On a sunny March morning, Rachel Luchaco and her three boys have come all the way from Meeker to adopt a dog from the Rifle Animal Shelter.
"This morning, I asked them what they wanted to do with their day," said Luchaco. "And they said they wanted a puppy dog."
So, after a dip in the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, the family dropped by the shelter on their way home.
"What kind of dog do you want?" asked a visitor. Three-year-old Thad pointed to a brown and black hound named Jake and said, "That one."
Jake, all wiggles and wags, had been in the shelter for about a month, sharing a comfortable and clean - albeit small - space with 11 other dogs and four cats.
The Rifle Animal Shelter, a one-story building north of town, was originally a dog pound operated by the Rifle Police Department. But, in 1998, it failed inspection and the city didn't have enough money to complete the necessary renovations.
Enter Garfield County Animal Welfare Foundation Inc., better known as the Friends of the Rifle Animal Shelter (FRAS). For the next two years, this group of local residents raised funds and donated time and materials to renovate the shelter. FRAS and the city of Rifle were partners until January 2012.
"The city paid for utilities and staff," said Terri Potter, who's been involved with FRAS for 10 years. "FRAS paid for spay and neuter services and medical care for the animals."
Now, FRAS is responsible for everything, with more than double the operating costs.
The shelter also went from serving Rifle to serving all of western Garfield County. In fact, it's the only shelter at the western end of the county.
Rifle Animal Shelter sometimes takes furry friends from shelters in Craig, Montrose and Rangely that would otherwise be euthanized to make room for incoming creatures. But Rifle Animal Shelter is not a euthanize-for-space operation.
"My philosophy is," said Heather Mullen, Rifle Animal Shelter director, "there's not going to be an empty kennel if a dog or cat is going to be euthanized at another shelter."
Mullen and Potter consider themselves "animal people."
Potter and husband Sam, both from longtime Garfield County ranching families, foster cats and dogs and keep three ponies, two horses, two donkeys, a goat and a llama named Grumpy at their Rulison home.
"My mom told me, 'You'd better marry a farmer so you can have all the animals you want!'" said Potter, laughing.
Mullen, a graduate of the Colorado Mountain College veterinary tech program, was born with the same trait and brought home all kinds of strays when she was little. Working at the shelter, she said, is her dream job.
But, the dream needs a new home. Rifle Animal Shelter takes in 800 dogs and cats annually. Most are adopted, but the facility is just too small for the area's needs.
So in 2009, Potter donated 35 acres of her family's ranch north of Rifle to FRAS for a new shelter, to be called Murphy's Ranch Animal Haven.
The high desert parcel, covered with sagebrush and studded with pinon pine and juniper, nestles at the base of Hubbard Mesa. Beginning with the Hogback to the east, the impressive, 360-degree view includes the Divide Creek area and Uncle Bob Mountain to the south, Mamm Peak to the southwest, and the Roan Plateau and Hubbard Mesa to the north.
Initial plans call for a 10,000-square-foot building for shelter operations.
But before fundraising begins, FRAS must first meet water and electricity needs, which Potter expects to finalize later this year. She wants to use solar energy, use water from nearby Murphy Reservoir, and draw natural gas from a home tap on a ranch well.
Renovations to Murphy Reservoir, built in 1910 and adjudicated for 51 acre-feet, are under way, as are plans to haul water if reservoir supplies run short.
"Ours is a model for a green animal shelter," Potter said. "We'd prefer to use water on the property."
The design is inspired by the 3,000-acre Best Friends Animal Society near Kanab, Utah.
"They have areas for old dogs, non-adoptable and adoptable dogs," explained Mullen. "The cats are separated into adoptable, old and special needs."
The Utah sanctuary also takes in pot-bellied pigs, horses, sheep, goats, birds, rabbits, and other creatures. People can volunteer at the sanctuary or show up and take a tour.
"Murphy's Ranch will be a mini Best Friends," said Mullen.
Meanwhile, it's kitten season, a time when cat populations explode. Mullen believes spaying and neutering pets is the answer to animal over-population.
Despite education and financial assistance for spay and neuter services, the county's homeless animal population is growing.
She said some people can't afford to keep an animal. Others simply have the wrong kind of pet and decide to give it up.
Rifle Animal Shelter staff helps potential pet owners make the right choice for their lifestyles. By the wide eyes and laughter of the Luchaco boys, it looks like Jake the hound was a perfect match.