This past spring we visited Petersburg Animal Care & Control just outside of Richmond, Virginia. The shelter building is over sixty years old and shows it, but new director and ACO, Jenny, is doing all she can with what she’s got, and that means saving as many dogs as possible.
Before Jenny took over in June of 2021, a lot of dogs were dying at this municipal, barebones shelter hidden away in a woody area just off the turnpike. Jenny had worked here in 2005, so she didn’t hesitate to come back when she was needed again. In less than a year she has changed the narrative of the shelter.
There are 24 kennels for dogs (and about the same for cats), all filled with pit bull type dogs.
We listened as Jenny told us about a few of the residents, how hard she has worked to give them a chance they never would have gotten a year ago. With the help of a volunteer, they have finally gotten the dogs featured on Petfinder and have had some local adoptions. Like so many shelters, they depend on rescues to pull dogs.
In the first three months of 2022, Petersburg shelter took in 81 strays, 10 seizures, 22 owner surrenders, and 5 owner assists (helping the owner get what they need to keep their dog). That’s a lot of dogs for one small shelter.
As an open-intake shelter, Jenny is obligated to take whatever the public dumps or abandons, strays, and dogs seized by law enforcement or picked up by animal control. That means her kennels stay full.
I asked what she does if someone shows up to turn in a dog and they are full. She explains to the person that if she takes that dog, another dog (or the dog they are surrendering) will have to die. Then she asks if they can hold on to the dog for just a week while she works to make room. If they say yes, then she ‘beats the bushes’ to find a way to move another dog via rescue or adoption.
Jenny is an educator as much as an enforcer, and she looks for ways to help the public rather than simply take their dogs. One person showed up recently with a sweet older dog named King. The owner had been evicted and was heartbroken that she didn’t couldn’t find a place to rent that would allow her to have her large mixed breed dog. She didn’t have a choice.
Jenny offered to keep the dog at the shelter in the office with the staff while the woman searched for housing that would allow her to have her dog. For liability reasons the shelter took possession of King, but to Jenny’s mind they are just fostering him for his owner and will happily give him back when she is ready. Meanwhile, they set up a private kennel for King in the intake area to sleep in at night, and during the day he charms the staff and visitors at the shelter.
The cement runs at Petersburg shelter are separated by chainlink fence which creates a stressful environment as the dogs can get into ‘fence fights’. Jenny has to be very careful about the housing arrangements, placing neutral dogs beside reactive dogs. Still, anyone in shelter work knows that when dogs spend 24/7 staring at other dogs it creates a lot of stress on the animals.
We asked Jenny about a solution and she, along with volunteer Stacey (the former director back in 2005), thought that building up the cement block at the base of the fence on some of the kennels could help or installing stainless steel partitions. The only way it will happen, though, is if an outside group comes in and does it. There is not enough money in the shelter budget for this type of project.
We pulled a few dogs out for photoshoots and playtime in the small fenced yard behind the shelter. Everyone we met was exuberant and friendly and simply thrilled to be able to run and play in the grass.
I asked if volunteers bring the dogs out for walks or play time and Jenny explained that while they do have a few good volunteers most often they are enlisted to help with the cleaning chores. The shelter only has one kennel attendant, so all three ACOs and any volunteers who turn up are asked to pitch in to keep the shelter clean.
I’m hopeful about this shelter. As I’ve said so many times – too often saving lives comes down to leadership.
And Petersburg has a compassionate, knowledgeable, experienced leader in Jenny. That’s a good thing for the dogs and for the community.
Until each one has a home,
The mission of Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is to raise awareness and resources for homeless dogs and the heroes who fight for them.
You can learn more about what is happening in our southern shelters and rescues in the book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, 2020). It’s the story of a challenging foster dog who inspired me to travel south to find out where all the dogs were coming from. It tells the story of how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. Find it anywhere books are sold. A portion of the proceeds of every book sold go to help unwanted animals in the south.
Amber’s Halfway Home is our short documentary film produced in partnership with Farnival Films. It follows the work of a remarkable woman and one day of rescue in western Tennessee. Selected for sixteen film festivals (to date), it’s won eight awards (including Best Short Doc, Best Soundtrack, Best of Fest, and Audience Choice), and was nominated for an Emmy! It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, inspiring story we hope will compel viewers to work for change. Please watch it and share it far and wide.