My retirement in June after more than 33 years working for the Federal Government was not the least bit scary because I knew exactly what I was going to do. Or at least I thought I did. And it wasn’t going fishing more. Or was it?
Like most assumed, I too thought I would continue my involvement with the Humane Society of Parkersburg but I also knew that I wanted to help other shelters. Over the years, there had been too many times I had to say “no” to others needing help. Emergencies and special needs had exposed me a little to other shelters in our area but my involvement very limited. It certainly wasn’t that these animals in neighboring shelters didn’t matter but that I only had so much time and energy to go around. But with more time, I was excited to fulfill my promise to help others; starting first helping one to build their volunteer program.
Yet it took one visit to learn that increasing volunteers would not be the priority. I had never been to this shelter before, which was very nice, well maintained, and in a lovely setting. And it was apparent that even with the limited resources, the animals were deeply cared about and shelter leaders intensely dedicated. But like most small town shelters, they are lacking much. Insufficient space for all dogs to live indoors, inadequate financial support from the county government, animals that have been in the shelter for months, infrequent visitors and potential adopters in part due to their remote location, no systems or documented procedures, minimal staff who are required to work 7 days a week, a handful of volunteers, and even fewer fosters – leaving young puppies and kittens little chance of survival in the shelter environment.
In the middle of October, shelter management asked if I would accompany law enforcement on a cruelty call. Purchasers of a puppy sick with Parvo were concerned there were more puppies in the home in the same sad shape. While uncertain how I might be of help, I would find out the next day when we found 14 dogs in the home; five of which were puppies that would not take long to discern were sick and very likely had Parvo. The smell alone was unmistakable but as I moved from room to room checking each puppy, the owner and her teenage daughter followed me and assuring me they were fine. I knew these puppies were very sick.
As I shared my concern with the Humane Officer and Sheriff, as well as the owner, and the sense of urgency to get them all to a vet, I was met with some hostility by the owner. She felt I was accusing of her of not loving her animals by my repeated pleas of “the puppies are going to die if they don’t get them to a vet.”
I’ve seen enough Parvo in my 15 years to last a lifetime. I know how critical time is for beating this deadly virus and despite my best attempts to remain unemotional as I assured all that these puppies need vet care, the emotions were building in the confines of the small house. But let me be clear that while I can be exceedingly judgmental, I know that people may not take care of their animals the way that I do but can still care deeply about them. And I believed they loved these dogs. Sadly they were just ignorant of the importance of vaccinations, the symptoms of Parvo and it’s deadliness.
The Sheriff and I worked to convince the owner of the necessity of vet care and she couldn’t provide it, the pups, at least would have to be taken into our custody. And while she was upset and resistant, she finally recognized she couldn’t help them and agreed to let us do so. As she agreed to let us take them, her daughter burst into gulping sobs begging her mom to let her keep her puppy. Her favorite.
As I attempted to reassure the young girl that we would do everything we could, she said two things I won’t soon forget. Words that troubled me for months and are likely one of the biggest catalysts for what would happen in the future. First she told me that she was saving her money to get her puppy its shots. It was too late for that. The second thing she said was that she knew we would kill the puppies.
There apparently was enough history with this owner to know that their feelings towards the shelter weren’t totally unprovoked. Previous experiences with the shelter had created the impression that these puppies like previous animals taken from this home would be euthanized immediately. I was unaware of these past interactions but assured her that the puppies would be taken to the vet and we would do our best to save them. She looked me straight in the eye and made it clear that she did not believe a word I was saying.
As we finished loading all the sick puppies into the Humane Officer vehicle, I asked him what vet he would be taking the puppies to. He was unsure. Out of earshot of the owners, he then admitted that he didn’t think the shelter could afford to take them to the vet but at my behest would contact shelter management. His previous experience indicated there was no money for such expensive vet care. I thought I might actually throw up. The sense of hopelessness was devastating but I felt strongly we could raise the money for their care. And beyond the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach that I may have just lied to that little girl and my sorrow for these puppies, I also felt sorry for the people of this shelter who held no real hope.
Friends, who did not care what county or town they came from, together with supporters of that shelter came together to raise the money necessary to pay all the vet bills in a matter of days!!! While we lost two of the five puppies, I was elated for the survivors and the shelter staff who, for once had reason to celebrate. And while the cost was high, I also know that if we had not gotten them out of that home, they all would have died there. Others who remained behind, died within days when they owner did not heed my warning to get them care at the first sign of illness.
Although I realized later that the easy part was getting those puppies help and saving their lives, it is the young girl who haunted me. In the urgency of the moment, I wondered if I had done enough to educate her. To change her perspective of the animal shelter and law enforcement. And for days after I tried to think of ways to change what I was certain was a continued disdain for this animal shelter.
Even prior to this I knew I needed to commit more time to this shelter and others like it, I didn’t realize the extent of the need nor the urgency. Not that I can solve all the world’s problems or take credit for all the advancement of the Humane Society of Parkersburg over the past 15 years but I have learned a great deal and have contributed considerably. In one area in particular — community involvement, which has been critical to our success. And developing an educational program for kids each summer. We have to do more than just care for the animals that arrive at our shelter. We need to do more to stop them from ever arriving. And that means EDUCATION!!!
Animal overpopulation is not an animal shelter problem – it is a community problem. And collectively we need to work together to solve these problems. Operating in a silo based approach where every shelter works alone, focusing on their problems in a vacuum and not taking advantage of shared expertise, experience and resources is just wasteful. We need to share our experience, our knowledge and even our techniques, proven and practiced, so that they become better prepared for the challenges and to progress their own organizations in future. Doing it for them is not the ideal approach but rather teaching them how to do it themselves. We shouldn’t give them fish but rather teach them how to fish.
So I, along with my friend Michelle Earl have founded Animal Lives Matter WV. A nonprofit organization whose focus will be to help surrounding shelters through independent operational assessments, education, collaboration, and community engagement. We know the shelters cannot afford the cost of such expertise and time — we also know that our engagements with these shelters could last several weeks to several months, depending on the need. So we have to raise some money to fund our work because we believe the animals in their communities matter. They all should no matter where they are.
And now so hyper-aware of the challenges and the need, I am very anxious to get started. As if the drive to help animals had not already been a priority and a passion. Maybe I didn’t make an impression on that young girl, but she made one on me. As did the sense of hopelessness by the caring shelter staff who didn’t think they could raise the money to save her puppies. I won’t be silly enough to suggest that my assurances and advice to that young girl will have changed her opinion of animal shelters or the people in them. But I have a glimmer of hope that she did hear me and may even have believed what we said. As I would learn later that she too had donated $5 towards the vet care of her own puppies. The money she saved to get her puppy vaccinated would help to save his life. (Yes, I considered trying to get the puppy back to her but with Parvo surely throughout her house, the puppy may not be completely safe for some time.)
Maybe we can’t help every shelter, every person or every animal in need but I know we can do more. I also know that our experience will be wasted if we don’t even try.
So that’s exactly what we’re going to do!
Categories: Shelter Facts