‘Community crisis:’ Cities’ animal intake contracts highlight concerns

A black Australian Kelpie mix who made herself at home outside an H-E-B store in Edinburg was finally captured late last week after evading authorities for months, garnering community support, and the name “Shadow.”

If the Edinburg canine was caught before Oct. 1, the city would have still been under contract with the largest local animal-intake facility, automatically sending the animal to Palm Valley Animal Center. But Edinburg and PVAC are still negotiating a new price, as the center increased its rate to reflect both the city’s increasing number of animals brought to the shelter and their new per-animal rate, which increased almost threefold.

Last year PVAC charged $20-25 per animal, this year they charge $80-90. Shelter officials say the new charge appropriately funds “the bare minimum” cost of processing an animal.

PVAC officials said last year’s contract with Edinburg was based on previous years’ numbers, which were dwarfed last year. Edinburg brought 8,844 animals to PVAC this past fiscal year, more than double what they brought the previous and four times as much as the year before that.

Edinburg was asked to pay over $500,000, which is more than triple the previous amount.

On the same day Shadow was caught, Edinburg and PVAC agreed on a short-term contract extension through Oct. 12 using the previous rate. This sent Shadow, and other animals Edinburg captured since the beginning of the month, to PVAC.

The city and shelter have since agreed to an extension as they continue to hammer out an agreement.

“The city extended its contract with PVAC through the end of October while we try to reach a contract agreement on a new, yearly contract,” wrote Director of Public Information Cary Zayas in an email.

The Monitor is still awaiting a response to a request to tour Edinburg’s animal intake facility and learn about the preparations at their facility in case an agreement isn’t reached.

Edinburg is not alone in exploring alternative options to PVAC. More than half of the cities PVAC previously served no longer uses their services. If animal populations continue to grow as they are, so will prices.

Before the city of Weslaco transitioned from taking all their trapped animals to Palm Valley Animal Center to opening their animal services center in 2012, they toured a range of facilities across the state, according to the city’s health official Joe Pedraza.

Researching, and outfitting their small facility, took about 12 months. And during their initial year, Weslaco still contracted with Palm Valley Animal Center to take their potentially adoptable pets.

With a yearly operating budget of about $50,000, the city saw annual estimated savings of over $100,000, Pedraza told the Mid-Valley Town Crier in 2016. Pedraza said opting to run their own intake center was a response to increasing costs of service. Rising prices correlate to growing numbers of animals municipalities bring to PVAC, which has increased for their entities annually, according to PVAC officials.

“We had to come up with a way to cut costs, but at the same time, we had to be humane with the animals so it’s not just opening up a shelter and putting animals down,” he said. “When we first opened our shelter, it was just for us … (and) like I told all the rescue groups, we’re not in the shelter business.

“We’re a municipality.”

But Weslaco now services small accounts like Willacy County, Edcouch, Elsa, La Villa, Mercedes and Donna. They added Pharr and San Juan at the beginning of the month. Pedraza added that those cities would be taking care of their own opossums and dead animals.

Edinburg and Alamo expressed interest in working with Weslaco, but Pedraza said he didn’t have the space for their animals.

“If we see it’s too many animals we’re dealing with, we’ll terminate the contract,” Pedraza said of his new contracts. “I’m not going to overload our shelter either.”

With the help of a volunteer networking with potential rescues, Pedraza said Weslaco’s live-release rate was near 50 percent. It’s been growing since the beginning of the year, but he expects the rate to take a hit after the influx of animals from the new contracts.

Weslaco charges $40 per animal versus the $80 to $90 at PVAC, and Pedraza said it’s hard to compare them to PVAC. He said the money goes back into their spay and neuter program.

Weslaco saves money by putting the cost of vetting, vaccinations, spay or neutering on rescues that identify animals they may want. The city does foot the bill for animals adopted through them.

But that cost-saving measure could leave animals in the facility, including lost animals on a three-day hold, vulnerable to common shelter illnesses, according to PVAC officials.

“The expectation that whoever is taking on these lives — these living, breathing beings — is that they’re providing their basic level of care,” said Rebeca Villanueva, director of development at PVAC. “There is a standard … and it goes beyond putting them in a kennel.”

Providing preventative medications upon intake for heartworm and fleas and ticks, basic first aid, medical assessment by a vet, networking to get animals out of the shelter and tracking accurate numbers is the “bare minimum” facilities should do to provide a healthy environment, she said.

“Here at Palm Valley, we’re not just worried about animals in our care but we’re worried about the animal after it leaves as well,” said Mike Bricker, interim executive director and director of operations.

Bricker is paid by Best Friends Animal Society, a national nonprofit committed to the pursuit of no-kill status across the country by 2025. In May, PVAC’s board announced their goal of achieving no-kill status long term, which means having a live-release of more than 90 percent.

Contrary to the name, no-kill still allows for euthanasia when vets assess an animal’s quality of life can’t improve, or when a dog’s behavior is beyond fixing for adoption.

Before coming to PVAC, Bricker was at Camden County Animal Shelter in Blackwood, New Jersey, where they improved from a 45 percent live-release rate to over 97 percent over four years. That shelter took in animals from 14 municipalities.

“It was a little bit different,” Bricker said. “We didn’t have the backing that we’re offering to Palm Valley.”

PVAC officials admit they’re not yet at the first goal of not euthanizing for space, though they haven’t for the last 30 days, he said. They stress while more costs — treating things like broken limbs, ringworm and behavioral issues — could be associated with the long-term pursuit of no-kill, recent price increases are unrelated.

“Right now, we’re just trying to save all our healthy, adaptable animals,” he said, adding it’s still a work in progress.

Bricker said PVAC plans to increase the number of transports out of the Valley for animals, increase education about responsible pet ownership and add to their existing foster roster.

Shadow benefited from that network of foster homes. She was out of the shelter the same day she came into PVAC.

PVAC argues that achieving a no-kill designation would actually help save cities money over time. If the community can reduce the number of strays, then it means less intake for municipalities.

He called animal control officers “champions of the no-kill movement,” and emphasized the role of “positive animal control.” Creating local food pantries or officers doing things like helping repair fences could increase the number of animals in the home.

“There are a bunch of things we can introduce here to chip away at this problem we have,” he said. “But it does take full community involvement.”

As costs of dealing with spay animals increase with the number of animals on the streets, Hidalgo County municipalities aren’t waiting to brainstorm solutions. This year, there have been two meetings involving most major cities in the county to explore solutions, like potential uniform ordinances and a regional shelter, according to multiple individuals at these meetings.

PVAC is optimistic about those sessions, in which they’ve been a part.

“We’re going to continue to have these conversations with these municipalities and with our community,” Villanueva said. “When we continue to see a spike in intake from our municipal partners, then that burden is placed on us, a nonprofit organization having to deal with a community crisis.”

For PVAC, the shift to no-kill is about trying a needed approach.

“We’ve tried it one way for 40 years, and we have seen constantly increase of intake in our facility,” she said. “That number of homeless and stray animals has continued to grow every year we’ve been in operation. We’ve tried one way and we’ve seen marginal success.

“We’re not focusing on just Palm Valley … (but) the community as a whole. We know that healthy animals are dying in the Rio Grande Valley. It does us no good if we can say that Palm Valley saves 90 percent of the animals … when that is not true in our community as a whole.”

Municipalities know there aren’t a lot of options other than PVAC, said McAllen City Manager Roy Rodriguez. His city signed a three-year extension with the shelter, and will pay over $1 million this fiscal year.

“We have seen substantial increases two years in a row, and it is substantial,” he said. “But, we also understand that the shelter is having difficulty with the number of animals they’re having to take in and their finances.”

While they’re tasked with saving taxpayers money, he said that the number of animals sent to PVAC is “staggering,” and McAllen will continue to seek alternatives.

“On one hand we need to be frugal, and on the other we need to be compassionate,” he said.

Staff writer Edward Moreno contributed to this report.