It’s called a shelter. It’s supposed to be temporary. But for some animals, the St. Thomas Humane Society’s animal shelter has become home.
“We have dogs in kennels,” said the society’s Executive Director Jen Deane. “We also have dogs living in crates. We have dogs that have been sitting in the shelter for two or three years.”
When Deane spoke with the Source last week, there were 275 animals housed at the shelter. That’s well over twice its capacity. It was designed to hold a total of 110 common household pets – 40 dogs and 70 cats.
And the Humane Society has responsibility for almost as many dogs and cats that are temporarily housed outside the shelter, in foster homes on the island. Recently, the total number of animals officially under the society’s care has hovered around 500.
Overcrowding is not new. As one longtime volunteer told the Source, “from time to time” the Humane Society has had to temporarily refuse to accept animals at the shelter.
That includes a temporary shut-down just last year.
“We have a huge stray population problem,” Deane said.
In 2022, the Humane Society took in 1,100 strays, she said. Some were collected from various parts of the island and some were found at the shelter’s entrance, presumably left there by caring residents who hoped they would be housed and, ultimately, adopted.
Last year, the Humane Society also accepted 264 pets whose owners surrendered them to the shelter because they felt they could no longer care for them.
Why is it raining cats and dogs?
“The core problem is obviously too many animals out there that aren’t fixed,” said Randy Knight, a longtime supporter of the society and its current president.
Not only do many residents fail to spay or neuter their pets, they often don’t keep them confined in a yard or on a leash.
“People are just letting their animals run,” said Annette Zachman, a past president and stalwart volunteer. With so little attention paid to population control, “It’s very difficult to have a number (of shelter residents) that’s do-able.”
The Humane Society encourages adoptions, but there is no way near enough of them to take care of the overflow.
Although the shelter is not classified as a no-kill facility, the policy has been to avoid euthanizing animals.
“We have not, unless they are deathly ill,” Deane said.
The organization relies on its fostering program on-island and its program of sending pets to the U.S. mainland for adoption to help manage the overflow.
Over the years, under the “Pets with Wings” initiative, the Humane Society has sent thousands of unwanted animals to areas where shelters are looking for pets to place. The catch is that many stateside operations are also overcrowded, so not many will accept the immigrants.
Last year, 589 pets – 403 dogs and 186 cats – made the trip, Deane said.
But that’s not enough, according to Knight.
“We really need to transport over 1,000 a year,” he said.
There are many factors contributing to the problem, according to people who have been dealing with it for years.
“A lot of people can’t afford to take care of their animals,” Deane said. As the price of groceries has increased, so has that of pet food. Add to that the cost of basic medical care, to say nothing of the price of specialized care for an injury or illness.
Many landlords forbid pets or restrict them to small dogs or cats, further limiting the number of residents likely to adopt a shelter pet. Deane said she ran into that situation when she moved to St. Thomas and searched for a rental that would accept her own pets.
The majority of the dogs at the shelter are large, weighing over 40 pounds, Deane said. She resists the description of any dog as a “pit bull mix” because it unfairly mischaracterizes the animal as aggressive, rather than as the companionable pet it can be. Still, she said, “We know there are (dog) fighting rings here” and that can contribute to overpopulation.
What’s the long-term solution?
Scaling back the size of the problem is the fundamental approach. That means promoting the practice of spaying/neutering pets, something the Humane Society has tried for decades.
Another is encouraging adoptions in part by educating the public about the joys and the responsibilities of pet ownership.
“It starts from young,” Zachman said. In the past, the Humane Society ran programs in elementary schools, teaching students about pets. The combination of hurricane damage in 2017, followed by Covid closures and school consolidations interrupted that effort.
“It would be beneficial to get back to the schools,” she said.
It would also help to increase the availability of medical care for animals. Currently, only two veterinarians are working on St. Thomas, severely straining the resources available to the shelter.
“We have a critical veterinarian shortage – not just in the Virgin Islands,” Deane said.
“We have a serious search” to hire both a veterinarian and a vet tech to work at the shelter, Knight said. The plan has been in the works for a while; the space for an in-site clinic has already been identified, he said, but, “Veterinarians are really hard to find right now.”
Increased funding could also help, according to Knight.
A non-profit organization, the Humane Society is reliant primarily on fund-raisers, its flea market sales and private donations. But, it has long contracted with the local government (through the Agriculture Department) to care for stray and abused animals.
Currently, Knight said, the organization receives $175,000 annually under that contract. It also receives $50,000 in government funds towards spay and neutering efforts. The combined $225,000 leaves it nearly $1 million short of its annual budget.
Friends to the Rescue
Historically, the Humane Society has relied on the support of a series of generous donors. Some have contributed thousands and tens of thousands of dollars to specific initiatives, such as Pets with Wings. Some donated toward the construction of the facility. Later, a donor paid for the renovation of one of the facility’s buildings and the extension of outdoor space for cats.
Recently, an anonymous donor paid for the transport of “Catrina,” a dog diagnosed with cancer, to the Stray Rescue of St. Louis center, where she will receive treatment not available on island.
In addition to the mass transport of animals via Pets with Wings, some residents will take an individual animal or two along with them when they fly to the States, transporting the animal to a shelter there. “They have a good network of people” who regularly provide that service, according to a longtime supporter.
For the day-to-day operations of the shelter, including dog-walking and socializing animals, the organization counts on people from the community to supplement work by the staff.
“We have a really good group of volunteers,” Deane said.
The Humane Society of St. Thomas was founded in 1957, per information on its website. It first set up shop in downtown Charlotte Amalie, near Fort Christian. Later it moved to Estate Nadir. In 2012, it opened the facility it occupies today on approximately four acres, off the Weymouth Rhymer Highway, opposite the highway’s entrance to Market Square East.