society in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Cole is Arkansas-born and raised and excited to bring attention to rural animal welfare issues. He is a graduate of the Southern Utah University/Best Friends Animal Society Executive Leadership Certification Program.
  1. Thank you so much for starting this conversation! Having lived my entire life in Sacramento, California, it was quite shocking to discover the disparities when I moved to rural Gem County in Idaho. Subsequently, now living in Hamilton, Montana, I see it even moreso. I have continuously said that until we reach rural America and figure out how to serve & support those areas as well, albeit differently, we will not solve the animal/people problems in this country. Again, thank you for addressing what so many do not understand.

  2. Cole and AAWA – Thank you for writing this! I work in the DFW area of Texas, so it is not rural by any definition. But, we have significant portions of our region and our state that are very rural. We are all in this together, so this conversation is so very important to have. I hope we can find ways to connect and help each other!

  3. Our rural animal control shelter is operated by the Sheriff Department in our county. Most everyone thought it was a good idea at first. However ,very soon we recognized that they brought their 1950 program from their former tractor shed shelter into a brand new building that opened in 2011. They will not take any help from anyone to bring their operation into the 21th century.They are officers of the law and above reproach. No vaccinations at intake. not much information taken at intake. inmates as cleaning personnel. no enrichment. sick sick animals. no medical protocols. a vet that works their two days a week and does not have a job description, and not very active. still an attitude of punishment, instead of one of wanting to help. Public complaints constantly. trapping feral cats for euthanasia.I could go on and on.

  4. Cole – – great to see your blog. Remember our conversations about the rural challenges. It took me awhile to figure out how to explain pet over population in rural Oklahoma. We’re near Grand Lake (manmade). Every time we get too much rain, they open the flood gates, but they have no control over the tributaries that feed the lake. For rural communities – – out of state transport is the flood gates and spay/neuter is the tributaries. It can be done. What took me the longest to figure out was if the community is not building new schools, it’s not growing.

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