Won’t You Take Me Home?

By Jennifer Lee


What a wonderful world it would be if there were no need for animal shelters, where homeless or unwanted pets go to find a new home. But millions of dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals need a transitional place to receive shelter, care, and the possibility of a new chance at life.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that U.S. animal shelters take in 6 to 8 millions dogs and cats each year—about half are euthanized. The encouraging news is that these numbers have dropped over the last 40 years. In the 1970s, it was estimated that 12 to 20 million dogs and cats were euthanized each year, at a time when there were about 67 million pets in homes. Today, estimates are that there are 135 million pets in U.S. homes; at the same time euthanasia rates have dropped. But who would argue that 3 to 4 million are not way too many?

Both the HSUS and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) provide educational resources and advocacy support to local animal shelters, but many community animal shelters are independently operated, governed by, and funded through local entities and individuals. Such is the case in Clarke County.

Through the efforts of a group of Clarke County citizens in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a new animal shelter was built on ten acres of donated land just west of the county maintenance building off of Westwood Road. Prior to that and for many years, the shelter was located in a small, antiquated, non-climate-controlled building on one acre off Parshall Road. It was described in many historical documents as an “animal detention center.” It had limited space for temporary housing for animals. That shelter was found to be out of compliance with state regulations, and faced fines of $1,000 a day unless major repairs were made to the structure and certain amenities were added.

This prospect spurred the formation in 2000 of a committee led by Board of Supervisors member Barbara Byrd, beginning a four-year journey of viability studies, a site search, community outreach, and fundraising. “I was new on the Board, and they threw me to the dogs,” Byrd laughs. In October 2004, a brand new, approximately 2,000-square-foot shelter opened its doors to the lost, stray, and surrendered pets in Clarke County.

Many people can take credit for this accomplishment, one sometimes fraught with controversy, the challenge of raising over $1 million almost entirely from private donations, and securing an appropriate site. When Betty Casey donated ten acres for the new shelter, her gesture answered many concerns and injected the effort with the support and enthusiasm it needed to come to fruition.

The nonprofit Clarke County Humane Foundation (CCHF) was formed in 2001 to serve as the fundraising and organizational arm of the effort, facilitating the donation from Mrs. Casey. Virginia “Vidy” Lloyd, who died in 2006, was one of the Foundation’s charter members and, by all accounts, gave the campaign the financial and spirited support to reach its goal. “She was very quiet, and didn’t want any responsibilities, but she always showed up with her checkbook and her opinions,” Byrd said. “And she really wanted to be sure it got completed before she died. And it did.”

Once the land donation was secured and fundraising efforts could begin in earnest, the county contributed $200,000 to the effort, using funds earmarked for repairs to the existing shelter or building a new facility. Fundraising events, from rabies clinics to fancy galas to bake sales, were held. Grants were secured, and, most of all, substantial donations came from the general public.

Anyone familiar with the old shelter can attest to the contrast between it and the new one. It was not a nice place for humans or animals. Walking into the shelter today is a pleasant, even uplifting experience. Shelter manager Jenny Wright greets guests with bright eyes and a big smile. The place is immaculately clean and decorated with cute posters and informative signage. Cricket, the resident shelter cat, lounges on the counter, acting as official greeter.

To the right is the cat room, lined with cages holding cats of all ages, colors, and personalities waiting to be adopted. Just beyond is a smaller room where cats that get along well with others can lounge on beds together or play in the jungle gym. During this visit, one large, fluffy orange and white cat was snuggled in a bed with a young grey tabby while a black and white cat played with a toy.

Down a short hallway is the door to the dog kennels. To walk in is a cacophonous, somewhat overwhelming experience. A row of kennels holds a wide array of dogs, from the tall and somber to the short and noisy, all seeking your attention. Some appear particularly aggressive, but Wright explains that they are merely protecting their space. “Once you get them out of their kennel, they are like different dogs, completely sweet and happy.”

Wright says the shelter has 30 to 40 cats and 15 to 20 dogs, on average, at any given time. “We also take in and adopt out hamsters, birds, ferrets, and guinea pigs—and a barnyard animal here and there,” she added. There has been an increase in the last couple of years. “I think people losing their homes and jobs has a lot to do with it,” she surmises. Most of the dogs that come in are “owner give-ups,” while most of the cats are strays that never get reclaimed. The shelter adopts out 10 to 20 animals a month.

As long as there is room and the animal is healthy and tame, the shelter makes every effort not to euthanize. “We have had a couple animals here for up to two years,” Wright says. She tells the story of an old lab mix who had been at the Winchester SPCA for several months. The staff there loved the dog but was desperate to find her a home. She was moved to the Clarke County shelter as a last-ditch effort. “The right person just hadn’t met her,” said Wright, beaming, as she tells about a woman who came in some months later, took her home, and comes back to visit occasionally. “That dog and her owner are so happy.”

Not all of the animals are so lucky. The shelter has to euthanize between 300 and 400 animals each year, some due to illness or their aggressive nature, some at the owner’s request. Many of the cats that are euthanized are feral and deemed unadoptable.

More Than A Shelter

The most important and effective action in decreasing the number of unwanted animals is spaying and neutering. The Clarke County Humane Foundation’s financial support makes it possible for every animal adopted from the shelter by a county resident to be spayed or neutered at no cost. Adjoining county residents must cover the spay/neutering fee at 50 percent, and others must pay the full fee. There is a $25 adoption fee for every animal; the fee helps support the ongoing operational costs of the shelter.

The shelter maintains a lost and found pet directory to help reunite owners with their lost pets and works with other local shelters in crosschecking lost and found reports. Pets available for adoption at the shelter are listed at www.petfinder.com. The shelter works closely with the Clarke County Sheriff’s office animal control officer, helping to report suspected cases and educate the public about how to identify, document, and report cases of suspected abuse.

Jenny Wright is adamant that the shelter could not be nearly as effective if it weren’t for the support from other members of the community, in addition to the CCHF. It receives substantial donations of dog and cat food, cat litter, toys, beds, and cleaning supplies from area distribution centers and stores like Wal-Mart and Tractor Supply. “We haven’t had to buy dry food or cat litter in the four years I have been here,” Wright says.

Roseville Veterinary Clinic in Boyce provides spay and neutering services and other standard procedures at a reduced fee. They also hold annual rabies clinics to give pets rabies vaccines at a reduced fee. More difficult procedures and surgeries are performed at the Valley Veterinary Emergency Clinic. Wright was excited to report that a veterinarian from Stephens City had recently offered to take on the more challenging cases at a greatly reduced fee. This support allows the shelter to give adoptable animals the care they need and a real chance at finding a home. The Dulles Gateway Dog Training Club offers a 50 percent discount on obedience classes for shelter-adopted dogs.

Then there are the generous donations from individuals. Children often request that guests at their birthday parties bring supplies for the shelter. “It’s a great thing for the shelter and for the kids, and they’re so excited to be able to help,” Wright says. She also tells about a gentleman she calls “the toymaker,” who refuses to leave his real name but shows up around the first of every month with a little something for the dogs and a little something for the cats.

Volunteers are important to the well being of the shelter, too, helping with the endless cleaning and caretaking of the animals. “We have about four really reliable volunteers,” Wright says. “We would love for more men to volunteer because a lot of our dogs don’t like to see men coming in to look at adopting.” Seven days a week, the shelter also receives the services of two or three inmates from the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center through the Work Release Program.

There are only two paid staff members at the shelter. Their duties range from cleaning and caring for the animals to hosting adoption events and ordering supplies. “Ideally, the shelter should have three full-time employees,” CCHF President George Ohrstrom said.

Nothing speaks to the need and value of the shelter more than the before and after pictures of “Little Man,” a boxer-cross who was brought to the shelter when he was only three months old. He was found sitting on the side of the road, next to his downed sister. The people who found them brought in both dogs but the female was already dead. Both dogs were completely covered in mange and full of parasites. Wright took Little Man to the vet, skeptical that he could be saved but wanting to try. “I have to have someone else tell me that there’s no hope. Otherwise, I’d never give up on any animal,” she said. Indeed, the dog in the before picture looked severely disfigured and beyond saving. After a five-month intensive treatment of worming medicine, antibiotics, baths, and topical treatments, Little Man had transformed into a beautiful, proud boy. He was then adopted. He and his family return to the shelter frequently to say thank you.

The Clarke County Animal Shelter is located at 225 Ramsburg Lane, west of Berryville. Shelter hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 8am–4pm, and Friday through Monday, 8am–3:30pm. Telephone is 540-955-5104. To report cases of suspected animal abuse, contact the Clarke County Sheriff’s office at 540-955-1234 or email animalcontrol@clarkecounty.gov.