Thursday, October 27, 2011

Managing Companion Animals: PART II – Animal Control

Above and beyond our personal efforts to promote responsible animal care, we need to look to our Animal Control Officers (ACOs) for the critical role they play in community education and law enforcement.

As ACOs engage with the individuals that either don’t know or choose to violate the laws of animal management, our ACOs  are in the unique position to teach people about the reasons for the laws, the importance of following the laws, and beyond the law, the importance of properly caring for and assuming responsibility of one’s animals.

We should be highlighting the value of our Animal Control Officers, inviting them to share their knowledge in our community activities: classrooms, civic meetings, public events, ….  How well do you know your ACO?  If you find that your ACO is not available for such events, consider encouraging your community’s administration to ensure time and availability for your ACOs to provide community education.  Make sure they know just how important this education is in the community’s role of promoting effective animal management.

The added strength we have in our ACOs is their ability and responsibility to enforce animal management laws.  Education isn’t always enough to change old habits and dissuade some people from abusive and neglectful behaviors.  Where education fails, we must rely on law enforcement. 

Throughout Virginia, licensing compliance rates are frequently low or unknown despite a state law requiring licensing for dogs and giving localities the right to require licensing for cats.  Many rural communities simply fail to prosecute cases of serious abuse and neglect as they have become accustomed to perceiving such cases as insignificant and remain sadly unaware of the strong associations between animal abuse and the development of violent behavior against humans. In order to overcome the customary inattention to animal laws, community residents will have to speak up and make known to our community administrations that we need and expect strong enforcement of laws pertaining to animal management and that the Animal Control agencies must receive the support they need to carry out their responsibilities effectively.

Animal Control Officers are under-paid and under-educated for the demanding and complex responsibilities they hold in today’s culture.  Too many localities still embrace antiquated notions of the “dog catcher” – someone who simply rounds up stray animals.  Education requirements for Animal Control Officers are minimal – 84 hours.  Even this can be delayed for two years – thus allowing individuals to work as an Animal Control Officer for 2 years with no training at all.  Sadly, state regulations continue to lag behind the needs of the profession.  Fortunately, the Animal Control profession is changing greatly in those localities that have come to understand and value the uniquely critical role of Animal Control Officers.

Virginia is fortunate to have a well-established and highly regarded statewide association – the Virginia Animal Control Association (VACA) – that is working hard and making headway in bringing about positive change – such as strengthening educational requirements and pursuing stronger law enforcement status for ACOs.  But change is hard and VACA needs support for these changes to come from the residents of the communities that will benefit from stronger, better educated, and better supported Animal Control professionals.

Here again, we, individuals and animal guardians, can play a role to help improve the responsible management of animals in our communities.  We can support and encourage the professional development of our community Animal Control Officers.  This is the agency that ultimately holds the promise of providing a solid foundation for our communities to evolve into truly humane communities with the ability to both communicate and enforce the guidelines for responsible pet ownership and thus promote the overall safety and well-being of the community and its animals.  I urge you to take the opportunity to get to know your Animal Control professionals and to urge your community leadership to fully support its Animal Control department.  This is what we can do to promote humane communities.

Managing Companion Animals: PART I - Personal Responsibility

Earlier this summer a letter to the editor from the president of our local humane society spoke out on the importance of individual personal responsibility in caring for companion animals, “Dog owners must become more responsible.”

It’s true that so many problems in the world would disappear if people would just be more responsible.  But getting this to happen isn’t easy!  We wrestle with issues of personal responsibility on many fronts of human behavior:  driving vehicles, consuming alcohol, managing finances, managing anger & violence – just to name a few.  People just are not naturally responsible –whether due to a lack of understanding, disagreement, financial
barriers, or just plain apathy.

In order for us to live together in relative harmony we have to build and enforce responsibility in those areas where behaviors of individuals can negatively impact others in the community.  This task falls to individuals as well as to our local governing agencies.  We rely on education to instill an awareness of responsible behavior.   We look to our community leaders, as well as to our family, friends, and neighbors, to set examples for responsible behavior. And we develop laws to articulate responsible behavior that our law enforcement agencies carry out into the community. 

If we ever hope to build responsibility among animal owners, we must begin building and enforcing responsible pet ownership to the same degree that we do so for other areas of human behavior.   What can we, as individuals, do to bring this about?

First, and most simply, we can be an example for responsible pet ownership.  We can be sure to have our own pets licensed, tagged, spayed or neutered, properly cared for and provided with appropriate veterinary care.  We can make sure to have plans in place for our pets in the event that we are unable to care for them so that they do not wind up by default at a local shelter or as an unexpected burden on someone.  And we should learn how to manage appropriate behavior in our pets so that they don't bother others and so that they don't become an unwelcomed burden to ourselves.  In addition, we should become acquainted with and follow the laws that pertain to responsible animal ownership at the state level as well as our community level.

Next, we can encourage our community leaders to set proper examples of responsible behavior. Many community leaders continue to turn a blind eye to concerns and laws regarding animal management.  Sometimes, they are guilty of the very behaviors we seek to correct. Not long ago one of our community’s leaders was a well-known dog fighter.   Some community members, upstanding in other respects, may still engage in backyard breeding and inattention to their own tied-out or roaming dogs and breeding cats.  Through our everyday engagement with our community leaders, we can help them understand the importance of responsible animal care and their role in promoting it in the community.

Thirdly, we can encourage and support the education of other community members, most importantly our children, about responsible pet ownership and compassion for animals.   Educators can find a wealth of resources available to support humane education.  It’s easy to incorporate humane education into the classroom.  Kids have a natural affinity for animals.  Teachers who develop programs and techniques for humane education can also inspire and help others to do the same.  

Assuming our personal roles in promoting responsible pet ownership is an important first step towards building a more humane community.  In combination with effective community support services, our personal commitment to advocating for responsible animal care is a winning hand.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Thinking, planning, moving towards humane communities ...

What is a humane community? A simple term that's been around for a long time, I'm always surprised that we hear so little talk about the value and process of developing humane communities. Talk abounds around shelter adoptions and spay/neuter options.  But relatively little talk comes around to considering the full picture of effective, humane pet management in communities.

While I'm not aware of a given definition for a humane community, I'd suggest that a humane community is one which values life, both human and animal, and chooses to promote that value by building and supporting responsible animal management practices that benefit both the animals in a community as well as the safety and well-being of the humans that interact with those animals.  These practices include, at the minimum, education for animal guardians about humane and responsible animal care, enactment and enforcement of laws that promote humane and responsible animal care, and the inclusion of animals in a community’s emergency services plan and operation.  In partnership with responsible community administrations, charitable agencies can provide significant support in conceiving, developing, and sustaining programs to promote humane communities. It is this partnership that is often found lacking. 

Often misunderstood, “SPCA” is merely a term commonly applied to non-profit animal shelters.  An “SPCA” organization has no connection to other SPCA organizations and has no meaning other than that given by the organization applying the term.  Increasingly, the term SPCA has been applied to organizations whose primary and perhaps sole purpose is the management and re-homing of homeless animals.  The original intent of the name – Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – has lost much of its meaning given that so many SPCA’s currently do little to significantly address social issues of cruelty or neglect to animals.   By law cruelty and neglect issues are handled by a community’s Animal Control service.  It’s not uncommon that significant discrepancies exist between the attitudes and beliefs of Animal Control officers and those managing an SPCA shelter.  However, little public attention comes to these issues and the shelters typically have their hands full with the job of managing a shelter and re-homing countless animals.  They understandably have little time or ability to address larger issues of animal cruelty and neglect.

Pet management, and the problems of ineffective management - neglect and abuse, backyard breeding, bite cases, animal aggression, owner-surrendered pets, and disease transmission – are issues of community and individual responsibility and education.  Pet rescue/adoption and low-cost spay/neuter address pieces of the solution, but, as evidenced in the ongoing pet management problems in communities, they don't provide effective solutions in isolation.  While some may espouse a vague notion of responsible pet ownership, few people seem to understand that "responsible pet ownership/guardianship" is a process that is as dependent upon the active involvement and support of a community's administration as it is upon the actions of pet guardians.  This concept is slowly beginning to materialize in forward thinking communities and is embraced by the National Canine Research Council.  It's my hope that we can begin to weave some of these practices together for the benefit of communities and their animals in Central Virginia. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

The No-Kill debate … an Introduction

With the annual conference of the No-Kill Advocacy Center just over and with dire forecasts for the American economy ahead of us, the question over the potential reality of a no-kill society takes on new fervor and heightened attention – and nowhere more so than here in Virginia.
For the uninitiated, “no-kill” refers to the practice of finding adoptive homes for all shelter pets that are of sufficient health and temperament to be adoptable. (There are specific guidelines on this which I will not go into here.)  The basic premise is that, since there are estimated 23 million people adopting a new pet in the U.S. each year, and there are now only about 3-4 million dogs and cats being euthanized in shelters each year, there should be an ample supply of good homes for these pets if only the effort is made to get them matched up.  Those seeking a good look at the no-kill topic are often referred to the book “Redemption” by Nathan Winograd, founder of the No-Kill Advocacy Center.
Representing the flip side of this debate is PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – an organization often known for its radical animal welfare activities.  According to PETA, the notion of “no-kill” shelters is misleading when the reality is that such shelters, when full,  must decline the intake of homeless animals and, when unable to adopt animals in a reasonable time frame, are forced to warehouse animals in confined situations that may result in fates worse than death.
This question is no more alive than right here in Virginia where the Virginia Alliance for Animal Shelters (VAAS) has arisen as an alternate voice to the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies (VFHS) , the long-time central voice for animal welfare in Virginia.  While not embraced as part of its official mission, VFHS is generally seen as promoting the no-kill goals of the private shelters that dominate its membership.  In contrast, the focus of VAAS is upon the “open-access” shelters “which cannot or do not ‘pick and choose’ the animals they receive. “  Often, these are municipal shelters but they may also include privately run shelters that practice “open-access” admission.  In its case statement VAAS provides an informative account of the nature and history of this division. 
The “no-kill” debate is an important and often misunderstood issue.  Some people question the availability of truly “good” homes and worry about the fate of animals not adopted or adopted into hoarding, abusive, and neglectful situations.  Others counter that achieving a truly no-kill society is simply a matter of a willingness on the part of those managing shelters to be committed to it. 
While I cannot address the issue in depth here, I'll occasionally return to this issue bringing different facets into discussion.   And I invite readers to consider and explore the issue:  how it plays out in your own localities and what you can offer to help promote understanding and collaboration among shelters and individuals who strive to find the most effective balance for the well-being of animals in your community.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Speak the truth - even if your voice shakes."

I love this quote.  I stole it from Lisa Compton who provides a great example of how speaking the truth helps her advocate for and improve the lives of chained dogs all around the Richmond area through her organization Rescue of Chained k-9s (ROCK).

Speaking the truth when those around you don't want to hear it can be very challenging. Especially for those who don't seek to be confrontational but only to extend a compassionate hand to the desperate animals in need around us. It can take practice to learn to speak out about the truth when those around you wish to keep it silent.  It's an important practice to undertake.

Monday, August 1, 2011

How change comes about...

Successes in the battle to end slavery in the American South did not come from polite, heartwarming stories about all the happy, free negroes and patient, ego-soothing strokes to those that resisted change. It came out of deep uprising, extended violent clash, and a long history of harsh political struggle and attacks on those who resist change and lawfulness. Ending the deep-seated practice of individuals to neglect and abuse animals and communities to disregard the laws protecting them, will also require unpleasant confrontation. Do not let this dissuade you.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Building Humane Communities: Facing the Facts

Let’s face it – until our culture undergoes a radical change in attitudes towards our relationship with animals:

  • There will never be enough homes for all the unwanted animals discarded by human society.
  • Communities will remain full of people who consider dogs, cats, and other animals, to be chattel not worth the consideration given to a worn out bicycle and not even close to the value of an automobile.
  • Power struggles over who’s right and who’s wrong will always veer to the side of those who have something financial or political to gain – never with those purely fighting for mercy, compassion, or morality.

This list could go on, but – you get the point. The point is that the welfare of the animals in our midst is not simply going to happen on its own.The desperately high rates of stray animals, abused animals, neglected animals, homeless animals, and euthanasia will not decline on its own. No matter how many no-kill rescues there are, there will still be far too many homeless and ill-tended animals as long as our societal attitudes about animals remains as it is.

Legally, animals are property.  In the Virginia 2011 legislative session, animals gained slight protection from an owner’s abusive partner only by their inclusion as “property” akin to a piece of furniture or equipment (HB 1716).  This is a troublesome, though currently necessary, reality.  The more we understand and grapple with this fact, the better able we will be to work with it effectively.

Legislatively, animal laws are far too weak and too vague to provide significant protection for animals at the mercy of an “owner” or retailer who is too uneducated, too lazy, too greedy, too ill-tempered, or simply too un-caring to provide proper care for the animal.  The better we understand the current laws, why they exist and how they are used,the better we’ll be able to help shape and build these laws to make them truly effective.

Administratively, counties and cities have high-priority concerns and financial needs that precede those of animal welfare such that little to nothing is left when it comes to animal issues and animal law enforcement – UNLESS the community residents demand it.   The animals have no defense but in us.  They depend on us to demand that our administrations enforce the laws that protect them. And the well-being of our communities depends on us to demand enforcement of animal laws that protect residents from stray, feral, dangerous, and unvaccinated animals.  In order to do this, we must first learn how our administrations address animal management – both sheltering and law enforcement; what laws they follow (or do not follow), what resources are available to help them, and who are the responsible and accountable players.

Morally – well, communities have a tough time with moral issues and responsibilities.  And sadly, communities of faith often seem to lose site of the fact that animals are God’s creatures too and find it easier to leave such challenging issues as animal welfare unchallenged.  Each of us can bring our knowledge and faith in the value and worth of God’s non-human creatures into focus in our own religious and spiritual communities and thus, help to spread our awareness of the importance of including our respect for animals in our moral and spiritual development.

Without your voice and your active, ongoing involvement and support -- dogs will continue to die in hot cars while the owners that locked them there go un-punished; cats will continue to over-populate in feral colonies and suffer from disease and hunger;  puppies and kittens will continue to be born to worn out, emaciated , sickly mothers;  millions of animals will die slow, premature deaths of neglect while languishing on a chain or under a shed in someone’s backyard – unseen, unheard, unloved. 

With your voice, this sad reality can be transformed.  As you and others like you become actively involved in learning about animal management practices in your neighborhood and community and learning to speak out amongst your friends, family, church congregation, and community about your concerns for the welfare of animals in your community, problems will find solutions, hearts will open up, people who care will step up to support each other, lives will be saved, tragedies averted, misery turned into joy, mountains will be moved.  Thus is the process of building humane communities. 

I hope this blog may help provide windows to the relevant issues of local animal welfare, and reveal opportunities available to those in Central Virginia willing and ready to learn about animal care and animal advocacy. Please share this information freely!

To find out how we can help or how you can become involved in our programs, call us at 540-967-0999, visit our web site at,  or email us at

Friday, July 8, 2011

Humane Investigators - Have they a future in Virginia?

A public meeting was held by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) on July 7 to solicit input and comments about the Humane Investigator program in Virginia.  Despite the fact that this would be the only public comment period for a current review of this program,  the meeting had only been announced six days beforehand and then, not given any publicity whatsoever to solicit public attendance.  Needless to say, there wasn’t much “public” in attendance.
I’d been lucky to have notice of the meeting forwarded to me and lucky that I was able to schedule the time.  Knowing little about the Humane Investigator program, I hoped to learn much.  The bulk of discussion came from the Humane Investigators in attendance.  I was  impressed with the professional demeanor and well-articulated comments of these individuals who, in most cases, had served for many years in their positions as unpaid, certified, trained Humane Investigators – working in tandem with Animal Control Officers to augment the eternally insufficient staffing of this workforce.   Anyone attending this gathering would have been struck by the commitment and integrity with which these individuals regarded their positions and their responsibilities.  Their stories told of mutually beneficial and valuable relationships between their municipality’s ACO’s and themselves and of the education, positive outreach, and law enforcement they were able to bring to their communities.   

The stated purpose of the meeting was to gather input on “the pros and cons of an expanded humane investigator program” and “how animal law enforcement in the Commonwealth could be strengthened and made more efficient.”   There were lots of pro’s in evidence but scant comment on any con’s of the program.  One commenter from the Virginia Farm Bureau questioned if it wouldn’t be preferable to expand the ACO departments rather than have Humane Investigators.  Knowing the weak support that our ACO program receives from the county and the unavailability of funds even for what’s currently in place, I found it inconceivable that the county would ever consider funding an additional ACO position, especially if a qualified, unpaid position were available to provide needed support.  No additional comment was made as to how an expanded ACO program might be preferable to the Humane Investigator program.

As the meeting wore on, tensions became apparent that heralded back to 2003 when the rug had been pulled from beneath this program and a tight lid placed on the appointment of new Humane Investigators.  Distrust in the meeting began to rise as Human Investigators and other animal advocates questioned, understandably, the process that has now been undertaken to review this program and determine its future.  The “study group” that will review the program was not identified in the meeting except for the fact that it included no Humane Investigators.   When asked about the workings, schedule, and process of this review, the answers were plainly evasive.  When asked why such little notice had been made of this, the only public input slated for the review process, the answers were again evasive and insufficient.  The distrust was certainly understandable if not warranted. 

I was disappointed that there was essentially no discussion on the topic of how animal law enforcement could be strengthened and made more efficient.  Neither the meeting’s leader nor anyone else had any meaningful input on this topic despite strong recognition of the need for such strengthening.  The implicit sense was that this Humane Investigator program was, by far, the best option available for providing added support to the dearth of attention placed on Virginia’s animal law enforcement.  And now, the future of this program was in question. 
The most productive proposal of the meeting was the reiterated suggestion that legislation be established to allow the municipalities to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to “employ” Humane Investigators.  In a state priding itself on individual rights, this certainly seems to be a most appropriate approach (even though it doesn’t bode well for my own county which had declined the cost-free support of a humane investigator years ago.)

In the end, I came away with a high regard for the Humane Investigators who are clearly committed to providing an affordable, quality service in support of the animal welfare laws currently in force, with great puzzlement about why there would be an effort to eliminate this program with no apparent alternatives for anything to replace it, and with the hope that given the obvious value of the program, the study group would find that rather than be discontinued, the Humane Investigator program should be supported and expanded.

Since only a small percentage of localities actually have Humane Investigators, perhaps if those recognizing the value of a program like this would make known to your community leaders the need for this program in your community, then awareness and common sense might prevail and we would all win.


Greetings and welcome to PAWS blog spot. We hope to use this blog to help us in our mission to promote humane communities in central Virginia.  We'll address various issues relevant to responsible animal guardianship and effective animal management in central Virginia. Our goal is to encourage dialog and discussion about topics that influence how our communities cope with the challenges of animal welfare and, subsequently, people welfare.  We believe a well-educated and well-informed society is the best foundation for a humane society. Please share your opinions and your knowledge.  And, of course, please be respectful and courteous of the opinions of others.