Palm Valley Animal Center granted The Monitor access to its facility to track the nonprofit’s intake process and follow the 85 cats and dogs reportedly processed on June 5. This is the first part in the series.
Punishing sunlight beats down on the Palm Valley Animal Center intake workers Wednesday, June 5, as they rush to process dogs waiting in the four animal control trucks parked on the caliche driveway.
Animal control officers from across Hidalgo County drop off thousands of dogs annually in this driveway. Officers take cats to the rear of the facility in Edinburg.
Eight municipalities have contracts with PVAC, an animal-welfare nonprofit, and their vehicles stream through the facility all day.
Residents who find strays and owners surrendering their unwanted pets bring thousands more animals.
PVAC received more than 26,000 cats and dogs in 2016, about 30,000 in 2017 and nearly 29,000 in 2018, according to data the center submits to Shelter Animal Count, the national database tracking live intake.
With the help of the organization, The Monitor is tracking the cats and dogs during the intake process on June 5 to tell their stories.
Thus far this year, PVAC has seen a dramatic shift in its live-release rate from about 22% in 2016 to over 70%.
In May 2018, the organization publicly set the goal of earning a “no-kill” status, which requires a live-release rate of over 90%. PVAC reported more live outcomes than shelter euthanizations for the first time last year, according to yearly data on its website.
Most animals are held at least 72 hours to give time for owners to reunite with their lost animals. Some animals are vetted for adoption; some end up in foster care or saved by out-of-town rescues; and some are euthanized due to injury or illness.
Some are also transferred to the nonprofit’s Laurie P. Andrews PAWS Center, an adoption-focused facility. But in an effort to find more animals a home, as of August 2018, they’ve opened more of the shelter for adoptions in addition to the already-existing kennels in the front of its facility.
Intake staff work out of a small, decommissioned rescue trailer. The maintenance crew removed the axles when it was no longer roadworthy, and it now serves as a makeshift homebase for intake paperwork and a refuge from the scorching heat.
It also houses the medication fridge for intake meds. Every animal PVAC receives gets a round of vaccinations, a dewormer, a heartworm preventative and something for fleas and ticks.
Staff are still careful not to hurl their arms into the boxes holding animals, instead slowly gauging the friendliness of the animal.
Animal control officers often use tools that distance themselves from potential danger, like snare poles, nets and sometimes tranquilizers to trap animals. After a bumpy ride in the “hot box,” oftentimes across city lines, animals can be agitated or disconcerted.
Even then, only gloves or arm and torso sheaths were necessary for most dogs observed during intake.
“I’ve worked here for a year and three months,” said center manager Luis Quintanilla, “and I’ve only ever seen probably two or three aggressive dogs that were legitimately aggressive.
“The rest were just terrified and confused.”
They cautiously scan dogs and cats with a handheld device that reads microchips containing owners’ information. Only one cat and two dogs of the 85 had a microchip or a tag.
They jot down physical details, writing down precise coat color, signs of ailments like skin issues, or potential contagious illnesses with colored mucus. They inspect the animals for fleas, ticks and skin mites. They gauge the weight of the animals on a scale of 10 to 1 — the larger number being severely obese and the smaller being skin and bones. Gum color, which could indicate malnourishment, is another characteristic they look for, including looking at the teeth to help estimate age.
Also, they observe whether animals are favoring certain limbs or if there are open wounds, like the one a white and brown male Chihuahua, Nemo, had on his left leg.
Intake staff noticed his swollen front limbs, and considered it a bad sign that Nemo didn’t seem to feel the inspection.
Nemo was euthanized two days later on June 7, according to shelter data.
The dog was one of seven animals euthanized from the June 6 intake group as of Saturday, June 15. Reasons varied from aggression to distemper to one animal not being able to get up or eat.
Despite having better live-release stats, the shelter documented more animals dying in their care last year.
But this isn’t entirely negative, according to PVAC.
A McAllen resident dropped off a pair of stray domestic shorthair kittens, grey and black. Ash and Avery were unweaned, meaning they were too young to survive without their mother’s milk or an attentive foster who can bottle feed around the clock.
PVAC alerted the public about the 3-day-old kittens via Facebook. Time was of the essence, because there was no way to know how long the kittens had been without milk. Without their mother tending to them, their temperature and blood-sugar levels can drop, which can be fatal for vulnerable kittens, according to PVAC.
“Animal nurseries are a 24-hour job, and we don’t have the resources to run a 24-hour shelter,” Lisa Rodríguez, a veterinarian at PVAC, wrote in an email.“That means these animals might be sitting alone for 12 hours until the shelter opens up the next day.”
The days-old kittens faced a likely death sentence if they stayed alone overnight, as they need a feeding every two hours and stimulation for bowel movements.
A staff member took the cats home to care for them as no traditional foster was available.
Ash and Avery died on June 6.
Unweaned kittens and puppies, and animals with broken bones, were prime candiates for euthanasia just years ago. In the previous system, Nemo, Ash and Avery would likely have been euthanized immediately during intake.
The shelter risks more deaths in their care by giving fosters, rescues and the community more time to save these animals. While it didn’t work out for these three, it does for others, as evident by their recent live-release increase.
Sometimes, the shelter will put deadlines on animals, meaning there is a certain amount of time to find a live outcome before they’re euthanized.
Rodríguez said they consider staffing, medication, available tests and the animal’s comfort level when making life and death decisions.
There could be procedures that might help an injured animal, but if they don’t have a foster to care for them, then they can’t just put them back with other animals during recovery.
Not having the support to provide recovery outside the shelter also factors into “internal issues, like cancer, kidney failure and diabetes,” Rodríguez said in an email. “While we may be able to diagnose some of these problems at our PAWS facility, without a dedicated owner to be given medications on time, provide prescription food, the animal really would not do well in the shelter.”
The facilities also lack an X-ray unit, so breaks can’t be verified. In some cases, limbs are amputated. But again, that would require a plan for recovery that animals often don’t have available to them.
The front office of PVAC is the first stop if residents are surrendering their pet or turning in a stray.
Ester Urbina holds a light orange tabby kitten that followed her two cats home. She fills out paperwork to drop off the cat. She said she has too many pets with her cats and dog.
Later in the day, a woman and her young daughter contemplate leaving their German shepherd. In the four days they’ve had her, the dog has escaped daily, repeatedly breaking their fence in the process, the woman said.
A PVAC staff member on the other side of the counter tells the woman what happens at the facility and how there is no guarantee the dog she is surrendering will have a live outcome.
The woman is on the phone with her mother as they discuss what’s next for the dog, which the staff tell her is old enough to possibly be in heat. It could explain her behavior, they tell her.
Anyone working in animal rescue is quick to say facilities like PVAC are no place for any animal. They’re more likely to contract diseases within the confines of tight kennels, oftentimes housing multiple animals to save space. And while PVAC’s recent live-release rate is about 70% this year, that’s likely to fall if increased intake continues, according to center employees.
The center resorted to euthanizing for space as recently as last year, but hasn’t really had to this year, Quintanillasaid. With limited resources and space, PVAC prioritizes healthy, potentially adoptable pets. Animals with symptoms of contagious diseases are taken to isolated areas while they’re tested.
If that area is overloaded, animals go to the rear of the campus to “urgent,” where animals are more vulnerable to euthanasia. These kennels used to be filled with healthy dogs, Quintanilla said, but recently it’s reserved for the sick and injured. The shelter often gives more than 24 hours to find a live outcome by posting their photos and status on social media.
PVAC said it isn’t in a position fiscally, given the constant intake, to prioritize severely injured animals requiring costly veterinary services and dedicated attention for recovery. They are reserving those finite resources for healthy animals.
Twelve of the 85 have an injury, illness or ailment marked on their paperwork.
Fosterers, rescuers or those passionate about animal welfare often commit money to support an animal or offer to take the animal into their home. This buys the animal time for the coordination with rescue organizations and allows them access to care they wouldn’t receive in their system.
Six animals have already left to an out-of-town rescue, and 12 are tagged for rescue. Nine were adopted, four were returned after having been adopted previously, and two are in foster care.
A shepherd mix, Emma, and Labrador mix, Farrah, are on a 72-hour deadline due to a respiratory infection, which means that they’ll likely be euthanized if they don’t find a live-outcome within the three-day period.
Ultimately, the woman decides to keep the German shepherd. Staff sees these interactions as victories. Any animal that stays out of the shelter means one more they can take in. With an intake of about 100 animals a day, there is a constant flow, and the cycle continues.