Palm Valley Animal Center granted The Monitor access to its facility to track the nonprofit’s intake process and follow the 85 cats and dogs reportedly processed on June 5. This is the second part in the series.

Texas leads the country in euthanizing cats and dogs, and sitting at the top of that list is the Palm Valley Animal Center. It’s a factor that made its name and the Rio Grande Valley infamous with animal rights advocates worldwide.

Specifically affecting the Valley’s animal control crisis is a perfect storm of overpopulation and widespread infection due to apathy or lack of education, municipalities and residents failing to push policy that addresses the reality on the ground, and a shortage of veterinarians to provide care.

“The Valley is (ground zero) as far as Texas animal shelters are concerned,” said PVAC board president Keely Lewis.

With a goal of making the United States “no-kill,” a designation where a facility achieves at least a 90% live-release rate, animal-welfare organization Best Friends Animal Society identified PVAC as a priority.

In a November 2018 blog post, Best Friends points out that Los Angeles’ six shelters took in about 45,000 cats and dogs in 2017 while PVAC took about 30,000 into their one.

“If Los Angeles was dealing with the same per-capita shelter numbers as PVAC, they would have taken in more than 165,000 in 2017,” Julie Castle writes. “On the funding side of things, using L.A. again as a comparison, Palm Valley has a budget of $3 million compared to Los Angeles’ $23 million.

“Hidalgo County is by no means a lost cause, but the situation there does highlight one of the facts of the no-kill 2025 campaign: Significant numbers of animals are being killed in shelters that are so dramatically under-resourced and over-burdened that they may as well be operating in the 1970s.”

Best Friends started deploying resources to PVAC in spring 2018 and helped the shelter to change policies to improve live outcomes.

By June 2018, Mike Bricker was sent to PVAC to direct operations. The PVAC board recently approved Bricker as interim executive director at least through September 2020, according to Lewis. Best Friends is sending a new operations director later this summer.

“They’ve committed to continue helping us, beyond the 18 months,” Lewis said. “They’re going to make sure we stay sustainable and at least 90% no-kill.”

Stacey and her ten puppies were picked up by Hidalgo County animal control on June 5. As of this weekend, three are still alive, and Sandra got adopted. Stewart, the pup featured on the front page of The Monitor for the first installment of the series, is parvo positive. Stewart, and his sisters Samantha and Sandy, are scheduled for transfer to MatchDog Rescue with their mom. (Daniel A. Flores | [email protected])

Stacey, a Blue Heeler mix, licked her puppy’s belly Saturday morning at the “Match Pad” in Edinburg. It’s located off North Doolittle Road at the city’s small animal facility PVAC uses as an off-site spot for soon-to-be transferred animals.

The mother came into the shelter on June 5 with 10 puppies. Sandra was adopted out of PVAC and three are still alive. The six decreased pups are among the 10 animals that died in the care of the shelter.

Sofia (top left), Samuel (top middle), Suezanna (top right), Sapho (bottom left), Serena (bottom middle) and Stephanie (bottom right) didn’t make it in the shelter long enough to get transferred out. Three of their siblings and their mother was scheduled to head to New Jersey. (Courtesy photos)

MatchDog Rescue out of New Jersey foots the bill for the staff and care for the pups at Match Pad, which alleviates space at PVAC. There, they’re put into another system with different medical protocols, including taking weight every two weeks.

Stacey’s female pups, Sandy and Samantha, have both gained a few pounds since intake. Stewart has lost half a pound, which could be a symptom of parvo. Staff is optimistic that his parvo test result could be a false positive.

Stewart entered PVAC with his Blue Heeler-mix mother and his eight siblings. He’s one of three puppies still alive, and he’s tested positive for parvo. He and his family are off-site at the Match Pad in Edinburg, a collaboration with New Jersey based MatchDog Rescue that covers their costs until transport. (Daniel A. Flores | [email protected])

When Bricker arrived in June 2018, he identified mid-sized pups like Stacey and her puppies as “low-hanging fruit.” Unlike his previous shelter which saw mostly larger animals, PVAC’s intake would move quickly in a facility up north, he said.

“Those dogs should not be dying in shelters anywhere,” he said.

This logic informed the “800 Pup Project,” an initiative funded and staffed by Best Friends, which saw the shelter transporting small dogs and puppies to an off-site warehouse.

The idea was to hold animals there before Best Friends would pay to transport them out of town.

Ultimately, 840 animals were rescued through the project, but not before staff faced a startling reality. After the first transports, rescues noticed some dogs testing positive for a serious, highly contagious virus.

“Inadvertently, we found out that there was an intempic issue in the community with distemper,” Bricker said, euthanizing many pups in the process.

He attributed the outbreak in part to having held the animals longer than usual.

“Animals weren’t staying long enough to assess types of illness,” he said.

Distemper is difficult to identify because it shares symptoms with common ailments a dog might have in a shelter, like an upper respiratory infection, cough, green eye discharge or even dandruff.  

Tests have to be sent away — unlike SNAP testing for parvo, which is quick and relatively inexpensive — and cost from $60 to $90, Bricker said. The problem was so prevalent with intake animals, he said, it was only with the help of Best Friends that they began testing.

Mike scrolled through a spreadsheet of 153 dogs who were or are being testing for the disease. The diagnosis has dropped to about 50%, he said.

Tilly, a sandy shepherd mix, is held in “staging” as she waits for a distemper test. Her paperwork notes a potential distemper exposure on June 13, but she had no symptoms on June 20. (Daniel A. Flores | [email protected])

A sandy shepherd mix, Tilly was potentially exposed to distemper on June 13. She was moved to an urgent kennel and was later relocated to an area where dogs are waiting for distemper test results.

“Generally, they don’t go from urgent to staging,” Bricker said. “Well, they wouldn’t prior to the distemper testing.”

But even less serious illnesses could trigger shelter staff to put a deadline on an animal, meaning they’d only have 24 hours to find a live outcome. This process relies on the help of those online working to connect vulnerable animals with fosters or rescues by tagging them.

The urgent kennels in the euthanasia room hold the most vulnerable animals in the shelter. (Daniel A. Flores | [email protected])

She was moved to urgent, and had a day to find a live outcome, which expired on Sunday. Colton is one of five animals still in care with noted health issues, that has not been cleared for adoption. Another five were euthanized on the basis of health alone.

Colton, a black and grey tabby, was diagnosed with ringworm on arrival. She was moved to urgent, and had a day to find a live outcome, which expired on Sunday. (Daniel A. Flores | [email protected])
Debra and Dolores, six-month-old female Labrador mix pups with varying degrees of a skin condition and “GED” (green eye discharge) at intake, have spent their time in the “urgent” kennels. Their skin issues have completely cleared up, but their paperwork notes an upper respiratory infection as of June 23 with a deadline for a live outcome by June 24. That deadline passed, and they’re still in urgent as of Sunday. (Daniel A. Flores | [email protected])

Debra and Dolores, sibling Labrador mix pups, came into the center with varying degrees of a skin condition and green eyes discharge.

Their skin has cleared up in urgent, but they’ve both been given deadlines for ringworm and upper-respiratory infection, respectfully. The pair will likely be euthanized if they don’t find a live outcome by Tuesday. 

The animal activist community online targets cases like these, where animals with curable ailments face death as alleged evidence of “murder” with PVAC being called a “death camp,” or invoking an animal “Holocaust” on social media.

Such energy may help bring attention to animals that get saved. Nine animals have been marked as transferred, and more are waiting to be moved.

PVAC officials will even concede that these activists’ passion was instrumental in making changes. Also, one can trace the center’s new approach to the aftermath of a viral video that circulated in early 2018, which drew criticism over the center’s conditions.

“The spotlight is on us, and we welcome it because I think that’s what led us to see the improvements to date,” said Rebeca Villanueva, director of development at PVAC. “We’re going to keep doing good work and try to save as many animals as possible,” which requires bringing in all stakeholders.

“Even those who are opposed to Palm Valley play a role in what we’re doing every day,” she added.

One improvement is adding another way for cats to find a live release.

Alexa, a brown and black feral tabby from Edinburg, was released back into the field as part of a community cat initiative. (Courtesy photo)

Alexa, a brown and black feral tabby from Edinburg, was released back into the field as part of a community cat initiative.

PVAC began a pilot in Edinburg with the financial and logical support of Best Friends. The organization is providing a vet, two vet techs, two vans and the traps, kennels and other equipment.

The shelter has been reactive, “concentrating so much on what do we do once they get here, we don’t have the time or resources to engage how we stop them from coming in,” Lewis said.This program is going to be a huge game changer.

“It’s about a million dollar investment on their part for three years.”

Amia, a shorthair black cat, might not be so lucky to be included in this project. She was picked up McAllen, thus less likely to make it back on the streets as a “community cat.”

Amia, a shorthair black and white cat, hides in her feral cat den.

But most animals still escape the shelter the old fashion way: adoption, and those numbers are up for the organization. In total, 23 of the June 5 intake have been taken home by adopters, who pay no fees or deposits for spay and neuter.

“At this time of the year, we have to remove all the barriers for adoptions,” Lewis said, adding that the chances of those adopted living a good life improves outside the shelter. “We have to hope that this is going to be good for all the animals.”

PVAC has two adoption rooms in the front of the facility. These weren’t used for adoptions when PAWS first opened. Now, this is just one of the places at PVAC potential adopters can see animals. (Daniel A. Flores | [email protected])
Skylar is a medium hair tabby with a mixture of grey, black and brown. She’s available for adoption in a cat room located at the front of PVAC. (Daniel A. Flores | [email protected])
PVAC’s sister facility, the Laurie P. Andrews PAWS Center, was built with a focus on adoption. (Daniel A. Flores | [email protected])
Abby, a brown shepherd mix, sits in a kennel at PAWS. (Daniel A. Flores | [email protected])
Abby and Bailey, a tricolored shepherd mix, both can into PVAC on June 5. They’re both available for adoption at PAWS. (Daniel A. Flores | [email protected])

Abby, a brown shepherd mix, and Bailey, a tricolored shepherd mix, share a kennel at PAWS. Daphne, a tricolored black, brown and tan shepherd mix, overcame a respiratory infection to make it to this point.

Dogs and cats are housed together to maximize shape, and nagging illness would prevent them from being in position to be adopted.

While Daphne still needs to find a family, she’s beat the odds to make it to this point.

Daphne, a tricolored black, brown and tan shepherd mix, overcame a respiratory infection. She’s at PAWS in the back kennels with other pups eligible for adoption. (Daniel A. Flores | [email protected])

“We’ve increased lifesaving in every aspect that we can … but it’s the community wellness and spaying and neutering of the animals that are leaving our facility,” he said.

“Those are the things we need really bad right now, and I can’t make that happen.

“It’s so frustrating.”

And if there were to be more cheap, or even free spay and neuter services, you’d still need the vets to do it, said Dr. Robert Ramos, local vet and PVAC board member. There is a deficit Valleywide as it is.

Another looming problem is the aging of local veterinarians, many of whom will reach retirement age over the next two decades. This, coupled with the difficulty to attach vets to the Valley, will only exacerbate the lack of available care.

“If their goal is to make an impact as a vet, there is nowhere else that they’ll make a larger impact than coming down here,” Bricker said. “We have the money to pay them, we just need a person to come down here.”