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Shelter manager up to challenge

Not many people could bring themselves to do a job to which they are allergic.

Debie Jefts does it every day — and even returned from a different job for the privilege.

“I’m allergic to cats, but I still love them,” Jefts, the Suffolk animal shelter manager, said Thursday as she tried to alleviate the redness in her eyes. “I don’t regret coming back.”

Jefts began working in the Suffolk Police Department as a dispatcher, and then moved to the animal control division as a street officer. However, she then moved to Prince William County before returning to Suffolk. She became animal shelter manager here in November.

The shelter manager position has been filled only sporadically during the past several years, Suffolk spokeswoman Debbie George said. It was not a matter of budget, but rather of finding someone who could handle the job.

“It’s a pretty demanding position,” George said.

Being shelter manager requires non-standard hours and a love for animals, she explained, but those same animal lovers find it difficult to perform the sometimes-necessary task of euthanizing animals.

Jefts, however, seems up to the task of getting the shelter into better shape. Since November, she has brought euthanasia rates to a minimum, developed better record-keeping procedures and integrated the shelter’s computer program with the police department’s records. That way, shelter personnel can spot and prevent potential adoptions by residents whom police have visited in the past for cruelty violations.

One way Jefts has accomplished the minimal euthanasia rate is by adopting out more animals. She makes it a point to visit or host at least two adoption events per month, and she even pre-selects the animals she will take so they can be spayed or neutered and vaccinated beforehand.

“That way, they’re ready to go,” Jefts said.

She also keeps in close contact with area rescue groups, making sure to let them know when a breed they are interested in arrives at the shelter.

Working with George’s office, Jefts also is developing a method of using social networking sites like Facebook to reconnect lost pets with their families.

Her new efforts, however, have not stood in the way of daily tasks at the shelter. Each of the shelter’s 48 dog kennels, even empty ones, must be disinfected before the building opens to the public at 10 a.m. She keeps track of dozens of feral cat traps placed in strategic locations around the city and manages the schedules of all the employees who work at the shelter.

“We stay late, we come in early,” she said.

A tight city budget hasn’t stopped Jefts from dreaming about how to improve the shelter. She brought a couch from her own home to put in the meeting room, so potential adopters can have a more comfortable place to connect with their furry friends. And she would like to create more meeting rooms, an outside play space for potential adopters and their dogs and an expanded entrance area that’s not so crowded.

“We’ve come a long way,” Jefts said. “I’m glad I came back.”