WMRA: Who Will Provide Animal Shelter for Harrisonburg?

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Earlier this year, the Harrisonburg City Council received an unsolicited proposal from Anicira Veterinary Center to take over animal sheltering services for the city, which the Rockingham-Harrisonburg SPCA has provided for both the city and Rockingham County for decades. In July, the city opened a bidding period for the contract, and that period ended yesterday [August 31, 2017]. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

On a weekday morning at Anicira Veterinary Center in Harrisonburg, staff are hard at work.

CAT: YEOW.

STAFF: Oh my gosh, girl. All of them have made each other mad, so handle with care.

In a nearby room a cat is having a dental procedure; in another, Dr. Emily Beichel is in surgery.

Dr. EMILY BEICHEL: This is just a canine spay, so I’m taking out her uterus.

The Center is now located in what used to be a trendy doctor’s office, and Anicira, which opened in 2005 as the Shenandoah Valley Spay-Neuter Clinic, has converted its previous facility into a shelter. That’s where Founding President and CEO Cate Lemmond wants to base their open-admission shelter for the city of Harrisonburg, to take over the service that has been handled by the Rockingham-Harrisonburg SPCA since the mid 1970s.

At the center of the debate over service is the current overall euthanasia rate at the SPCA.

CATE LEMMOND: It's 51%, which is certainly very concerning to us, and we find that unacceptable. It’s 2017. Times have changed.

Anicira’s bid is for 25% less money than the city currently pays the SPCA for animal sheltering services — and Lemmond expects that even as an open-admission facility it will be able to reduce the euthanasia rate for animals from the city to less than 10% based on the so-called “no-kill” model in other cities.

LEMMOND: There are going to be a certain percentage of animals that are critically injured, or terminally ill, so we wouldn’t eliminate it. But we would follow the true definition of euthanasia, which means to relieve an animal of its suffering — a mercy death, if you will.

[Dogs barking in the SCPA kennel]

JO BENJAMIN: Honestly, the term that I’ve used, it feels like a hostile takeover.

That’s Jo Benjamin, Adoption/Rescue Coordinator for the Rockingham-Harrisonburg SPCA. Their current contract with the city, for more than $282,000, accounts for nearly a third of the SPCA’s annual budget. She is skeptical that Anicira can reach its low euthanasia goals. Reducing those rates, she adds, is also the SPCA’s goal.

BENJAMIN: Honestly, that’s what we’re working towards every day. The opposite of no-kill is not pro-kill. We would struggle to fathom how they would be open admission, no-kill in this area, with the numbers of animals that we have coming in that are medically compromised and unable to be adopted out, or behaviorally compromised. I don’t know how they would work differently with aggressive dogs that we see in here, or what they would do with feral cats.

But Anicira says its model of “community partnership” will work.

LEMMOND: We work with over 90 animal welfare organizations up and down the East coast, so through those  partnerships we are able to transfer animals. We also work well with our community as far as having a large number of foster homes, and also adopters.

Both Anicira and the SPCA have their own ideas for each other.

Anicira’s Cate Lemmond suggests dividing and conquering:

LEMMOND: We hope that by working together — so the SPCA serving the county, Anicira serving the city — that by dividing that tremendous responsibility of caring for all of these animals, that the SPCA will be able to better serve the county, with that being their primary focus.

The SPCA’s Jo Benjamin suggests that Anicira should just operate as a rescue group:

BENJAMIN: The rescue part of their adoption center could accept animals from a shelter like ours and adopt them out to interested adopters in the local area.

But it’s the contract that’s on the table, and City Council will decide who gets it. Council member George Hirschmann expects that decision to come in September:

GEORGE HIRSCHMANN: Personally, I try to consider all of it, including attitude. So you have people that have been servicing the city for a while, at times not the very best job but trying to improve, and you have some people that are pretty much moving into the business, want to be the new kid on the block, and allege that they can provide better services and lower cost. Regardless of what the decision is, there’s going to be some happy people and some not-so-happy people.

Council member Richard Baugh is concerned about the current euthanasia rate.

RICHARD BAUGH: I continue to find myself scratching my head as to why we’re not doing better. Why would I assume that our community is somehow more difficult, that our citizens are less cooperative or less caring for their animals or that the animals are somehow more surly? For me it really is about wanting to see a particular approach toward euthanasia that seems to have been successful in a lot of places and seems to be the model that everybody’s moving toward.

Anicira has planned — and Baugh plans to attend — a luncheon presentation on September 7 called Journey to No-Kill about initiatives in Lynchburg, which they say have reduced that city’s euthanasia rate to 6%. The City Council next meets the following week, on September 12.

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