Roanoke’s Regional Center for Animal Care and Protection is a Model for Small County Animal Shelters
It’s a pipe dream that every county in every southern state should have a progressive animal shelter that functions as a community resource and adoption center. There are simply too many small counties and too many stretched budgets.
Instead, many southern states opt for the dog pound model. They call these facilities ‘shelters,’ but too often they actually function like a traditional dog pound (and many times they are called that by the locals despite their new woke moniker).
Regional Center for Animal Care & Protection is a great example of how multiple municipalities can come together and create a first-class shelter to serve their population. This open-intake shelter is the shelter for the City of Roanoke, Counties of Botetourt and Roanoke, and the Town of Vinton (about 250,000 people) and handles about 4000 animals a year, mostly dogs and cats, but occasionally goats, birds, bunnies, reptiles, and even once some stray goldfish (found in a bag).
I knew about this shelter thanks to two of their best volunteers, Anita and Jay, who are indispensable at the shelter and also drive transport for them (in a renovated paddy wagon). I connected with Anita originally after she read my book. Sometimes Anita and Jay stop in our town of Woodstock for a meal on their return trip south, so we got the chance to meet in person. Anita also manages a little free library full of animal books located at the entrance to the shelter.
At the shelter, we were greeted by the squawks of Houdini, the cockatoo (who is leaving on transport soon). We met Libby, the rescue volunteer coordinator (who coordinates both volunteers and the rescue placements), and Mike, the interim executive director (who has been there for five years). Mike is retired law enforcement (34 years). He is an incredible advocate for the shelter, the animals, and the staff. He’s expanded the budget to ensure the staff is paid well (with benefits), the animal population is managed safely, and created an atmosphere of cooperation.
He credited the staff with the success of the shelter, but Libby was quick to say that they are successful because he is such an excellent leader. As an open-intake shelter, they will take any animals brought in through animal control, found as strays, or surrendered by their owners, but they work very hard to help owners keep their pets if possible. They have a huge pet pantry to provide supplies and food to pet owners in need, and will offer veterinary assistance or even training help if that is what is needed. They’ve seen an increase in owner surrenders this year as rental freezes have ended and people lose their housing.
Libby has been here sixteen years and says when Mike and Melinda, the director of operations, began working at the shelter in 2017, things really changed. Prior to that, the shelter had a 60% live release rate, and now they are normally in the high 80% or 90%.
The building is eighteen years old and in relatively great shape, although Mike was able to secure $150,000 for capital improvements this year. Still, it’s an excellent well set up facility with plenty of space. The building has a designated 24-hour intake area that ACOs can utilize even if the shelter isn’t open. They have room to isolate new and/or sick animals, hold animals for court cases, bite holds, or 5 or 10-day stray hold, plus they have a wing designated for animals that are fully vetted, spayed/neutered, and ready for adoption.
The shelter is incredibly blessed to have the help of the Friends of RCACP group which raises money to cover things like heartworm medications, enrichment supplies, and other unbudgeted expenses. They help with adoption events and fundraising, like their Pet Wash, in which they set up a pet washing station for not just the shelter animals but the public animals for a donation.
With a vet on staff, RCACP can handle most of the vet work at the shelter, except spay/neuter surgeries or more serious medical needs. This enables them to move dogs through relatively quickly with an average stay of just 28 days.
The facility has held up to 400 animals at one time but when we visited in June had 240. Like almost all shelters and rescues post-pandemic, the shelter is full as are many of their rescue partners. Luckily, they also have a large foster program mostly to handle young kittens, but would love to have more dog fosters. RCACP does some local adoptions, but the bulk of the animals leave through rescue transports.
We spent a little time with two adoptable dogs in the play area – Shadow, a pretty much perfect pittie who is great with kids, other dogs, and knows many commands, and Moto, a bulldog who charmed us with his big grin and ever-wagging tail.
Each year some of RCACP’s dogs are chosen to participate in Virginia Tech’s Vet school as ‘canine instructors’. This amazing programs is one we wish was duplicated all over the country. The dogs teach the students and at the same time are prepared for a home of their own. Read about the program here.
Before we left, I asked Mike what I ask every shelter director—How do we fix this? How do we end this stream of unwanted animals? He pointed to the need for more low-cost spay/neuter access in the area, and also better (and enforced) dog laws. Two things you always find in parts of this country whose shelters are not overflowing with animals.
RCACP is a first-class public open-intake facility. I wish we could duplicate it all over the south. It makes sense for counties to combine resources and have one combined facility rather than multiple dog pounds and shelters that struggle.
With so many smart policies and practices, an enthusiastic and capable staff, and dedicated volunteers and fosters, it doesn’t get much better than this. But if we aren’t able to save every dog and slow the flow of unwanted animals with these kinds of resources, how will we ever fix this?
This is the question that keeps me up at night. I think there are answers. That’s one of the reasons we travel to shelters and share their stories. We are preparing to leave in two weeks on another tour – this time to West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
The problem of struggling shelters that cannot save every dog is fixable, and not just in northern or affluent areas. Until it’s fixed, though, I’m grateful for shelters like the Regional Center for Animal Care and Protection and their remarkable staff.
If you’d like to help RCACP continue its great work, you can shop their Amazon wishlist or donate to the Friends of RCACP group.
Until each one has a home,
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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.
Watch our 30-minute documentary about rescue in western Tennessee here.
For more information on any of our projects, to talk about rescue in your neck of the woods, or become a WWLDO volunteer, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
They sound like they are doing pretty well. My question though is, why is their live release rate so low, only averaging between 80-90%, per the article? What areas need improving or implemented to achieve No Kill?