top of page
  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

The Last Great Barriers to No Kill – Tazewell County Edition

Is No Kill possible everywhere? I think the answer to that question is “yes.” That said, we have a problem that I have not seen discussed very much, and that problem is becoming more and more evident as No Kill sweeps the country. I’m talking about pet overpopulation.

Now I know that saying “pet overpopulation” to some No Kill advocates is like waving a red flag in front of a bull, so let me explain. I do not think we have a nationwide pet overpopulation problem. If we could evenly spread out our homeless animals across the United States we would be able to find homes for all of them. The problem is that our homeless animals are not spread out evenly – in some places we have too many and in some places we have too few for the local adoption demand.

In reporting on No Kill now for almost 5 years, my impression is that there are two things that most communities that get to No Kill have – a substrate and a trigger. The “substrate” is made up of all the conditions that exist in the community that will make No Kill easier to achieve. Those conditions may include a population that is more educated, wealthier, and more responsible than average. It may include terrain and climate that keeps down the number of strays. It may include the availability of a large veterinary school with a shelter medicine program. It may include a forward-thinking local government. It may include local non-profit animal welfare agencies. If I were going to use one word to describe a community that has a good substrate for No Kill, that word would be “progressive” – not in a political sense but in the sense of being forward-thinking and competent.

The “trigger” for No Kill is a group of people who are able to use the substrate available in the community to increase shelter lifesaving. No Kill is not a one-person show. There is simply too much work involved for one person to do it alone, even in very small communities. But one person or a small group can provide the leadership that serves as the trigger. People who can serve as the trigger seem to be much more common in places that have a good substrate to start with. That is not surprising, because the talents needed to be a good trigger include what we see with very successful professionals, and that type of person is much more commonly found in progressive communities. Conversely, communities that are poor in resources tend to be poor in talent. And those poor communities have a poor record when it comes to No Kill.

No Kill is not the first animal-welfare movement that poor communities have missed due to a lack of resources. In the 1970s we had a serious pet overpopulation problem nationwide. Back then it was common to see homeless animals in the street in most American communities. But around 1970 the humane movement embarked on a huge push for spay-neuter. Private veterinarians got on board and began recommending spay-neuter as a routine part of pet health care. Progressive communities embraced the spay-neuter message, and as the sterilization rate for owned pets soared in those communities the number of homeless animals in the street tanked. Some poor communities missed the boat, though, and those places continued to have large numbers of intact animals roaming the streets. In those communities today, the number of homeless animals on the street makes it look like 1970.

From 1970 to 2000, as the number of homeless pets declined, shelter intake fell by about two-thirds even though the number of owned pets more than doubled during that time. It is hard to overstate how important the disappearance of stray animals from the environment, with the accompanying plunge in shelter intake, was for No Kill. It was this sharp fall in shelter intake and in the number of homeless animals in the environment that allowed No Kill to become possible. Shelters were able to have more “market share” because they were no longer competing for homes with the neighbor who had a litter of puppies, or the strays hanging out in the alley. But in some less progressive communities intake is still very high, and shelters in those communities face an insuperable task in trying to rehome all their animals locally.

There are solutions. Transports will save dogs. Return-to-field will save community cats, both tame and feral. But the problem is that implementing transports and the new cat paradigms requires resources and leadership – the very things that are lacking in the communities that need them most. Our poorer, less educated communities do not have the conditions or the leadership for progressive shelter programs. They struggle to implement the new cat paradigms, struggle to be able to pay for transports, and struggle to find resources for low-cost spay-neuter outreach.

So, what to do? That’s a big question facing No Kill going forward, and there do not seem to be any easy answers.

I’m starting a new series on the blog, following the efforts of a few people in one small, poor county in the Appalachian hills of Virginia who are trying to get their community to No Kill. This community is particularly interesting because, while it has a few advantages, overall it has a great many disadvantages that stand in the way of the effort to build No Kill. As No Kill becomes the standard model for animal sheltering, communities like this will be our last great problem.

The community I will be following is Tazewell County, Virginia. It is located in the far southwestern portion of the state, along the border with West Virginia. Its population in the 2010 census was just over 45,000 people, but the population is estimated to have fallen to around 43,500 since then. The county is typical of Appalachia in that it is mountainous with “hollows” that have been cut out by rivers and streams. Median household income in the county is $36,000, compared to $64,000 for the state of Virginia as a whole. One in four of the residents of the county did not graduate from high school. The county is isolated, with the nearest big cities some 3 hours away. Local news is mostly about car crashes, crime, and sports.

The Tazewell County Animal Shelter is run by the county. It is in an old building located next to the landfill. The shelter lacks quarantine capability, and disease is reported to be common. In the 5 years from 2010 to 2014, the shelter’s live release rate according to the state reporting system ranged from 37% to 56%. Shelter intake in those same years has averaged almost 60 animals per 1,000 people, which is astronomical. In 2012 the sheriff’s department took over animal control and tried to round up all the stray dogs in an effort to “clean up” the county. They quickly realized that task was impossible. Cats in Tazewell County are considered free-roaming and are not picked up by animal control. So even though shelter intake is shockingly high, it does not represent the true number of homeless animals in the community.

There are a few bright spots. Just in the last few months an animal-friendly person was elected to the county Board of Supervisors. The old shelter director retired not long ago, and the new director, while not a No Kill advocate, does not appear at this point to be hostile to efforts to help the shelter save more lives. A new shelter building is being planned, although it will not be fancy. There are no local ordinances that forbid trap-neuter-return (TNR) or require stray cats to be impounded. And there are some people in the county who have organized to try to improve things at the shelter.

One group of about a dozen people, headed by local rescuer Rhonda Kay, formed an organization called Tazewell Animal Rescue Coalition, or Tazewell ARC, in 2013.  Rhonda is also trying to get another group, the Appalachian Dog Project, off the ground to help a wider area. In an interview I had with Rhonda yesterday we discussed what she is up against in trying to save the area’s homeless animals. Rhonda concentrates primarily on dogs, since they make up most of the shelter’s intake and most of the animals killed, and her group does not have the resources to take on large-scale TNR. She told me that on the short trip from her house to the local grocery store she will see several homeless dogs. Her group does not need to pull dogs from the shelter because they get as many animals as they can take in from people who have stray dogs on their property. Rhonda’s group is certified to do stray-hold in Virginia, so they are able to take in these animals directly and try to find their owners. They use social media, and with the small size of their community they are able to return a good portion of the dogs to their owners. But many have no homes.

State statistics show a surprisingly high adoption rate for the Tazewell County shelter of about 14 dogs and cats per 1,000 people. Rhonda says this is because, although the shelter takes in animals only from Tazewell County, people come from out of the county to adopt. But even with this high rate of adoption per 1,000 people, the numbers coming into the shelter are so large that the euthanasia numbers are even higher. Rhonda says trying to increase adoptions locally is not a viable strategy because most households in the area already have as many dogs as they can care for.

Rhonda believes that low-cost spay-neuter is the ultimate answer to the problem in Tazewell County. She is currently waiting to hear from the Virginia representative for HSUS, because she is eager to discuss the HSUS Pets For Life targeted spay-neuter program with him. She realizes, though, that spay-neuter is a long-term solution, and to save the dogs right now her group is trying to do transports.

I say “trying” because Rhonda has experienced a great deal of difficulty in raising funds for the vetting and transport expenses that her group has to pay. In recent years states have imposed requirements that animals being transported have to have health certificates, and that means that the animals must have shots, be wormed, and pass a veterinary examination before transport. Receiving rescues may impose additional requirements on top of the state requirements, including that the animals be spayed or neutered and clear of heartworm before being shipped. Many states that receive a lot of transported animals have imposed quarantine restrictions, and rescues in those states have to spend their money building and maintaining quarantine facilities, leaving less money for things like spay-neuter and heartworm treatment of incoming animals. These various state requirements, some of which are good and some of which are probably excessive, have raised the costs and slowed the momentum of transports.

Rhonda has faced problems both with finding receiving rescues and with raising money for transports, but she says raising money is the worst problem. If she had enough money, she could find receiving rescues for 50 dogs per month, rather than the smaller number she is able transport now. That 600 dogs per year would go a long way toward helping solve the problem for dogs in Tazewell County. The shelter killed 443 dogs in 2014. If Rhonda could transport 50 dogs per month she could save many of the shelter dogs and also a good number of the free-roaming homeless dogs that are not picked up by the shelter. I asked Rhonda what she had done to try to raise money, and her efforts amazed me. She reeled off a long list of businesses she had contacted, businesses she had tried to partner with for promotions, various sales efforts the group had tried, social media appeals of several types, direct appeals to local donors, and grant applications to national agencies. She has had little success with these efforts, and Tazewell ARC’s budget is less than $12,000 per year.

Rhonda says that there are many homeless puppies in Tazewell County, but puppies are even more expensive than adults to transport. Puppies coming from the shelter may have been exposed to disease, and a litter of puppies breaking with parvo can quickly deplete Tazewell ARC’s resources. They have had this happen in the past and managed to save the puppies, but they are reluctant to focus on puppies while their financial resources are so uncertain. Rhonda’s group does not practice “open adoptions,” at least not to the extent that most No Kill groups do today. Some people might disagree with some of the policies of Tazewell ARC, but they have chosen their policies based on their assessment of local conditions.

In addition to working on low-cost spay-neuter and transports, Rhonda is hoping that the new county supervisor who is animal-friendly will take an interest in the shelter and have some ideas for making progress. She has a meeting scheduled with the supervisor soon. If that looks promising Rhonda wants to start trying to build bridges with the new shelter management.

I asked Rhonda if she felt that her group had adequate leadership in areas that require some technical skills, such as business planning, marketing, customer service, and fundraising, and she said “no.” She would love to have help in those areas, but has been unable to find local people who have those skills and are interested in improving things for homeless animals. I asked if she had contacted successful No Kill leaders and shelter directors for their suggestions, and she named several people whom she had attempted to contact. Most had not answered her e-mail queries, and of the few that had, none had any suggestions that she had not already tried.

In the next weeks and months I hope to follow Rhonda’s continuing efforts to help the homeless animals in Tazewell County. She herself will tell you that her skills might not be as good as the skills of someone with a professional background in marketing, customer service, business management, or law. But right now all that the animals in Tazewell County have is her and her group, and a few other people with a couple of other groups. I was very impressed with what Rhonda has been doing. She works hard and is open to trying anything that might help. I could tell in interviewing her that it is discouraging to have so little success, but in spite of the difficulty of what she is trying to do she remains upbeat about the possibilities.

I do not know how this story will turn out. Will Rhonda and her group be able to start making some headway? Will the new county supervisor turn out to be a key to change? Will the new shelter director make a difference? Will the HSUS Pets For Life program be able to help? Will Rhonda be able to raise money to expand the transport program? Will she find some people who can provide effective mentoring? Or will things stay the same, and will Rhonda’s group burn out as they keep finding doors closed? Will their kennel capacity fill up with dogs for whom they cannot find either transport or local adoption? Stay tuned. And if you think you can help, please contact Rhonda through Tazewell Arc.



bottom of page