COMMENTARY: Overwhelmed, underfunded shelter changed course, realized its dream

Going through some old shelter papers recently, I ran across a piece of yellowed stationery from the 1980s, way back when Palm Valley Animal Society was the Humane Society of the Upper Valley. At the top left was a picture of a cat and long-eared dog, next to a fancy script: “The Animals Are Crying.” As odd as that seemed for official shelter letterhead, the mission statement at the bottom was more disconcerting: “Our Purpose Is Not To Save Lives, But To Prevent Suffering.” No wonder the animals were crying!

Granted, that was a long time ago when the organization was in its infancy. We’ve since figured out that life saving and preventing suffering don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Since those dark days, we’ve had two name and logo changes, built a new adoption center, grown to a staff of 100 and learned how to save more than 90% of the approximately 32,000 animals that come through our gates each year.

HELP WANTED

The story of how we got to no kill starts in 2017. That year, fewer than 34% of the animals coming in were making it out alive, despite our best efforts. That actually represented a big improvement over the 10% save rate of just a few years earlier, achieved by ramping up the number transported out to our rescue partners. Even though rescue partners pulled more than 6,000 and adopters took home almost 2,800 from the new Laurie P. Andrews center, more than 25,000 were euthanized, including 90% of cats and kittens. We had no idea that in addition to being the nation’s second-largest shelter system in terms of intake, Palm Valley was No. 1 in the nation for euthanization.

When the Petco Foundation found out about an underfunded, off-the-grid shelter in deep South Texas that needed help, they generously stepped up with financial support and connected the dots to other animal welfare organizations. Best Friends Animal Society sent their regional director Brent Toellner down that June to meet with the board and assess the shelter. Texas and specifically Palm Valley Animal Center was clearly Ground Zero in their quest to make the entire country no-kill by 2025.

Hastening the urgency to improve, a vicious social media firestorm erupted in February of 2018, bringing increased interest from outside groups that recognized we needed serious help to save more animals. Ellen Jefferson of Austin Pets Alive! and several of their key staff members came down that Spring Break to help deep clean our Trenton center and institute a better animal flow.

Recognizing that increased lifesaving would cost exponentially more, Petco Foundation awarded Palm Valley a $1 million grant over two years, a lifeline crucial to us staying afloat during lifesaving improvements.

Euthanizing animals didn’t cost much. Keeping them alive and healthy required more care staff, more medical expenditures, more food, more transports, more money.

We asked our contracted entities to increase our funding and were grateful to Hidalgo County, McAllen, Edinburg, Hidalgo, La Joya, Palmhurst and Palmview for doing that. Clearly the welfare of their stray animals was a priority for them.

ROAD TO IMPROVEMENT

Best Friends and Maddie’s Fund teamed up to put boots on the ground. They sent APA’s Faith Wright down for three months to start teaching the staff better procedures. Every day, Faith burned up the dusty mile-long road through PVAC figuring out creative ways to get the animals out. They were arriving 24/7 back then. She took home bottle babies and the toughest cases to try to get them through until morning. The foster program skyrocketed.

The boardroom became an impromptu kitten nursery. Once our staff saw that it was within their reach to save thousands of more animals, there was no going back. In May of that year, our board formally approved the pursuit of no-kill.

In July 2018, Best Friends sent down Mike Bricker to take over shelter operations for two years, during which the board approved allowing non-aggressive pit bulls to be adopted out and starting a much-needed community cat program, both initiatives encouraged by Petco Foundation and Best Friends. Dr. Lisa Rodriguez came aboard as our full-time veterinarian, greatly accelerating needed surgeries.

The founders and leaders of Best Friends were frequent visitors, along with a rotating cast of their staff members and veterinarians to help out. International veterinary coalition Animal Balance came to town periodically to help catch up spays and neuters. Best Friends’ lead veterinarian Dr. Erin Katribe began working alongside Dr. Lisa to find outcomes for dogs with parvo and distemper, kittens with ringworm and other medical challenges we couldn’t engage before.

Welcoming in outsiders to essentially take over our shelter was a bold step for our board, but we knew we had to find a better way.

The animals deserved a greater chance for survival, and our staff members deserved more hope.

We were the first major shelter for Best Friends’ new embed program, and both of us learned from each other along the way. Even though we achieved no-kill in the midst of COVID-19 with reduced intake, I feel confident that we’ll be able to maintain a high save rate and find ways to be financially viable to continue our progress.

NEW DAY

We’ve now attracted our own experienced leadership team.

Our new executive director Donna Casamento and director of operations Adam Ricci are hard at work continuing to make Palm Valley Animal Society a regional leader in animal welfare in the Rio Grande Valley. We have a new name and logo, marking our new venture in lifesaving. The community is more involved than ever, opening their homes for foster care, stepping up their donations, volunteering.

Getting where we are today was a complicated journey, and the staff that stayed with us through thick and thin are to be commended.

For our dream to stay reality, we need generous, continuous engagement from our community, to make sure the animals are well cared for and to make sure we stay solvent in the process. Continuing to save more animals will require regular donations of both time and money from engaged Valley citizens who recognize the value of how well a community treats its stray dogs and cats. Clear the Shelters will be going on the entire month of August, with adoption fees waived.

At our board retreat last September, our board decided on a new Mission Statement: Our mission is to provide lifesaving care, comfort and compassion to animals in need by engaging the hearts, hands, and minds of our community. That’s quite a change from the original!

I sometimes think of all the saved animals that never stood a chance before: all the “feral” cats terrified by shelter life; little pink-skinned Nakey who came in with mange and scabies; wounded Rosa and her beautiful kittens who just needed a safe place to grow up; Fiona the pittie, whose looks alone would have doomed her; the misunderstood possums — the list is endless. Tens of thousands of animals now have the chance they deserve because “outsiders” believed in us, and in the process, we learned to believe in ourselves.

Keely Lewis is board president of Palm Valley Animal Society and a member of The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.