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Building Bridges: Cooperation Between Former Adversaries Does Wonders for the Animals in a Rural Virginia Community

There are many who would see it as an icon of irony: trying to run a humane, disease-free animal control facility within a building that used to be a veal barn. But for the folks of Louisa County, Virginia—a rural community 100 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.—it’s a day-to-day reality. And five years ago, when the county’s public works department first took over the formerly nonprofit shelter and started handling animal control, the reality was a pretty grim one.

“We were at about 53-percent euthanasia rates for dogs and 60-percent for cats,” says Pat McWilliams, the county’s public works director. “And almost all of that was due to disease outbreaks in the shelter—we had real health problems that the woman who’d been running the shelter previously just hadn’t had the resources to cope with, and which the facility was not designed for.”

Budgeting for the year had already been completed, so when public works officials took over the shelter with about five days’ notice, they had no immediate access to the resources needed to make improvements. “We were able to do some small things when we went in,” McWilliams recalls, “but we just didn’t have much money at that point.” And local activists connected with the newly formed nonprofit Louisa Humane Society were publicly criticizing the shelter for the health problems and euthanasia rates that, due to budget and space constraints, were largely beyond its control. “We were really at loggerheads,” McWilliams says.

At some point, he says, the activists suggested that the county shelter bring in outside help. The critics called Kate Pullen, director of sheltering issues at The HSUS, who agreed to come down if invited by the county itself. “I wanted to make sure it didn’t seem like I was coming in to bash the county,” Pullen says. “That’s not my role, and I think changes only happen when they come from within the agency.”

Once the county asked her if she’d come check out the situation, Pullen spent three days observing operations at the shelter and made recommendations about both procedures and facility updates, providing a report that detailed what she felt should be the top priorities.

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