Animal center laments overcrowding challenges amid criticism, threats

Animals wait in their pens to be adopted at the Palm Valley Animal Center Tuesday, Feb, 13, 2018, in Edinburg.

EDINBURG — “A hatchet job.”

This is how one board member from the Palm Valley Animal Center labeled criticism the nonprofit organization has fielded over conditions many have found disturbing.

The Edinburg-based center has recently been subject to online criticism by animal rights advocates, rescue organizations and social media commentators who have accused the shelter of abuse and neglect, circulating a video and photos that appear to show animal carcasses inside kennels with puddles of blood, in addition to other troubling images.

PVAC officials have said that those making the allegations are misinformed, and that the problem is more nuanced than what social media posts have depicted.

Rebeca Villanueva, director of development for the shelter, verified the images as authentic but said they were likely taken in the morning and before staff had the chance to clean the kennels. Villanueva, however, only remarked in the context of animal excrement and not the other conditions shown in the video.

The video in question was uploaded to Facebook on Feb. 17 by Dallas-based Doodle Rock Rescue, an animal rescue organization, and has already been shared more than 3,400 times and garnered nearly 50,000 views. In the Facebook post, the Doodle Rock Rescue page called for the resignation of Villanueva and executive director Tim Ousley.

To his knowledge, Ousley said that while Doodle Rock Rescue is one of 100 partners who accepts dogs from the center, he is unaware of anyone from the Dallas rescue operation ever visiting PVAC.

Attempts to gain comment from Doodle Rock Rescue have been unsuccessful as of press time.

While it remains unknown who made the video, Villanueva said volunteers are tasked with taking photos or video of animals to send to their rescue partners.

Criticism, meanwhile, has spiraled into vitriol, with Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina, several PVAC board members, Villanueva, Ousley and other staff have received threats being subject to threats, which are being taken “very seriously” and are currently under investigation by the Edinburg Police Department, Villanueva said.

Edinburg Assistant Police Chief Oscar Treviño has not returned calls requesting comment.

SIGNS OF LIFE

Contrary to the criticism targeting the center, Ousley said PVAC has shown improvement in its live-release rate, rising from 10 to 12 percent in 2012 to 33.31 percent in 2017.

Not all of the chatter on social media has been negative as some have gone to PVAC’s defense. Interestingly, much of the criticism has emanated from across the U.S. and abroad as opposed to locally, board members have said.

One board member, John King, publicly defended the shelter via Facebook but later changed his privacy settings after receiving threats. In an interview with The Monitor, King acknowledged being “a bad board member in the sense of going out there and walking on a regular basis, but that is something that’s going to change.”

Per Chapter 823 of the Texas Health and Safety code, all shelters serving counties with a population greater than 75,000 — Hidalgo County is at around 850,000 — must fulfill certain requirements. PVAC has passed inspections for their shelter and quarantine facilities since at least 2013, and their inspection documents are available on their website, along with their 2017 statistics and financial information.

Seventy percent of the animals received by PVAC arrive with a pre-existing medical condition, Villanueva said. Once they arrive at the shelter, staff begins separating the animals by size, gender and visible health conditions in order to avoid the spread of diseases.

‘A CONSTANT BATTLE’

As the only full-service, open intake animal facility in Hidalgo County, PVAC serves as the area’s go-to shelter for free-roaming animals and owner surrenders. Unlike an animal rescue, however, PVAC has open contracts with 14 municipalities, leaving the center’s 50-member staff responsible for the animals that entities pick up regardless of their condition. These include rodents such as possums, bats and raccoons in addition to domestic animals.

PVAC previously charged municipalities per animal but recently renegotiated those contracts. The shelter now charges a flat fee considering the amount of animals each municipality brought in historically, including owner-surrenders listed per city.

“We were, and still are, undercharging cities by and large,” Ousley said. “We certainly would not be opposed to any city having its own shelter, if they are seeking to follow — as we’re pursuing — the best practices in animal welfare… If they are just going to be places for animals to go and be euthanized, I’m not sure that that’s to the advantage to the animal.”

PVAC board member Charlie Meyer expanded on the idea of county- or city-run animal shelters.

“We threatened to give the county and cities the keys about a year ago — that woke them up,” Meyer said. “Some of them stepped up. Some of them didn’t, but that helped a little bit. It’s time they stepped up big time now.”

Board members said cities that run animal care facilities, like San Antonio, can make ordinances and enforce them. In the Rio Grande Valley, center officials said existing ordinances aren’t enforced and that each city would need to make individual policies.

County jurisdictions further complicate the issue, which allow roadside sales and an economy of backyard breeders. Paired with community apathy, many animals aren’t vaccinated, spayed or neutered leading to rampant sickness and overpopulation, members of the board stressed.

With the opening of a new adoption facility, the Laurie P. Andrews PAWS Center, adoptions out of PVAC ceased in May 2016. The center cost roughly $3.2 million to construct, and was built at-cost by Alamo System Industries LLC, of which PVAC board member Brandon Wallace serves as president.

PVAC is now an intake-only center which will soon begin to reintroduce adoptions. In order to make it to PAWS, an animal will need to go through two rounds of vaccines and a behavioral assessment, making them eligible for adoption. Of 40,637 animals taken in by the center in 2017, PVAC adopted out 2,785 pets from PAWS, sent 6,031 to rescues and returned 1,653 lost animals to their owners.

With their improved live-release rate, they’ve become eligible for certain programs, partnerships and grants. For instance, in a recent partnership with Austin Pets Alive!, Maddie’s Fund and Best Friends Animal Society, PVAC has plans for “continued improvement” with the support of those larger entities.

But according to Villanueva, roughly 100 animals are still euthanized via injection daily. As more dogs are taken in, decisions are made based on feasibility in order to make room for others, all while maintaining health regulations.

“What people don’t see is the communication between all of our staff… It’s a constant battle between all of our departments, trying to save animals and intake animals,” Villanueva said. “It’s unfair that anyone has to be put in that position.”

Villanueva, who praised her staff’s dedication and compassion, said she takes it upon herself to bring in a counselor about once a month to help them cope with difficult aspects of their work.

‘ROOT OF THIS EVIL’

Nationally, about 64 percent of animals admitted to a shelter are euthanized, according to American Humane. Disease, injury and overcrowding are some of the main reasons why an animal is euthanized, but the larger issue, Villanueva said, is overpopulation.

Funds from the contracts are used to provide treatment and transport to adopters and shelters outside the county. In 2017, $2.3 million out of their $3.5 million budget came from contracts with municipalities, Ousley said.

In 2017, 29,722 pets were surrendered to PVAC, most of which, Villanueva said, did not come with paperwork for the animal. That’s often a sign that the pet never received vaccinations.

“Hidalgo County’s overpopulation of cats and dogs, coupled with irresponsible pet ownership, is the unspoken root of this evil,” board members stated in an open letter submitted to The Monitor.

Board members went on to state that they “welcome constructive criticism” and “firmly believe that meaningful change requires meaningful dialogue.”

PVAC and PAWS conduct community-wide education sessions to inform the public on the importance of vaccinations, spaying and neutering — the lack of which creates overpopulation and overwhelms facilities such as the center. The shelter and adoption center also have an open-door policy and encourages the community to visit and tour either facility.

Although the center is a long way from their ultimate goal of reaching a 90 percent live-release rate, which would classify PVAC as a no-kill shelter, Ousley said PVAC is making progress and hopes the shelter can climb to 45 percent in 2018.