Roanoke facilities make strides to save animals

The Roanoke Times | Monday, July 30, 2012

Euthanasia rates are down at the Roanoke Valley’s regional pound, and adoption rates at
the next-door SPCA are up, but some critics say the facilities still aren’t doing enough to save endangered animals.

Janis Annis, veterinarian for Roanoke Valley SPCA, checks a minor injury on a cat Friday afternoon. Photo by Erica Yoon | The Roanoke Times

Janis Annis, veterinarian for Roanoke Valley SPCA, checks a minor injury on a cat Friday afternoon. Photo by Erica Yoon | The Roanoke Times

It’s a debate that is not uncommon nationwide, experts say, and one that has two
sometimes diametrically opposed sides asking what boils down to one question: How do
communities keep animal kill rates down while encouraging adoptions from rescue shelters that regularly approach capacity?

The debate came to a head last week with the resignation of Bill Watson, the executive
director of both the Regional Center for Animal Control and Protection and the Roanoke Valley SPCA. His departure, effective Tuesday, follows the announcement of investigations that will look into questions of animal neglect and financial improprieties at the pound and the SPCA raised by local law enforcement officials, the media and an animal welfare coalition.

The informal animal advocacy group is led by Lisa O’Neill, director of adoptions at
Angels of Assisi, a nonprofit, no-kill rescue shelter in Roanoke. For the past two years, she has been one of the pound’s biggest citizen critics while running an online blog and Facebook group called “Roanoke No Kill Coalition” independent of her job at the shelter.

O’Neill said one of her group’s chief complaints has been what she said was the pound’s
high kill rate for dogs and cats, which she acknowledged has decreased in the past few years. She said the pound also didn’t allow volunteers until last year, which her group believes increased the facility’s operating cost on the taxpayer’s dime.

“There’s a lot of promises for change, and I guess the question is why it’s taken this long
and why it’s taken the public and the media to get so involved for these changes to happen,” O’Neill said Thursday.

The taxpayer-supported pound operates side-by-side with the SPCA at a shared facility
on Baldwin Avenue in northeast Roanoke. It takes in stray animals brought in by animal control officers and residents, while the nonprofit SPCA largely handles adoptions. The pound is operated by Animal Care Services, a subsidiary of the Roanoke Valley SPCA.

Leaders of the pound say their mission is misunderstood by the public. They’re not an
adoption shelter like the SPCA or Angels of Assisi, but rather an intake facility for strays and animals involved in court cases, said Daphne Turner, a member of the pound’s advisory board.

The pound also handles euthanasia for animals that are considered unadoptable or for which there’s no room at rescue shelters.

On any given day, the pound and the SPCA operate at close to or above designed
capacity, Turner said.

A walk into one of the pound’s main canine holding rooms requires ear protection just to
prevent the echoing sounds of dozens of barking dogs from deafening employees. The noise down the hall in the feline rooms is a few decibels lower, albeit a few octaves higher.

Across a breezeway at the SPCA – where animals can be adopted – cats and dogs are
displayed in metal cages and a sign advertises a new low fee for the gray tabby in the corner.

Limited resources

SPCA board President Barbara Dalhouse held a news conference July 23 to announce an
internal investigation into operations and finances that would run parallel to one already under way by the chiefs of police and commonwealth’s attorneys for the localities served by the pound, as well as an audit by the Roanoke municipal auditor’s office.

The financial inquiry stems from a pound employee who told the Roanoke commonwealth’s attorney’s office that taxpayer money meant for the pound was being used at the nonprofit SPCA, officials said.

Noticeably absent from the news conference was Watson, who had declined interviews
and refused media phone calls for two weeks. He spoke for this story Wednesday, the day before the SPCA board announced his resignation.

In the phone interview, Watson answered questions about his facilities’ operations but
declined to comment on the internal investigation, the Roanoke auditor’s inquiry or a police investigation into neglect allegations. He said he was leaving after six years as head of the organizations to avoid being a distraction to the SPCA’s mission.

Watson said his facilities have faced “very difficult choices” in deciding how to best
handle the thousands of animals they see come through their doors each year.

“There are not unlimited resources – time, space, money or people,” he said. “It’s hard
when you have one or two cages at the SPCA. You may have 15 beautiful cats next door at the pound, but which one do you take?”

The SPCA board’s internal investigation also will focus on reports of animal neglect that
center upon a pit bull mix named Trinity that may not have received proper care while at the pound in May, Dalhouse said.

Roanoke police also are investigating that case. Police Chief Chris Perkins and
Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell have said they expect that investigation to wrap up soon.

Though groups including O’Neill’s have criticized the pound and the SPCA before over
allegations of animal neglect and abuse, few if any complaints have been verified by state
regulatory officials or police. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services,
which inspects animal shelters, has not found any “critical findings of significant
noncompliance” in its annual inspections of the pound or the SPCA since at least 2008.

Still, O’Neill said her group believes taxpayer money isn’t being spent in a way that best
serves animals.

The majority of the funding for the pound – a little more than $976,000 in fiscal year
2012 – comes from Roanoke, Roanoke County, Vinton and Botetourt County, the four localities served by the facility.

As of 2010, the last year regional comparison figures were available, the pound did have
a euthanasia rate higher than the average in the region for cats, but not for dogs, according to VDACS data. At 66 percent, its combined euthanasia rate for cats and dogs was the fourth highest in a comparison of figures from 16 municipal pound facilities in Southwest Virginia.

The average combined rate across all 16 facilities was just under 50 percent, the VDACS
data show.

The highest average euthanasia rate in Southwest Virginia in 2010 was at the Galax-
Carroll County-Grayson County Animal Control and Pound Facility, where about 84 percent of cats and dogs taken in were killed.

Nationwide, about 50 percent of cats and dogs brought into shelters are euthanized
annually, according to information provided by the Humane Society of the United States.

But Watson pointed to a reduction in euthanasia rates and an increase in transfers to
rescue facilities for adoptions over the past two years as evidence that things are improving.

Although regional comparison figures for last year aren’t yet available, figures provided by the Roanoke pound to VDACS show 871 fewer cats euthanized in 2011 than in 2010, and 345 fewer dogs.

The center listed a combined 52 percent euthanasia rate for cats and dogs that year, down from 66 in 2011. Euthanasia rates dropped from 2009 to 2010 as well, and continue to decrease into 2012.

Watson cited several reasons that may explain why euthanasia rates are down, including
an increase in area spay-and-neuter clinics. The SPCA opened its own clinic in Christiansburg last year and plans to open another in Roanoke on Peters Creek Road in August, he said.

Kill rates were higher than the regional average in years past, Watson said, because the
Roanoke pound has historically taken in more animals – especially cats – than most municipal shelters in Southwest Virginia. In 2010, for example, VDACS numbers show that the Roanoke shelter took in 12.48 stray cats per 1,000 people in the shelter’s service area, compared with a regional average of 8.14 per 1,000.

Watson also said the pound has made a push in the past year to release more animals to
shelters that focus on adopting them to homes, including his own SPCA. He denied that the effort came at the insistence of groups such as O’Neill’s, saying the uptick in transfers and SPCA adoptions began as early as the spring of 2011.

“To some extent, were we poked and prodded to try even harder? Probably,” he said.
“But was that the reason for it? No.”

In 2011, 887 cats and 1,053 dogs were transferred from the pound to other Virginia
rescue shelters that focus on adoptions, VDACS numbers show. The vast majority of those
animals ended up finding homes, according to the data. Most of those animals – 67 percent in 2011 – wound up at the SPCA, where the organization adopted out 1,688 dogs and cats in 2011, VDACS numbers show.

Watson said he expected the adoption figures at the SPCA to more than double for cats
and dogs this year as workers better advertise available animals.

The pound also recently hired a rescue coordinator, whose sole job is to work with the
more than three dozen area animal shelters in an attempt to get animals transferred out for
adoption, according to Turner, who’s also a member of the SPCA board.

A community problem

That kind of push is a step in the right direction, said Heather Bialy, director of shelter
services for the Humane Society of the United States.

“A big part of animal sheltering is having a really aggressive marketing campaign for
your animals,” she said.

Bialy said the debate about how to handle the overwhelming volume of unwanted dogs
and cats is not limited to Southwest Virginia.

“We believe that it’s important to recognize that what’s happening at the shelter is a
symptom of the community’s problem,” she said. “You can’t just address the issues at the shelter, you have to address the root cause of why the animals are ending up at the shelter.”

She said its not uncommon for animal rights groups and rescue agencies to fight over
issues such as euthanasia, shelter occupancy rates, and spaying and neutering.

“But one organization can’t solve all these problems on their own,” she said. “We have to
put aside our differences and partner together.”

Watson did not address O’Neill’s complaints about the limited use of volunteers at the
pound, calling it a personnel matter, but Turner said the pound started a volunteer program in November. She encouraged anyone interested in signing up to contact the facility.

Bialy, while not commenting specifically on Roanoke’s center, said it behooves
municipal pounds to make use of volunteers if for no other reason than to save money.

O’Neill said she found the decreased euthanasia rates and increased adoptions numbers
encouraging but said the pound and the SPCA have more work to do.

“We’re thrilled that the SPCA adoptions are going up,” she said. “If they could use some
of those resources and things they’ve learned at the pound side, that would be awesome.”

Dalhouse, the SPCA president, said the organization has begun a search for a new
executive director, something O’Neill said she was encouraged by.

“I think it’s a very significant move, and hopefully a big step toward some change,” she

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