The debate over animal welfare in the Dan River region has reached a boiling point as criticism from those who favor a "no-kill" philosophy in animal shelters targets the Danville Area Humane Society (DAHS) for its high animal euthanasia numbers.
On Route 29 Business towards Danville, a billboard erected in June displays the text "53,798 pets have died at the Danville Area Humane Society Since 2005" and the bold words "this must stop."
The sign references a website, www.DanvilleShelterWatch.com, which displays the fact that the DAHS has ranked among the top five shelters in Virginia in animal euthanasia rates since 2005.
This refers to data provided by the state. Virginia requires by law that animal shelters, public and private, report information on animals taken in, adopted and euthanized.
The Euthanasia Numbers
Paulette Dean, director of the DAHS, does not dispute the numbers or the ranking, but says that they do not tell the whole story.
"What they didn't say on the billboard is how greatly the numbers have decreased since 2005," Dean said in an interview with the Star-Tribune. "They went for the shock value."
According to the data from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), the annual number of euthanasia of dogs and cats at the DAHS peaked in 2009 at 5,301 and has dropped since, down to 1,572 in 2019.
However, in 2019, the Pittsylvania Pet Center, which is a "no-kill" shelter, reported euthanizing a total of 72 dogs and cats.
Dean said that the DAHS has in recent years taken efforts to reduce the numbers of euthanized animals by quadrupling the number of holding areas in the shelter for cats and dogs, and revamping their adoption and foster programs.
Dean maintains that the possibility of reducing euthanizations down to zero is there, but that it isn't feasible without reducing the total animal population.
"It sounds wonderful to end the euthanasia of animals, and that's our goal," Dean said. "Every animal welfare person wants to be...where adoptable cats and dogs are not euthanized just because of space. However, if we attempt to get from [euthanasia] to [no-kill] without...reducing the population of animals and ensuring that they go to responsible homes, then we have not done the animals any service."
While Dean denies that the DAHS euthanizes animals as soon as the state-mandated holding period is up, she believes that euthanizing animals which "suffer in a cage" is the humane decision.
"No animal has a date stamped on their forehead," Dean said. "[We euthanize] when it becomes inhumane to keep them in a cage. Some of the animals truly do suffer in a cage."
The "No-Kill" Philosophy
Critics of the DAHS and Dean's leadership criticize the numbers of cats and dogs euthanized by the shelter. These critics, such as James McLaughlin, who has served as the director of the Pittsylvania Pet Center since January of 2019, support a "no-kill" philosophy of running an animal shelter.
"What [no-kill] means to me is that every animal who is happy, healthy and adoptable will not be euthanized," McLaughlin said in an interview. "We'll find a home, transfer it or get it back to its owner."
While no-kill does not mean that zero animals are ever put down inside of a shelter — euthanizations are still performed in instances where an animal is suffering from sickness or is determined to be too aggressive to be adopted — it does mean that no animal is put down to make space in the shelter or because it has little chance of finding a permanent home.
With the stated goal of reducing animal euthanizations as much as possible, the challenge comes from being able to find those animals space to live, and the solution of no-kill supporters like McLaughlin is a combination of a "managed intake" policy, "removing barriers" in adoption and a reliance on transferring animals to other shelters.
McLaughlin said that "managed intake" involves asking people who want to surrender their pets to the shelter to make an appointment for a few days later while the shelter staff is able to make space to accommodate the animal. This also includes providing the pet owner with options to re-home the animal on their own.
McLaughlin also said that the Pet Center makes adoption more accessible by making the interview process less intimidating and not flatly denying adoptions over specific criteria.
According to the VDACS data, the Pet Center transferred 513 animals to other shelters in 2019, which accounted for approximately one-fourth of the animals that the shelter took in that year.
Public Claims Against DAHS
Earlier in July, an anonymous letter was sent to businesses and individuals in the Dan River region containing the claim that the DAHS remains "one of the worst performing shelters in all of Virginia" and criticisms of Dean's leadership.
The letter claims that the DAHS has rebuffed offers from other shelters for transfers, puts out "false narratives" about the intake policies of no kill shelters and has "villainized" the Pittsylvania Pet Center for not taking in animals which wind up going to the DAHS.
The letter points readers towards a Change.org petition launched on June 25 which at the time of publication has nearly 5,000 signatures.
Both the Danville Shelter Watch website and the Change.org petition urge concerned citizens to contact members of the Danville City Council to demand a change in leadership and policy at the DAHS.
A Difference in Priorities
For Dean, a priority in running the DAHS is that the shelter maintain an "open admission" policy, in contrast to managed intake.
"We believe that a shelter's doors should be open, especially a public shelter," Dean said. "It's taxpayer money, so taxpayers should have a shelter that upholds the strict definition of a public shelter in Virginia state code, so we have chosen to have open doors."
Dean said that she has been approached by donors to the DAHS that have told her that the shelter's open admission policy is a key reason for their support.
According to Dean's philosophy, the DAHS takes in animals on demand to avoid animals falling into a "bad situation."
"There are tragic cases where animals have been put on waiting lists and desperate people make a horrible choice to either kill that animal or abandon them on the side of a road," Dean said. "[Managed intake] sounds like it would be a great idea, but it's not always so wonderful."
McLaughlin criticizes this open admission policy, saying that it leads to too many animals being taken in at once, which results in more animal euthanizations.
"I would argue, what good is it to say that you take everything in if most of those animals don't make it back out of that shelter?" McLaughlin said.
Dean has been criticized for being strict on allowing adoptions. She said that their policy requires that no dogs be kept on chains and that cats must be kept inside.
"Every animal deserves the best home possible," Dean said. "I am the court-appointed humane investigator for the city and the county, and I have seen horror stories."
"We are going to do everything in our power to help every animal as much as we can, even if that means...giving them a humane death rather than having them face what we know goes on out there."
About the criticism that she has refused transfer opportunities, Dean denied it and said that she has reached out to transfer partners in the past, including Homeward Trails.
However, Dean said that at one point Homeward Trails had offered a partnership with DAHS where the shelter would not accept certain animals, which would instead be taken in by Homeward Trails.
The DAHS board ultimately decided against it, as Dean said it would be compromising on the open admissions policy.
According to the VDACS data, the DAHS transferred 192 dogs and cats to other shelters in 2019 out of almost 2,500 animals taken in.
The County Animal Issue
One of Dean's criticisms of managed intake comes from her claim that many people who are asked to wait to surrender their animals to the Pet Center end up taking their animals to the DAHS.
As part of the open admission policy, Dean said the DAHS does not turn down these animals surrendered by county residents, even though McLaughlin said that Pittsylvania County has "made it clear" that the DAHS is under no obligation to take in animals from county residents.
However, Dean denies that she has "villainized" the Pet Center for this reason, saying it's "not our way."
"We've never put up a billboard, we've never sent an anonymous letter, we've never made personal attacks," Dean said.
Dean has criticized a policy that has been adopted by the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors that involves private individuals who are caring for feral cat colonies trapping them with donator-provided traps, neutering or spaying them at a vet clinic and then releasing them back onto the same property.
The policy is meant to address the problem of large numbers of feral cat colonies in areas which end up perpetuating themselves and subsisting off of food from caregivers by cutting off the ability to reproduce, causing their numbers to dwindle over time.
Dean believes the policy to be inhumane, and holds concerns over the safety of cats being left to live outside.
Proponents of TNR, however, say that feral cats are not adoptable, and that taking stray cats into animal shelters will likely result in them being euthanized.
The DAHS issued a press release containing three steps they will be taking moving forward. However, Dean specified that they will not be compromising on their open admission policy.
Beginning Aug. 1, the DAHS will begin paying the full cost of spay/neuter surgeries for outside cats in Danville and Pittsylvania County, with the requirement that the cats be kept on private property, are not taken in through TNR and receive adequate care.
The DAHS also released that they will begin contacting the Pittsylvania Pet Center to give them the opportunity to transfer in animals which the DAHS has taken in from county residents if they have not been able to find an adoptive home for them.
Finally, the DAHS released that they have contracted with the Virginia Alliance for Animal Shelters to accommodate two of their shelter reviewers who will spend at least two days at the DAHS to examine the shelter and provide a written report to the public.
“I applaud their decision to have an independent review of their operation to see if there are areas for improvement,” Danville City Manager Ken Larking is quoted in the press release.