New Blog Series: Rural Challenges in Animal Welfare

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?

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.

'New Blog Series: Rural Challenges in Animal Welfare' have 3 comments

  1. October 14, 2021 @ 11:43 am Gina Knepp

    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. October 14, 2021 @ 4:54 pm M. Christie Smith, CAWA

    Cole and AAWA – this is a much needed discussion and awareness building. While the community where I worked in little old Rhode Island would not classify as rural, the state and many agencies are small-ish. I always marveled at the programs big organizations in major metropolitan areas and with hefty budgets could develop. My philosophy was always if it worked for the big animal welfare organizations, it would work on a smaller scale in the small shelters. The trick I think is to carefully figure out which of the innovative programs would really meet your community needs and best help your animals and people. Then build slowly and don’t tackle too many great ideas and programs at once. I always found the larger shelters were willing to share helpful information. Don’t get scared off by the budget the big orgs have for the program —- you will be building something much smaller to serve a smaller population. If you know your community and develop a great story for the need for your featured new program, you will find the money. Don’t rush; change takes time. A hurdle might be convincing your staff to do something differently than the way they have in the past and with which they are very comfortable. Have fun and good luck to all the rural and smaller animal welfare organizations ready to tackle something new !!!

  3. October 20, 2021 @ 6:23 pm Corey Price, CAWA

    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!

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