Who keeps watch over Virginia's animal shelters?
When local pets get lost or owners can no longer care for them, they often end up here in the Charlottesville Albemarle Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or CASPCA. It depends heavily on donors and the work of volunteers, but this year more than 100 people who worked at the shelter went public with complaints.
Katie Roche, for example, claimed overcrowding was a problem during her three years on the job.
“When CASPCA began transferring in large numbers of dogs from Texas, the overflow of the dogs was housed in crates in the shelter basement for days to weeks at a time.”
And she claims some animals were sent into foster homes without proper testing for contagious disease.
“Some of these dogs tested positive for distemper virus, and this potentially put community dogs at risk,” Roche recalls.
Ex-staffer Morganne Struble says the pressure was on to find homes for as many animals as possible.
“Management had a really strong goal that they wanted to hit 5,000 adoptions in a year, and that seemed to be the only metric that was of concern.”
She doesn’t know why but speculates higher numbers impress donors – especially when hurricanes forced shelters in Florida and Texas to move residents north.
“A lot of times there was grant money attached to those animals.”
One volunteer who complained about conditions says she was “escorted off the property,” and dozens of staffers like Katie Roche have resigned in protest.
“There was one instance where I had to get a large, deaf dog to go back into a crate that was way too small for him, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to get out again for another 16 hours, and he desperately was avoiding going back into that crate. After that I knew that I had to move on.”
So who keeps an eye on Virginia shelters? The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services employs two inspectors who spend a few hours -- even a day reviewing shelter operations. They report to veterinarian Carolynn Bissett.
“If we see violations then we’re going to inspect more frequently, but on average it’s about every 12-18 months.”
In 2019 an inspector said CASPCA had no critical violations but did not have adequate procedures for deciding if dogs or cats needed veterinary treatment, for controlling contagious and infectious diseases and for managing sick animals.
In 2021 the inspector accused CASPCA of poor record- keeping, but Bissett said violations of this kind usually result in a warning or small fine.
“Fifty to $100. They can go up to even $1,000 per violation, but that can be per day, so if we have a really serious situation which we haven’t gotten into in my tenure here, those certainly could mount up.”
State law does not speak to crowding or the use of cages, saying only that facilities must provide adequate feed, water and shelter.
“There aren’t specific dimensions in code or regulation. the animal must be able to stand up, turn around and carry out its normal activities," Bissett explains. "We have, on occasion, seen shelters doubling up on animals, and we need to educate those shelters that there could potentially be either disease transmission or even some behavioral issues.”
Critics say the Charlottesville facility has high worker turnover due to poor management and a toxic work environment promoted by the CEO.
All of these concerns will, presumably, be considered by McGuire Woods, a prominent Virginia law firm hired by the shelter’s board to conduct an investigation. The board’s president declined to comment except to say the probe would take about 90 days, that all employees deserved to be treated with fairness and respect and that the organization is committed to providing safe and humane treatment for all animals in its care.