Rescuing Dogs in Smyth County, VA

By Amy McLean, CDR volunteer

“Can you make a phone call for me?”

The chat window from Meredith Raimondi, a director of City Dogs Rescue (CDR), popped up on my screen one January day.

A few months prior I had adopted two dogs through CDR and I was hoping to get more involved with the organization. I’ve always had a soft spot for animals. I had tried to volunteer at other animal welfare organizations in the past, but things got in the way or I didn’t feel like I was doing anything substantial.

CDR was a newer rescue group on the DC scene. I liked their story and the way they embraced social media to help network and rescue dogs at risk of being euthanized in high-kill shelters. I always knew the plight of shelter dogs in America was a major problem. I’d encouraged friends and family members to adopt from shelters instead of buying dogs. But as I followed CDR more closely, I really started to learn the extent of the problem. A staggering number of animals are dying unnecessary deaths every single day in overcrowded and underfunded animal shelters across the country.

So, I decided to do something about it.

Little did I know when I picked up the phone that January day to call the Smyth County Animal Shelter about a beautiful redtick coonhound named Missy that I was starting on an amazing journey to help change the lives of so many animals, fall in love with the spirit of a community that refuses to give up hope for the well being of their local animals, and find a purpose that fulfilled me in a way that I desperately needed.

Smyth County, Virginia is located in the southwestern part of the state, about six hours away from Washington, D.C. It is a beautiful, rural part of the country that has mountains, forests, and a tight-knit community. Unfortunately, it also has a pet overpopulation problem. Too many dogs and cats run free without being spayed or neutered. The stray animal population multiplies exponentially with every new litter, and many strays end up in the local shelter. The animals that are taken in or dropped off are typically unvaccinated and full of viruses, fleas and intestinal parasites that spread like wildfire in the enclosed shelter environment. People drop off loads of un-wanted puppies at the shelter door. Some even ask if they can take other, “cuter” puppies on their way out to which they will quickly get their answer, “We don’t have an exchange program!”

For years this shelter was a hopeless place. 

Animals that are brought into the shelter only have a little over a week to be reclaimed, sometimes less if they aren’t wearing a collar. If no one comes to claim them, they are euthanized to make space for the never-ending stream of incoming dogs. Animals that are surrendered to the shelter aren’t required to be held for any period of time. That’s the dirty little secret that anyone considering dumping their dog at the shelter needs to know: they are often killed first simply because the shelter needs to make room and they know no one is out there looking for that dog. That needs to be said to everyone who drops their animal at a shelter and seriously thinks, “Oh, our Fido will definitely be adopted…he’s cute and such a good dog.”  Dogs of all breeds, every mix imaginable, and all sizes are killed to make room for more. 

Around the time we began contacting the Smyth County Animal Shelter to see if CDR could work with them on rescuing some of their dogs, a change was happening in the local community. Animal Control Officer Kristy Moore and her friend, Jenny Lewis, began photographing the animals and posting them on a Facebook page they created. Local volunteer Jennifer Reedy began showing up at the shelter on a regular basis and snapping photos and videos from her smartphone and posting them on the Smyth Shelter Friends Facebook page. And a community both local and virtual began sharing the dogs. Inquiring. Networking. Calling. Boostrap pulling and Facebook networking. Adopting. Rescuing. It started slowly at first, but the seed had been planted, and hope started to grow. 

The shelter staff was eager and willing to work with our rescue…unfortunately that’s not always the case with other shelters we’ve encountered. I began talking to Sherri Henderson, a shelter attendant, basically every day. She and the kind-hearted Linda Bridgeman keep us posted on who is new, who is urgent and who would be good for our organization to take. And they care for the dogs and give them love while they are in that scary, scary place.

We also began working with dedicated members of the Smyth County Humane Society. Volunteers Pam Howell and Julie Reimer helped me get dogs from the animal shelter (who does not have an in-house vet) to the Smyth County Animal Hospital nearby. Together we stared a fledgling foster program that has now grown from one or two people to a handful of homes that are willing to foster dogs for a few weeks until we are able to transport them to the DC area. “Fostering” for members of the community in the past had typically involved saving a dog from the shelter and being stuck with it due the lack of demand for local adoptions. Many foster dogs just never left and became permanent members of the family. We have a plan for the dogs, we won’t take a dog without one, and we pay for vetting and loan fosters supplies (like leashes, collars and crates). Dedicated fosters such as Robin and Brady Meadows and Scott and Angi Burnop have fostered dog after dog for us since we got involved in the community. Local businesses, such as Rufflections Pet Grooming, have even taken in dogs for a few weeks until our next transport date. And more amazing fosters have recently joined our foster program, like Rhonda Snider and Liz Makosky. We hope it continues to grow. Our dogs are transported to DC every few weeks, more often than not, by the amazing Julie Tankersley and her 86-year-old Dad, Bob.

Our partnership with the Smyth County Animal Hospital has also been essential. We couldn’t do without the quality of medical care and support they give our organization. Dr. Halsey, his wife, Autumn, their veterinary assistant, Sonya Sauls, and many others are constantly running over to the shelter for us to pick up dogs that we are able to rescue. They have sponsored the vetting and boarding for a number of our dogs. And they’ve helped us through some very difficult medical cases that have popped up along the way. 

Since we began working with the Smyth County Animal Shelter, (along with other rescues) we’ve helped significantly reduce the euthanasia rate. We alone have pulled more than 80 dogs from the shelter this year. 

And as I was thinking about what I would say in this blog post last week, I received one of the best emails I’ve ever gotten in my life. 

It was from the Chief Animal Control Officer, Bill Turman, and it said: 

“Hope you’re doing well and I really appreciate what you’re doing for my shelter. I came in today to do my monthly report early while I could be left alone to do it. When I got to the euthanasia log sheets for the dogs I couldn’t find any! That’s because we didn’t euthanize any dogs and I just didn’t realize it. That really stunned me as that has never happened in 27 years. 

Thanks to your rescue and all the others.

Thank you.”

A miracle.  

One time, for one whole month, no dogs died unnecessary deaths at this one shelter. 

But the work is far from over. If we turn our backs for a second — if we stop rolling up our sleeves and rolling out our social media campaigns to raise funds and find fosters and adopters — we’re back to square one. 

So we will keep working in honor of all the dogs we’ve saved, and for all the ones who will need us in the future. If you think the problem is too big for any one person or one organization to make a difference, I hope we changed your mind.

We hope you enjoyed the video and the story behind our relationship with the good people of Smyth County. 

If you’d like to help our efforts in any way, please consider volunteering by contacting CDR or donating to our efforts