When I talk to leaders of animal shelters around the country, I’m surprised how many think they are not allowed to lobby for animal protection laws. Or, they are just so consumed with the daily operations of animal care and control in their communities, that they don’t have the time or resources to advocate for better public policies. But if we only address the symptoms of the problems when animals are in distress, we will never get to the root causes of those problems and prevent animals from ending up in distress in the first place.
Paulette Dean, director of the Danville Area Humane Society
in southern Virginia, began a campaign to address the problem
of dogs and cats kept on chains.
That’s why I was so inspired to hear the story of Paulette Dean, director of the Danville Area Humane Society in southern Virginia. Paulette saw the inhumane treatment of dogs (and even some cats) kept constantly on chains in her community, and she launched a proactive plan over more than a decade to address the problem through city ordinances and public education. Her years of work have paid off for companion animals and their owners in Danville, and I had a chance to speak with her about her approach so I could share some of her thinking with blog readers.
Michael Markarian: Can you tell us a little bit about Danville as a community? What are some of the challenges for animals and animal lovers there?
Paulette Dean: Danville, a city of about 48,000 on the North Carolina state line, is a city that is struggling to redefine itself after the loss of the textile and tobacco industries. It has the highest unemployment rate in the state, and also struggles with low education and high poverty rates.
Animals and animal issues have been low priorities in the past. The Danville Area Humane Society operates the city animal shelter, and receives about 5,500 dogs and cats each year, along with approximately 250 other companion animals and livestock.
Perhaps because of the problems that come as a result of poverty, there is a severe pet overpopulation problem. Although the humane society has helped 17,000 dogs and cats get spayed or neutered since 1993, the numbers received at the shelter increase each year.
We seem to have a higher incidence of animal neglect and abuse than surrounding areas, although that may be because we have two court-appointed humane investigators (a volunteer position in Virginia). The board president and I have functioned as investigators for many years, and we have a strong working relationship with the police department and animal control officers. We investigate and prosecute many cases each year, including starvation, hoarding, dogfighting, and varying degrees of neglect.
MM: How did you approach the chaining issue and what has led to your successes?
PD: As we investigated complaints of neglect, one thing became very apparent: 90 percent of the complaints received involve companion animals constantly kept on chains. In this matter, we were “fortunate” to have a gallery of hundreds of pictures that were taken of dogs on chains.
Seventeen years ago when I began full-time employment with the Danville Area Humane Society, we received a call from a man who said he had heard a dog whining in the woods behind his house, but he had not heard the dog whine for a couple of days. The animal control officer went to the address, and found the body of a dog in the woods. The dog had once been chained and evidently broke lose somehow, but still dragged the chain. The chain became entangled in bushes, and the dog starved to death. The animal control officer told me then that I should work to get all dogs off chains.
In 1996, parts of Danville were flooded as a result of Hurricane Fran. Then-Governor George Allen toured the area, and saw the bodies of two dogs who had drowned as they were chained to their doghouses. He had his driver stop and he knocked on the door to tell the woman he wanted the bodies buried. He even stopped by later that day to make sure that had been done.
The task of getting animals off chains seemed pretty overwhelming at that time. However, through the years that thought never left my mind whenever we received a dog with an embedded chain in his neck (many, many times each year) or when I saw for myself the chained dogs in backyards with no shelter, food, or water. I knew something had to be done.
Most dogs we held for rabies quarantine after biting someone or attacking another animal were dogs who were kept on chains. Make no mistake—the problem was not just having dogs constantly chained. We also investigated a few horrific cases of cats kept on chains. We knew that any effort to get dogs off chains had to include all companion animals.
With the support of the board (after all, the board president also functions as a humane investigator; he was with me for the vast majority of the cruelty cases), we held a summit meeting of sorts about three years ago. We invited veterinarians, dog trainers, representatives of the kennel club, and others we thought would be interested to define the problems animals face. We showed pictures of a few of our abuse and cruelty cases. From that meeting, we had the support of most of the people who worked with animals; we all agreed the overpopulation problem and the plight of chained dogs topped the list of problems faced by animals.
Our anti-chaining campaign was announced, with no plan of what we could do about it. The newspaper did an editorial about how we may be sincere, but we had not convinced the public. That we took as a challenge and a lesson. We met with the editors of the paper (very nice people who supported our work), and showed them pictures of our cases. We began to issue more news releases of our court cases. We purchased ads in the paper about the loneliness of chained dogs, and wrote articles for our newsletter.
I met separately with each of the nine city council members and shared the pictures and stories with them. We proposed that an ordinance be enacted to prohibit the chaining of dogs on unoccupied property. At the city council, we testified about how people chained large numbers of pit bulls in the yards of empty homes. That ordinance passed easily for, as one council member said, “It is a no-brainer.”
The anti-chaining campaign worked to address the problem
through public education and city ordinances.
MM: How did you continue your campaign after that first ordinance passed?
PD: Nothing happened for a couple of years, and then this summer, we decided we needed to reenergize the campaign. We issued a news release, inviting members of the public to come to a meeting about our anti-chaining campaign. We had a very nice turnout for that meeting.
We told the attendees that the best thing they could do would be to call city council members, and encourage their family and friends to do so. We told them we would notify them when it was time to begin making the contacts.
The board of directors of the Danville Area Humane Society voted to commit $10,000 to help build fences for dogs to get them off chains, with the requirement that we also be allowed to spay or neuter the animals, at our expense, for whom we build fences.
A city council member happened to visit the shelter as we were bringing in a dog we had just seized. He saw the embedded collar and the thin body condition, and asked the city manager to please put a proposed ordinance on the agenda for a work session of city council.
We prepared a PowerPoint presentation, and went to the work session. We asked for a three-hour limit in a 24-hour period, and told about our $10,000 commitment. We talked about how this would help decrease the number of unwanted births. With the media there, we showed the pictures and told the stories. We also asked for delayed enforcement to give people time to make other arrangements for their chained animals.
Council members decided to advance the proposed ordinance, but they scheduled two public hearings. We posted the dates on our website, so no one could accuse us of hiding the truth from them. The editor of the newspaper wrote a very strong editorial in support of the ordinance.
As soon as the proposed ordinance was put on the agenda, we sent out an email alert to the supporters. Council members later said that it was apparent that the community was in overwhelming support. The newspaper allows anonymous online comments, so we asked people to respond to any negative comment.
We had about 45 supporters show up for the two public hearings. For the first one, we had asked strong speakers to speak up. I gave a brief overview of my experiences with chained animals. I reminded them that I had personally taken the horrible pictures that they had seen, and the pictures were taken in Danville, Virginia. A veterinarian, an attorney who had helped us with our civil custody cases and other supporters told stories and gave facts. We thought it would be helpful to have a teenager speak. The president of a local high school club agreed to speak. Tragically, her father was killed three days before the public hearing. I sent an urgent email to our list, asking them to help us find another young person who could speak. One young woman stepped forward. She was terrified, and spoke softly, but she begged the city council to make Danville a better place to live—for the humans and for the animals. She held them spellbound by her courage and her conviction.
A couple of days before the second public hearing, someone wrote a letter to the city council, bringing up the point that people who live in the historic district are not allowed to have chain link fences for their dogs. A motion was made to table the ordinance until that issue could be resolved. Immediately after that meeting, a small group attended the work session. Council members resolved that concern, and an amended ordinance was submitted. Actually, the amendments strengthened the ordinance.
However, we sent yet another email alert, urging supporters to not give up the battle. I heard from a few council members who said they had received only two negative comments, but had been inundated with positive comments.
A week and a half later, the proposed ordinance passed. One council member could not attend, but he asked the mayor to give his regrets and assure the public that if he had been there, his vote would have been “yes.” When the mayor announced that and said the vote was unanimous, we gave the council a standing ovation. It was apparent to everyone that it was an ordinance whose time had come.
MM: In the big picture what do you hope to accomplish for animals in Danville and how does the newly passed chaining ordinance fit into that plan?
PD: We want to improve the lives of animals in this area. It’s that simple. The newly passed ordinance will do that for hundreds of dogs.
However, the ordinance has also had an unexpected result. About 10 years ago, we strengthened our adoption guidelines. We knew that it would be a controversial move since we have a high euthanasia rate, but we also knew it was the right thing to do. We were laying a foundation for the future. Adopted dogs cannot roam and be chained, and adopted cats must be kept inside. Since this ordinance has passed, we have heard from many people who know that we have the animals’ best interest in mind for all our decisions.
We choose our battles wisely. We realize that we make many heavy-duty decisions for the animals every day, and we strive to make sure they are the right decisions. This ordinance has helped us make new friends, and marshal our forces, so to speak.
MM: Most shelter directors are exceedingly busy just doing their jobs at the shelter, and I’m sure you’re no exception. Why do you think it’s important for shelter directors to take the time to get involved in legislation in addition to the day-to-day shelter work?
PD: Shelter directors must get involved in all aspects of animal welfare in order to successfully help the animals. Without proactive work, the daily work of a shelter just puts a bandage on the problems. The only animals helped would be the animals in the shelter. I used to say that once an animal comes to our shelter, their problems should be over, and that is a vital goal. However, as I became a humane investigator, it became painfully clear to me that hundreds of animals never received at a shelter were in dire need of intervention.
As we seize animals who have been starved or neglected or even tortured, and as we rescue animals who have been abandoned or have fallen into storm drains or have been hit by cars, I breathe a sigh of relief for that animal. However, I immediately begin thinking of all the animals who need our help and cannot get it because we do not know about them.
MM: Do you have tips specifically for shelter directors on how they can be successful with local legislation in their own communities?
PD: Shelter directors need to use the resources they have available—and the main power they have comes from the stories of the animals received at the shelter. Tell the stories, and show the pictures. Speak politely to local legislators. Find ways to include supporters, and help them feel that they can affect change.
MM: You’ve said that if you can do it in Danville, you can do it anywhere. What’s the secret to passing progressive, animal-friendly legislation in a community that has a more traditional animal use background?
PD: Be consistent and be patient. However, the best way to help animals is to choose a path and walk down that path diligently. Sometimes, I grow so weary of having the same conversation hundreds of times with people who claim they love their starving dog with the embedded collar or with the person who wants to make some money by selling pit bull puppies, but only “to good people who won’t fight them.”
Anyone who works in animal welfare needs to keep one thing in mind. This is the same thing I told our volunteers as we worked on this campaign: If this ordinance passes, our individual lives will be the same. If the ordinance does not pass, our individual lives will be the same. We’re working for the animals. When people realize they are working for a cause that is greater than they are, miracles can happen.