Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the Peninsula Regional Animal Shelter

NEWPORT NEWS  — During peak “kitten season” in May and June, no one at the Peninsula Regional Animal Shelter is shocked to see 10 kittens delivered at once – or 20, or maybe even 30.

Some are as young as a day old, so staff might try to slide them into a cage with a cat nursing her biological babies. Kittens that grow to least two pounds are strong enough for spaying or neutering, a pre-adoption requirement.

Other recent arrivals have included Mr. Chunks, a 120-pound black pig surrendered by a Hampton owner; Buckeye, a 27-pound cat now on an exercise plan to shed weight; and Muggs and Daisy, 10-year-old dogs so bonded that staff held a wedding ceremony for them. Twenty rats came in one day; 29 cats from a hoarding situation another. A few turkeys and chickens have shown up, too.

“You can’t plan for it, and we can’t say no to any of them,” says shelter manager Roger Iles. “It can be quite intense. The reality is we can’t save all of them, but we can give as many as possible a second chance.”

Plenty of passion – and occasionally pain – goes into that mission.

The shelter, a collaboration between Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson and York County, opened in 2015 at Jefferson Avenue and Briarfield Road in Newport News.

The 30,000-square-foot facility holds 90 dogs, 180 cats and 30 “pocket pets” such as rats, rabbits, parakeets, lizards, turtles and guinea pigs.

Animals are picked up by Animal Control or surrendered by owners facing financial strain, unexpected deployment or other obstacles.

The shelter took in 6,269 animals in City Year 2017, which runs from July 2016 to the following June: 3,172 cats, 2,821 dogs and 276 others.

About 67 percent were strays, another third owner surrenders. Strays are held for five or 10 days depending on if they have a collar, in case an owner is searching, before they can move into adoption areas.

Of all animals, 31 percent – 1,946 in total – were adopted in 2017. Sixteen percent were returned to owners, 9 percent were transferred to another shelter and a small number died or were wildlife releases. The remainder, about 42 percent, were euthanized as too sick, wild or dangerous to be rehabilitated, or less often because of space issues.

That is a typical rate for municipal shelters, according to the American Humane Association; it also improved from 45 percent the previous year.

Once on the adoption floor, animals aren’t on a set deadline for when they would face euthanasia.

“We have adopted out dogs with missing limbs and a cat with an eye removed,” notes Iles, an England native with a zookeeping background.

Feral cats get a chance to show an attraction to humans; animals with contagious diseases can go under the care of an onsite veterinarian in isolation rooms.

About 60 percent of dogs are pit bulls, with hounds and mixes also common.

Animal behaviorists test each on touch toleration – sometimes using a fake hand on a stick to avoid potential bites – and aggression.

“We have to be very honest, so we don’t send them into the wrong home,” says Danielle Sheene, a behavior evaluator.

Staff also is upfront about annual pet costs – roughly $3,000 for dogs and $1,800 for cats – and questions potential adopters on living situations and schedules.

Roger Iles, manager of the Peninsula Regional Animal Shelter, delivers a treat to a dog looking for a home. (Alison Johnson/HNNDaily)
Roger Iles, manager of the Peninsula Regional Animal Shelter, delivers a treat to a dog looking for a home. (Alison Johnson/HNNDaily)

In cat rooms, litter boxes are hidden at the base of multi-level cages so visitors can focus on bonding with animals.

“I often tell people, ‘See who says, ‘Take me home,’” says Angela Herring, a cat caregiver. “If a cat comes right over and paws at the door, that means something.”

To keep animals as happy as possible, 11 full-time and 18 part-time staff, along with about 80 volunteers, give cats roaming time outside cages, walk dogs two or three times daily and bring both out for socialization. Some dogs go on weekend outings with foster families.

Of course, not every animal gets a happy ending.

Those are humanely euthanized after pre-sedation, and a cremation service retrieves their bodies to spare staff the emotional pain of seeing an onsite incinerator.

“There is a risk of ‘compassion fatigue’ working at a shelter, so we are careful,” Iles says. “We all try to focus on the animals we do help.”

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