Every now and then, some of the employees at Palm Valley Animal Center (PVAC) talk about the “old days.” Those who lived through the reality of an 11%, 20%, or 30% save rate at a shelter taking in thirty thousand animals each year, are a strange breed. Sometimes when a new employee complains of exhaustion, or stress, or sadness, it is difficult for some of us to be immediately sympathetic. It is sometimes impossible to even comprehend because a new PVAC employee knows a mission. A new employee has a path before them. A new employee lives with a 65% save rate. A new employee knows we are not alone. A year ago, a new employee knew none of those things.
Those of us who experienced the old days have to stop and remember that although we have been acclimated to this ocean for a while, the water felt cold when we first jumped in. The water was freezing.
Just Before Dawn Late June 2018. We clocked in at 9:00 AM and when we walked into our old rescue office, the smell waiting on the other side of the door was overwhelming. There was a bulldog living in our office because the kennels were too hot. When the kennel staff brought him to us he was panting frantically, and could barely support his own weight. After some time in our office he had been able to catch his breath and was back to normal. We kept him indoors because the heat was going to be worse than the day before. He made himself right at home by peeing on everything except the pee pads we left for him.
Every single day the animal care staff brought us seniors, malnourished strays, and other vulnerable dogs who could not survive in the brutal heat of the kennels. Even when the heat was not completely unbearable, the lack of space in the kennels was always a constant. 7 or 8 large breed dogs in a single kennel was not uncommon. With an average of over 100 animals arriving every day, the overcrowding was maddening. The same dogs who were vulnerable to the heat, would often be unable to thrive in those crowded kennels.
The three of us in rescue placed those dogs in crates on the floor or in the kennel banks. It then became our job to care for all of them on top of our regular duties. It was messy, but taking care of those dogs was nothing compared to the kittens.
On any given day in the summer of 2018, our rescue office would be filled with anywhere from 5 to 20 unweaned kittens (in addition to all the heat-distressed dogs and any puppies pending pick up or transport). The kittens would come to PVAC through animal control or from public surrenders. The three of us in rescue were expected to somehow bottle-feed all of these helpless kittens, and blend gruel for the slightly older ones who could manage to eat on their own. Meanwhile, we were to also take pictures of every single dog and cat arriving at PVAC, watermark those pictures and upload them to our database, network every single animal possible to our rescue partners, clean the van and crates from the last transport, prepare the logistics for the next transport, blood test the animals for our rescue partners, medicate the animals for our rescue partners, handle the pick up of animals by local rescuers, do laundry, conduct behavior evaluations on dogs, stay on top of emails and social media messages and phone calls, and not pass out from total emotional and physical exhaustion.
Every orphaned unweaned kitten entering our facility had an end of day deadline to get out. We did not have, and still do not have the ability to house orphaned unweaned kittens in our shelter overnight. Foster and rescue represented and still represent their only hope of surviving. Those kittens would cry all day. Their full bellies only silenced them for a short time. The soundtrack to the old days was crying kittens.
Some days we were able to rescue out a few of the office kittens, but most days ended the same way. At 6:00 in the evening the clock ran out for those helpless little creatures. No rescue could take them and no one could foster them. We would then make the call to the medical team.
“Hey, we have some kittens. We’ll be there in a minute.” “Okay.” “Thanks.”
If the kittens were napping, the instant we opened their kennel they would wake up and immediately resume their crying. They would even crawl over to us. They were likely expecting another meal or just the warmth and comfort we had been able to give them throughout the day. We picked them up and held them against our bodies in blankets or towels and began the walk to the euthanasia room. We would always hope for some last second miracle on our walk to the back. That walk to that room always felt so terribly short, and miracles seldom occurred in those days.
The red light above the euthanasia room door seemed to constantly be on in those days. The light served as a signal to knock before entering. A few reluctant knocks later and the door would open. A medical team member would share with us a silent nod and we would leave the kittens in an open kennel in the euthanasia room.
Some of our shelter’s best fosters were on the medical team. It did not occur to me until much later that the reason for this was the fact that the medical team had to euthanize and often, staff members simply could not bring themselves to perform the life ending act if one night in foster care could provide those animals with a chance. Even though those chances were razor thin, the medical staff would often provide animals with that chance by fostering them. That extra time granted rescue the opportunity to keep advocating beyond the deadline. Many animals were saved because of the extra couple of nights they were able to stay in foster care. Many more animals were not.
As we stepped away we would tear off our gowns and gloves and start the walk back to the rescue office. The walk away from that room always felt agonizingly long. Getting back into the office, the silence was deafening. No more cries of hungry kittens. Just like that, their short lives were over. Their bottles were still warm and less than 100 yards away they were taking their last breaths.
We did not say a word as we would start to clean. We did not look at each other. One would take the bucket outside to fill with bleach so the floor could be scrubbed. I got on my knees and started to clean the bank of kennels that had just been emptied. I gathered the soiled newspaper, I emptied the dirty litter tray, grabbed the blankets still warm, and I sprayed the kennel walls with bleach.
In the center of the office there was a drain. While the kennels soaked with bleach we would begin to scrub the floor. While we scrubbed with our wire brushes the sweat would drip from our arms, and the tears began to stream from our face. Our tears dropped and disappeared into the bleach and flowed toward the drain like so many innocent lives draining into the void.
That was our reality every evening for months. To this day, the sound of crying unweaned kittens gives me an unpleasant feeling in the pit of my stomach. Too many memories accompany that sound.
Sometimes that sound was too much to bear. The anxiety that the cries would induce would overrun any emotional defense we thought we had constructed for ourselves. We could not even go outside to get fresh air. Directly outside the front door to the old rescue office was a row of dog kennels. Those kennels housed the dogs that were about to be euthanized if they did not find a rescue organization willing to take them. It was as though we were being forced to face our failures. We were forced to face our helplessness. We were forced to see it, and smell it, and hear it. All day every day the sound of the kittens in our office was accompanied by the sound of the dogs right outside. It was a dissonant symphony of panic, anxiety, desperation, sadness, and rage that grew louder as the day went on.
The faint sound of creaking wheels would crescendo as the carts would roll past our office. The doors of the metal carts would crash like thunder every time a seam in the concrete was hit. Those carts were used to transport dogs from the kennels to the euthanasia room. In those old days the carts rolled constantly.
It was only with each other that the employees of PVAC got through those old days. Palm trees can withstand even the most violent storms, and through seemingly endless years of thunder, lighting, wind, and rain, PVAC’s employees endured. In July 2018 those winds began to change and the storm began to dissipate.
A New Day In July 2018, Best Friends Animal Society arrived and within 4 months, PVAC’s save rate increased by 15%. Thousands of animals who would have been euthanized were saved either through new intake and flow protocols that mitigated disease, or through new adoption policies that eliminated unnecessary barriers. Thanks to Best Friends and PVAC’s Board of Directors, the unfounded stigma against pit bulls was tossed out and now every animal regardless of breed gets a chance at a forever home. Breed discrimination has been destroyed at PVAC.
From January 2019 to April 2019 the save rate increased from 51% to 70%. With the PVAC Board of Directors recently voting in favor of launching a community cat program with Best Friends, that save rate is set to rise even higher.
The progress made in the last year is difficult to truly comprehend. $9,526 was allocated for this year’s euthanasia expenses. However, as of this month, the actual amount spent on euthanasia has been a mere $423 and half the year is already over.
The carts do not roll all day anymore. Some days they do not roll at all. Maybe one day they can be held onto as a memorial to all the animals they carried to the end, or maybe they can just be melted down and destroyed altogether. Either way, we will eventually hear those creaking wheels for the last time.
Orphaned kittens are still at risk here, but with increased fosters in our community, it is no longer the dark reality it once was. It is now more common for a bottle baby to find a foster than not. It is a better time to be a cat at PVAC than ever before and with the community cat program beginning, it is about to get even better.
The effect of all this positive change on the emotional health of PVAC’s employees is unquantifiable. The world just feels brighter. Every employee here at PVAC has felt the impact made by Best Friends.
In the summer of 2017, Faride Salinas began work in the kennels at PVAC. The infamously hot, crowded, loud, and chaotic kennels have broken many employees but not Faride. Even though she was one of our quietest staff members, Faride expressed herself every day through her work. Every day she showed her passion and love for animals. Last month, Faride left PVAC to work with her family, but on her last day she felt so overcome with emotion that she broke her silence and felt the need to express herself in words. Faride handed our Interim Executive Director Mike Bricker a letter. Mike is a Best Friends employee who has been embedded in PVAC since July 2018. The following is an excerpt from that letter. Dear Mike Bricker,
I am typing this letter since I’m kind of shy to tell you this in person. This place has been my second home for almost two years. I lasted this long in the heat and the cold doing hard labor all day, because of the dogs. I see myself in every dog that comes to PVAC. My job wasn’t to clean kennels, my job was to save these dogs and get them into their forever home even though sometimes some dogs don’t make it and go to the rainbow bridge. Yes, sometimes it was hard and I didn’t want to come to work but I know in my heart that my place was to be with these dogs.
All I wanted to say was thank you for everything you did to help this shelter out. Without you and Best Friends, more dogs would be in doggie heaven. When I first started here, things were not the greatest. Dogs were being put down all the time without being given a chance, but now a lot of dogs are getting a home. Hopefully one day the community will understand that we need everyone’s help to get these animals out. Thank you Mike for changing PVAC. I know that one day it will become a no kill shelter. You made this a better place. Thank you for helping PVAC. You were meant to be here.
Palm Valley Animal Society receives thousands of cats and dogs every year. Our daily efforts to save these homeless animals are made possible by the generosity of individuals and businesses in our community. Please click the link below to join us in our efforts to make The Rio Grande Valley a safer place for our animals.