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By SHAINA STOCKTON
On Jan. 24, the Twin County Humane Society posted a message on its Facebook page that shocked and outraged members of the community and led to a petition to oust the regional animal shelter’s director.
“Sadness and frustration is on our minds tonight. We desperately need the members of our community to step up and demand change at our shelter,” the heartfelt letter began.
The message went on to describe an incident that occurred that week, when the society went to the shelter to pick up two dogs, but discovered upon arrival that they had already been euthanized.
City Manager Keith Barker explained that the incident was due to a misunderstanding between the shelter and the Humane Society.
Laurie Merry, president of the local Humane Society chapter, said that one dog became available for adoption on Jan. 20, and the other on Jan. 21. On both of these days, the shelter was closed, so the dogs were technically not available until Tuesday.
The shelter is always closed on Sundays and Mondays.
“TCHS representatives were not able to get there until Thursday, and we assumed that we would be notified if there was an urgent situation,” said Merry.
When they inquired about the dogs at the shelter in person on that Thursday afternoon, it was too late. Both had been euthanized that morning.
Following the Humane Society’s announcement, comments and questions flooded social media websites. In the midst of the uproar, a petition to fire animal shelter director Gina Weatherman surfaced.
“We did not start the petition, and actually asked the individual to remove it once we learned their identity,” Merry said. “We’ve worked too hard to build a co-operative working relationship [with the city].”
The plea on the Humane Society’s Facebook page, however, was earnest — the group wants the community to take their concerns to city officials.
“We hear from the public all the time about their concerns over our shelter, so we have asked that they write to the officials who have the capacity to institute change,” she said.
Barker spoke to The Gazette about the incident last week. “A humane society member came to the shelter on [Jan. 22] and pulled another dog” to be put in foster care or adopted out, he said. “We anticipated that someone would come back on Wednesday [Jan. 23], but no one did.”
In the meantime, the shelter received two citizen calls and were anticipating seven additional dogs to be brought to the shelter.
Only five kennels were available.
With at least seven dogs on the way and the likelihood that other dogs would be brought in by animal control officers, action had to be taken, Barker said.
“The supervisor has to euthanize animals in order to take in more, so the ones who were there the longest were picked,” he explained.
Barker also said that the shelter was unaware that the Humane Society wanted the two dogs that were put down. Had the shelter staff known, he said the dogs would have been held for them.
At the Jan. 28 Galax City Council meeting, Lauren Self spoke of the great strides that the partnership between the city and the Humane Society has been able to make over the course of 15 months.
(Self embodies this partnership. She is Humane Society member and is the administrative assistant for the city.)
Because of their efforts, euthanasia rates have dropped from 90 percent to 60 percent.
Barker provided figures from 2012 — 146 animals from the shelter were reclaimed, 148 adopted, 318 transferred and 622 euthanized.
In the last quarter of the year, euthanization rates dropped dramatically. “Survival rate at the beginning of the year was only 25 percent, but in the last quarter, it was up to 60 percent,” he said.
Barker noted that he did not want to diminish the Humane Society’s concerns in any way.
He said the city will continue to work together to improve the situation. Despite the progress, everyone involved realizes that there is still room for improvement.
Barker spoke about fostering more communication between the shelter and the Humane Society, so incidents like this don’t happen in the future.
“We have been working with them for over a year now, so we have a feel for the animals they tend to pull,” he said. “We have phone numbers for the three [volunteers] who are allowed to pull animals, and we will make the contacts as we go through the process.”
At the city council meeting, Self proposed that a liaison be employed at the shelter to help advertise the animals before they become available, to help increase their chances of finding a home.
Council members didn’t commit to that idea, but Barker assured that city officials would look into the proposal further.
Because the regional shelter is funded by Galax, Carroll and Grayson, all three localities must look into the request before a final decision is made.
Merry added that the community can also help reduce shelter euthanasia rates. “Ultimately, the responsibility for the animals in our communities resides with pet owners,” she said. “If we reduce the overpopulation, then far less animals will ever enter the shelter doors.”
Twin County Humane Society has several grant programs in place that assist pet owners in spaying and neutering. When adopting through the shelter, pets can receive the procedure at 50 percent of the costs, Barker said.
Merry said there is a common misconception by the public that when a dog is taken to the shelter, there is a great chance of it finding a home. In fact, the chance is slim.
Barker noted that shelter dogs with no collar are generally held for five days, and dogs with collars are held for 10.
In cases like the two dogs who were euthanized, however, this time frame can be shorter in some circumstances. “Virginia law actually says that the dog can be put to sleep immediately upon surrender,” said Merry.
To prevent taking an animal to the shelter, Merry asks members of the community to consider whether they are prepared to own a pet. “Before anyone gets a pet, they need to be prepared to provide food, water, shelter and companionship. Veterinary care is required as dogs and cats need vaccinations to prevent diseases that can cause extreme suffering and/or death,” she said.
Foster homes are welcomed by the society, as well. “We are always in need of foster homes, and there is nothing more rewarding!”
Foster homes care for animals rescued from the shelter until a permanent home can be found.
• For more information about the Twin County Humane Society, call 728-4038, visit twincountyhumanesociety.org.