HARRISONBURG — About three dozen people spent their lunch hour in the basement of City Hall Thursday to hear how the Lynchburg Humane Society decreased its euthanasia rate from 51 percent to 4 percent since 2009.
The presentation came as City Council considers Anicira Veterinary Center’s unsolicited proposal to take over the city’s sheltering services, which the organization submitted in May.
The Rockingham-Harrisonburg SPCA has a contract with both the city and Rockingham County to provide sheltering services. If selected, Anicira would be an open-admission, no-kill shelter for the city only. The SPCA has been criticized for several years over its high euthanasia rates, which was 48 percent of all animals admitted last year, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Councilmen Richard Baugh, Ted Byrd, Chris Jones and George Hirschmann all attended the presentation, which was hosted by Anicira and Advocates for Valley Animals, a group of Valley residents who want a no-kill shelter in the Harrisonburg area.
Makena Yarbrough, the Lynchburg shelter’s executive director, was hired in 2009. She has spoken at national conferences on no-kill models and ways to reduce euthanasia rates, including the 2017 Best Friends National Conference, which was held in July in Los Angeles. The shelter accepted all animals that came through its doors, with the exception of reptiles, she said.
Only 49 percent of the 2,690 animals taken to the shelter in 2009 walked back out. The shelter euthanized many sick animals, she said, and to make space for more. In 2014, the shelter euthanized only 6 percent of the 2,359 animals it took in. By 2016, the euthanasia rate dropped to 4 percent and the shelter’s intake increased to 3,981.
One of the big changes Yarbrough made was to the shelter staff’s mindset.
“They said it couldn’t be done, and you know what? It couldn’t be done because they didn’t believe it could be done,” she said. “So, when I say we took killing out of the tool box, we literally said, ‘We’re not going to kill healthy and treatable animals, so there has to be a solution to it.’”
The shelter changed its adoption policies, including reducing the number of hurdles people had to jump to adopt an animal, such as referral requirements and landlord and veterinarian checks.
Out of 3,324 adoptions in 2016, only 11 were returned because of a landlord issue, Yarbrough said.
The shelter also worked to rebrand itself by adopting a new logo, website and holding promotional events such as Free Kitten Friday, she said.
Staff also created a spay and neuter clinic with a full-time veterinarian.
Yarbrough wanted the shelter to be a larger part of the community, she said. It raised $5.2 million, surpassing its goal of $4.8 million, over two and a half years to build a new center.
“We felt like we didn’t want an animal shelter; we wanted a center,” Yarbrough said. “And we wanted a center that would bring people to it — to come to volunteer, to work, to do things other than just to adopt, just to volunteer.”
Staff built programs based on the idea, such as Food Truck Fridays and cat yoga, she said, anything to get people in the building.
Baugh asked her whether she had heard of any shelters switching to a no-kill model and later returning to their original methods, which she said she had not.
“I don’t know why anybody would go backwards,” she said. “When you start to engage the community and see the positive results and you see the animals that you’re saving, I don’t see why anyone would go back.”
Baugh said he thought it was an informative presentation, noting that Lynchburg, though larger than Harrisonburg, may be about as close of an apples-to-apples comparison council will get when comparing sheltering services.
Hirschmann said he thinks that regardless of which organization the city decides to contract with, council will probably seek to improve its animal survival rates.