A shelter that could, does
I want to share a letter that was written by Mike Bricker, our director for shelter embed programs who was embedded as acting director and operations manager at Palm Valley Animal Society, reflecting on his time in Edinburg, Texas. The piece ran last week in the Houston Chronicle as an opinion editorial.
It’s a beautiful summary of a couple of challenging and rewarding years spent working alongside the incredible staff, volunteers and community members. Palm Valley Animal Society finished 2020 with a save rate of nearly 90% — truly remarkable work for a shelter that only two years ago was saving only 34% of its animals.
After you read Mike’s letter (below), please watch this video we made to congratulate the team on their dedication to lifesaving.
In 2018, I was asked to relocate from Camden, N.J., to Edinburg to help a small, struggling animal shelter. The shelter was, at the time, the deadliest in the country — only 34 percent of the nearly 30,000 dogs and cats entering were getting out alive.
I was acting executive director and operations manager of the Palm Valley Animal Society (PVAS), which provides sheltering services for communities in Hidalgo County where 33 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Shelter intake is among the highest per capita in the U.S., in a state that is second in the country for killing shelter pets.
My goal was to help the shelter implement changes that would turn that 34 percent into 90 percent — making PVAS a no-kill shelter, or in other words, saving all healthy and treatable animals that enter.
I knew I had my work cut out for me.
When I landed in Texas in July, the first thing I noticed was, of course, the heat. And when I arrived at the shelter, the first thing I noticed was a long line of animal control trucks waiting to drop off stray pets to an already overcrowded shelter. I was thinking about the dogs and cats in the trucks, the pets in the outdoor kennels and the staff that had to care for them in the oppressive heat.
Immediately, I worked with the facilities staff to raise an existing tin roof over an outdoor wing and knock bricks out of the backs of kennels to increase airflow. It was still hot, but better than before.
Like the facilities team, the entire staff at PVAS was not only willing to hear new ideas, but enthusiastically welcomed them. They were drowning in animals and faced with hard decisions every day. No one gets into animal welfare to kill pets; they get into it because they love pets.
The next couple of years were full of both small and big changes that helped turn lifesaving around, including making every pet onsite available for adoption (not just those housed in the main building), creating committees for reunions, adoptions and transports, and rethinking spaces, such as converting an old animal control building into a dog maternity center for nursing moms and increasing cat housing by moving the rescue team into the main building and using their office space for cats.
And the most pivotal one: turning the euthanasia room, which was being used multiple times a day to unnecessarily end lives, into a clinic where pets can instead receive care while waiting for adoption.
Because we were taking in more than 10,000 cats a year but only saving about 19 percent of them, we asked the community to step up. We gained many new foster parents and received help with our community cat program, which helps solve the problem of perfectly healthy, happy free-roaming cats ending up in a shelter where they die needlessly.
Targeted work, like what is being done in Edinburg, is what is bringing change to Texas. And I’m proud to say that in only two years since my arrival, PVAS will finish the year at a nearly 90 percent save rate.
As I’ve learned firsthand in my short time here, it’s not just a saying: Texas really does everything bigger. And for a while in Edinburg, that was a bad thing. Extreme weather, limited resources, old facilities, none of these things are excuses for killing pets anymore.
But now PVAS joins the ranks of other Texas shelters, including Houston shelters, Harris County Pets and BARC, who both have reached independent save rates above 90 percent. These municipal shelters have shown that bigger means saving more lives. They have become models of the shelter of the future, demonstrating how community supported sheltering can make a huge difference in the lives of pets.
The work has only just begun, but together we have proven that it is possible. Every year PVAS, along with all Texas municipal shelters, needs the continued support of the community to keep saving lives. It is everyone’s collective responsibility to take care of the community’s pets. I hope you’ll continue the momentum by adopting, fostering, donating and volunteering.
I’ve relocated once again, 470 miles north of Edinburg, to take the helm temporarily at Abilene Animal Services where the save rate in 2018 was 55 percent, and is now hovering above 90 percent. I’m looking forward to help make Texas a no-kill shelter state, one city at a time.
Mike Bricker is a director for shelter embed programs at Best Friends Animal Society and is currently serving as interim animal services director for the city of Abilene.