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The promise of St. Thomas

Work in the Caribbean has things looking up for animals

From Animal Sheltering magazine September/October 2014

Rhea Vasconcellos, shelter manager, holds Charlie, mascot and spokesdog, at the Humane Society of St. Thomas adoption center’s reception desk.Dellia Holodenschi holds Radu, the special-needs kitty she adopted in Romania and brought home to St. Thomas.Community cats congregate at an HSSTT cat café at the Lime Tree Beach Resort.

An aerial view of St. Thomas—a mountainous green island in turquoise seas—gives no indication of how many homeless pets live there, breeding ever more puppies and kittens. While the U.S. Virgin Islands are often portrayed as paradise for people, few places in the Caribbean can claim to be paradise for stray dogs or community cats.

But thanks to a happy teaming of two major do-good forces there, St. Thomas is clearly moving in a more heavenly direction.

The opening of the new campus of the Humane Society of St. Thomas (HSSTT) in 2012 was a major turning point; till then, its only shelter was an uninviting old building with limited facilities for animals in a run-down, flood-prone area. Its new Humane Care Campus occupies nearly five acres of land donated by an island family, and consists of four buildings, outdoor exercise areas and a community courtyard. Close to a major shopping center, the site’s hilly terrain and abundant flora still suggest peaceful seclusion.

Opening into its light and bright reception area, the adoption center typifies the entire complex. This building also includes staff offices, a veterinary suite and dog kennels. The separate cat cabana faces the courtyard, and cats can rotate to an enclosed area outside. Both buildings have air conditioning—a first for the organization’s facilities. Another building is devoted to the “No Flea Boutique.” Offering clothes, housewares, books and furniture, it accounts for about 40 percent of the shelter’s income.

Shelter manager Rhea Vasconcellos goes back a long way with the group, having juggled roles as a volunteer, part-time employee and a board of directors member until retiring from her 41-year career with the Internal Revenue Service. She notes ruefully that the shelter has been at or near capacity since its first six months in operation. Its government contract requires acceptance of all animals, and the animals just keep coming. In some ways, HSSTT is a victim of its own improvements; the old shelter was in such bad shape for so long that people tried harder to find homes for animals, Vasconcellos believes. “But now, they see this beautiful facility …”

Though weather problems have reduced its numbers this year, the HSSTT’s “Pets with Wings” program has flown hundreds of adoptable dogs to the U.S. Various fostering approaches have been tried as ways to relieve shelter crowding, and Vasconcellos ticks off the numerous ways the shelter is publicized to residents and tourists alike: in person, in publications and videos and online. Soon, she plans to take a few adoptable dogs to outdoor restaurants at happy hour.

HSSTT works to promote spay/neuter and heartworm prevention. Residents can buy $50 spay/neuter certificates for use at one of St. Thomas’s four veterinary practices, and every shelter dog adopted is first sterilized.

In their zeal to help animals, their numerous pets at home and even their ages (both are in their early 60s), Vasconcellos and island animal activist Dellia Holodenschi are allies.

What Vasconcellos does via HSSTT, Holodenschi does via her Lucky Paws Foundation. Concentrating on spay/neuter, Holodenschi believes if more animals are sterilized, fewer will wind up at the shelter. In 2007, she started the island’s Cat Café program for feral cats, who till then had been ignored or euthanized as unadoptable nuisances. Stocked daily by volunteers, the cafés serve as food-and-water stations for colonies of community cats who have been trapped, neutered and returned. Forty-five cat cafés are located around St. Thomas; each one is unique, and most feature a multicolored, Caribbean motif. FeLV/FIV testing is included with the spay/neuter surgery.

As a representative for fragrances and cosmetics, Holodenschi traveled widely in Europe and the Caribbean. Visiting her native Romania, she encountered Radu, a stray cat she “adopted” on the spot and brought home to St. Thomas. She credits him for inspiring the idea of cat cafés; he became the program’s mascot.

Her animal advocacy has included service on the HSSTT board of directors, where she influenced spay/neuter policy and proposed outreach and fundraising ideas. At a 2011 Caribbean Animal Welfare Conference sponsored by Humane Society International, she made a presentation on cat cafés. In 2012, she started Lucky Paws Foundation to promote spay/neuter through two programs, Cat Cafés (for stray, feral and abandoned cats) and SNIP (Spay/Neuter Island Pets), founded in 2010 with Jim Hines, a wine company executive and fellow animal welfare advocate.

To help residents get their pets sterilized, SNIP has sponsored five three-day clinic events. Veterinarians travel from Boston to operate in a “Spay Waggin”—a van with two fully equipped offices for concurrent surgeries—donated by the Animal Rescue League of Boston. Through SNIP clinics alone, Holodenschi estimates that 1,000 animals have been spayed or neutered—and probably 2,000 more since she’s started working in this area.

Though a few steps back may accompany many steps forward, the complementary efforts of the HSSTT and Lucky Paws Foundation show the promise of a St. Thomas that keeps getting better for animals.

View more information about Humane Society of St. Thomas and Lucky Paws Foundation.

About the Author

Pat Summers is a New Jersey-based writer focusing on animals and the arts. An animal rescue volunteer, she has also blogged extensively about animals, most recently for three years on the Newark Star-Ledger online pets page.