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wvWest Virginia may be almost heaven to John Denver, but as a state West Virginians are quite poor.  In fact, it ranks 49th out of 50 for per-capita income of $16,477 and 49th out of 50 for median household income at $37,989.   Comparatively New York ranks 8th at $23,889 per-capita and 17th at $56,033 median.
It’s a tough life for many West Virginians as well.  They toil in coal mines for 12 hours at a time, sometimes stooped over in tunnels as short as four feet high, breathing in coal dust and the dampness of the mines.  Ottawa, West Virginia is about 45 minutes from Charleston along a windy road that goes pretty much through nothing.
I know what coal smells like, and as the rain poured down on Sunday I drove the Pets Alive van down Route 119 from Charleston to Logan and I could smell the coal in the air.  The coal mine on the side of Route 119 changed my concept of big.  It was enormous, with coal silos and conveyor belts and hundreds of lights.  That’s the part that is ABOVE the ground.  The action as we know is below.

By now you know why we drove 12 hours from Pets Alive to get to the small town of Ottawa, WV.  We received an email post on one of the many lists we receive about a shelter called SHARE that was closing.
SHARE will be closing for good!
Due to lack of volunteers, funding and the massive number of abandoned animals in the Boone, Logan area SHARE is forced to find homes for the 113 dogs and 22 cats we now have and close the rescue. I am extremely disappointed and upset over the attitude of people in this area and their lack of support. I realize that money is not in abundance and times are tight right now but that does not excuse the lack of interest in the dogs and cats that will now be left for the county pound to pick up and “kill” due to lack of interest on the part of people in Boone and Logan county.

Money does play a key role and I understand in this area things are slow but there were so many other ways in which people could have helped. Putting out donation jars and boxes at local merchants, contacting rescues online to find homes for the dogs and cats, contacting manufacturers for product donations or sponsorships by mail or online…..etc. The list goes on and on. Money donations are only part of the rescue operation. People spend at least 3 or 4 hours a day watching tv, why not come to the shelter and walk a dog that has never known any human compassion, feed the cats, take that black stupid box time and do some good for creatures that are less fortunate. There were so many ways without spending money people could have made this rescue a success and given the homeless, abandoned, abused, stray animals in these counties a temporary home until I could have found them a permanent loving home. Unfortunately that will not happen now and the strays will be back out there wandering the streets, scrounging for food and being poisioned, shot at and mistreated for lack of a “Safe Haven”.

Reports about the shelter trickled in.  When I finally got there I realized that words in West Virginia have different meanings than many of the words here…Home can mean a trailer, or a lean-to or sometimes even an RV that never moves, shelter can mean a donated building that has no heat and barely has running water.  Euthanize usually means a horrible death, often through suffocation in a gas chamber or in more gruesome ways like a bullet through the head.
Let me stop here and tell you a bit about the people in West Virginia.  I know, I know…we elitist Yankees picture tooth-challenged men in dirty jackets and hats like Jed Clampett shooting rifles at squirrels, but truth be told the people of West Virginia are like most people in the South…friendly but not overly so, and really good at spotting Yankees.  John Heads and I walked into Shoney’s one morning and it was like a scene from a movie…as we walk through the door there’s a low buzz of conversation that stops dead.  All heads swivel toward us and drink it all in.  I keep walking and nod to the local people, saying Good Morning and receiving murmurs and smiles in return.
lunchWe are seated and we order, and the smiling waitress says “Y’all gonna have gree-its with that Hon?”  And I notice them all looking at me again.  I smile.  Of course I am.  While I actually LOVE grits and southern biscuits I am afraid of the consequences of saying no.
Janet and I were in Wal*Mart picking up Tamaflu for the sick puppies.  The pharmacist and his assistants were fascinated by us and the lengths we were going to to take care of the animals.  “Y’all came all the way down here from NEW York just to help our animals?  That’s real nice.  Thank you.”  We were touched very much by that.  OUR animals.  There’s no question that the people there love their animals and consider them theirs.  They were also greatly appreciative of our being there.  We stayed at the Best Western Logan Inn, which was terrific.  As we were checking out the manager ran up to us to introduce himself and thanked us for what we were doing.  He then slipped two twenties into Janet’s hand and explained that he would be honored to buy us lunch that day.
I think the disconnect is in understanding the responsibility of caring for animals.  Understanding that if you have six Beagles and you take them hunting and only one finds the prey you don’t tie the other five to trees and walk away.  Spay and neuter are unheard of because these people can’t afford to eat sometimes, let alone spend a hundred bucks getting their animals fixed.
We have a baseline of care when it comes to animals.  In fact, we have a baseline when it comes to life.  It is vastly different in West Virginia.  People shoot their dogs.  They think nothing of tying them outside or not feeding them or bringing them to shelters where the average kill rate is between 90 and 95 percent.  Dogs have a better chance of living as strays then they do at the shelters, so people simply abandon them rather then bringing them in.
When you drive around New York, even in Orange or the surrounding counties we look around and call it “rural.”  Not a chance.  Where satellite dishes sprout from houses in New York outhouses sprout from houses where we were, and car years and models that I thought were gone forever are all over the place there.
buildingAs an aside, West Virginia also seems to be the place that old chain restaurants go to die.  Remember Bob Evans?  Hardees?  They’re all there.  We are all still really upset we never got to visit Biscuit World though, because a world filled with biscuits is the only kind of world I ever want to inhabit.
They do “value” their animals.  It’s just a lesser value.  It’s easy to throw around the concept of value when you live in a decent house, drive a late model car and have a stable job that doesn’t involve digging rocks underground on your back.  I’m certainly not condoning or defending the mistreatment of animals.  I’m not even defending or condoning not spoiling your animals.  I’m just saying that the culture is far different.
Let me try to paint a picture.  SHARE is an organization that covers two of the poorest counties in West Virginia.  Boone county has 22% of its population below the poverty line, and Logan county 24%.  Both are double the national average and double that of Orange County, NY, which is around that average at 10.5%.
There are county shelters in Boone and Logan counties.  Both have kill rates above 90%.  One county gasses animals, and one performs heartstick lethal injections, which is about as humane as you’re going to get in this area.  One county has no Humane Law Enforcement, and the other has only a few overworked and underfunded officers.  SHARE is in the middle.
Many people and organizations responded to Trish Bragg’s call for help, including Best Friends and Pets Alive.  Two PA volunteers that are also involved with Best Friends drove to Ottawa packed with provisions and supplies from Pets Alive.  By anyone’s standards, the story that emerged and the pictures that were sent were horrific.
There were starving dogs covered with mange and animals living outside in the cold.  Becky and Kim were very concerned about Goldie, a dog that was horribly emaciated, and called me at home late one night, begging Pets Alive to take her.  We did of course.


We were horrified by the pictures and the firsthand accounts of things at this building out in the middle of nowhere without running water, no telephone, not enough food, and  too many animals.
It started a debate at Pets Alive and with our partners like Best Friends, and we eventually sought advice from organizations and people in West Virginia.  Is Trish Bragg a hoarder and should she be encouraged to stop?
Looking at the definition of hoarding, it seemed to me that she could fit that definition:
Animal hoarding is defined as failure to provide minimal standards of care for animals; lack of insight about that failure; denial of the consequences of that failure; coupled with obsessive attempts to maintain and even increase the number of animals in the face of these failures and deteriorating conditions.
I spoke at length with caseworkers at Best Friends who told me that there’s a fine line between hoarding and just simply being overwhelmed, and they spend an inordinate amount of time helping people maintain that line while saving as many animals as possible.
I also spoke and corresponded with people in West Virginia who were familiar with Trish, either directly or indirectly, and she had tangled with many rescues and law enforcement officers and agencies there.  The jury was evenly divided between the animals in that poor, rural area of West Virginia have no one else and she needs to be shut down.
So all of us agreed that I would go down there with Janet and some volunteers, assess the animals and Trish, and decide which of the two perspectives was correct.  Regardless, Trish had clearly gotten in over her head and the animals were suffering because of it, which was the immediate problem that we would remedy.
John and I had to run to Charleston to get the truck we rented to get the animals back to Pets Alive.  I was sitting next to a chunky, furry cat when I was filling out the papers.  The owner explained that someone had dumped her in a dumpster on the property.  Sigh.  So much for valuing animals.
dogcrateI really didn’t know what to expect as we got closer to SHARE’s shack.  We got lost and since it’s difficult to turn a 16 foot truck around on a road that barely accommodates a single car, and since cell phone service is nonexistent where we were, I sent John ahead in his van to scout for the road while I tried to reach the rest of the team on the walkie-talkies we had brought.  I raised Carmine on the walkie and eventually Patti Perfetti, our famous former adoption co-ordinator came trotting down the road to guide me to the building.  Patti lives about two hours away from the shelter and came down to help.  It was really terrific to see her.
She hopped up into the cab.  “How’s it going?”  I asked her.  She sighed.  “It’s pretty bad.  Before we get there, Matt I need to tell you that you can’t shut her down.  These animals have no other place to go.”  There it was — both sides of the argument.  Could we make it better rather than destroying the only chance these animals have to live?
121It’s difficult to describe what I felt when I drove up to the end of the narrow, rutted dirt road.  So narrow in fact that I pulled the mirrors in so they wouldn’t scrape against trees.  When I got to the building at the end of the road my first impression was of a dumpster overflowing with garbage bags that cascaded down onto the ground.  I parked the truck to the side of the building and tried to make sure at least two of the wheels didn’t sink into the mud.  It was raining.
When I stepped out of the truck I was hit by a stench that is still on the clothes I stripped out of in my garage when I got home.  Fetid, a mixture of animal feces, sewage, rot and dankness, it permeated everything.  I was met by Janet and Becky, dressed in disposable gowns and wearing gloves.  This wasn’t good.  Janet had examined some puppies and tested them for Parvo.  It was a raging positive.  Parvo is a virus that is amazingly resilient.  It can live on the ground or in a building for months, waiting to infect another animal.  It is relatively harmless to healthy, vaccinated animals but deadly to young animals, unvaccinated animals and those with weakened immune systems.  The immediate problem was that all of the puppies (a dozen or so) lived in the same kennel, and they bumped noses regularly with the dogs next door.
We immediately removed those dogs from the next kennel over and isolated them.  We scrubbed the kennel to within an inch of its life with a bleach solution.  For all its resilience bleach kills Parvovirus dead immediately.  Janet set up quarantine procedures for the puppies, including a bleach bath outside their run and an off-limits policy.  She then began giving the puppies IV fluids and caring for the worst of them, who died shortly after.  She was worried about four other puppies and told me that we needed to get Tamaflu for them immediately or they were in danger of dying.
I had barely a chance to meet the dogs or the people and I needed to get moving to get the medicine.  I asked Trish to call her vet, have him call in a prescription to the nearest pharmacy and we would go get it together.
I had a few hours to size up Trish and make a decision on what was in the best interest for the animals.  Trish, in a lot of ways reminded me of Sara Whalen, which is both positive and negative.  I bounced back and forth between hoarder and well-intentioned amateur in over her head.
I have come to the conclusion that she is a well-intentioned amateur who got in over her head.  I think she has hoarding tendencies, but overall I think her biggest mistake was taking in too many animals without a support infrastructure to fall back on.  That is, of course, my opinion and my judgment, which could very well be wrong.  Kerry and I actually had a rare difference of opinion on this, as Kerry was leaning much more toward hoarder, but deferred to me because I was the one on the ground in West Virginia.
filthypupsTrish told me that she was reviled by the establishment in both counties for trying to take in dogs.  She was visited by HSUS, Peta, the state authorities and even the local sheriff.  In all cases they came there with one impression and left with another.  The worse she was accused of (this was within the recent ninety days) was overcrowding.  Sigh.  So why didn’t someone DO what we were doing?  Why did they just take a look around, determine that she was struggling and then not offer any solution or advice or anything other than a wave goodbye?
None of the local vets would help her, making her pay full price for spay/neuter, medicine and office visits.  She finally found one an hour and a half away who works with her.  And she has absolutely no concept of how to run a shelter.  There are no records.  Animals are medicated but not correctly.  She gives the mangy dogs ivermectin but not enough (I suspect that this is because she tries to stretch the medicine).  They will eventually get better, but it will take longer.
Are the animals safe in her care?  Sigh.  I wasn’t happy with dogs living outside all the time in the winter.  I didn’t like that some dogs were in crates most of the day.  I was appalled that they weren’t eating every day at the worst of this.  But all those things point back to overcrowding.  The conclusion I came to after spending time with Trish and seeing the operation is that she needs guidance and help.  She sees herself as a waypoint for these animals.  She wants to get them out of West Virginia and to places where they have a chance.  I am convinced she was sincere about this and that is a very anti-hoarder sentiment.
Trish trusts no one, including me.  As a result it’s difficult to tell truth from fiction, but I think I got the gist of the truth.  I spoke with many people about her, including some of her neighbors and a lot of locals who pretty much agree with my assessment.
goldie2One of the reasons we were there was because of Goldie.  Goldie is a golden retriever mix who was emaciated and starving.  She’s doing better at Pets Alive but should never have been in that condition.  I asked Trish point blank about Goldie.  She said that Goldie had actually been in WORSE shape at the county shelter where they were about to euthanize her and Trish just couldn’t let them do it.  Goldie had been to the vet twice and while she had put on weight she couldn’t seem to get more weight on her no matter what Trish did.
While the rest of the dogs were thin, they clearly weren’t starving, so I was inclined to think that there was an element of truth to what she said.
We stopped at Subway and picked up lunch for everyone and headed back with the little bit of Tamaflu we could scrape up at two different pharmacies.
Everyone was lingering around the back of the Pets Alive van munching on their sandwiches.  Slowly they all drifted away and I was the only one still there, chewing absentmindedly and churning away about how to handle all this.  I went to close the doors of the van and there she was.
Xena is a smallish brindle sweetheart with half a tail.  She, Dolly and a few of the other dogs were allowed to roam the property at SHARE.  That seems like a really bad idea and probably would be at Pets Alive, but you have to remember that we are in West Virginia at the end of a dead end street with no houses in the area.
She was looking at me with those eyes.  Friendly, trusting, sweet.  And that stubby tail was thumping into the muck.  It was love at first sight.  I stripped all of the meat out of half my sandwich and handed it to her.  She gobbled it up and the tail wagged.  And the eyes melted me.  And her sweetness was amazing.  I gave her the bread.  The veggies.  Everything.  And she devoured it.  I wondered if she had ever tasted human food.  She had now.  I gave her what was left of the half I was eating.  She took it all so gently.
zeenaShe was my pal from then on.  When I left she ran toward me to say goodbye.  The next morning when I pulled up she came running out of nowhere wagging her tail and jumping on me to lick my face.  When I was there she was never far away from me.  No matter what you think of Trish, without her there was a greater than 90% chance that Xena would have been stuck in the heart with a needle or suffocated in the gas chamber, then buried in a hole.  That was reality for her and all of the other animals here.
Before I left for West Virginia I spoke with two people who were intimately involved with what was going on in West Virginia.  One was Mary, formerly with the Tomkins County shelter, and the other was Melinda, an activist with the Animal Support Project.  Both said that they were working with Trish to get her back on her feet and to understand her limitations, and to get some policies and procedures in place that would ensure that dogs pass through her facility on to rescuers in the northeast and mid-atlantic.
I am a huge cynic, but I listened to what they had to say and took it under advisement.  Seeing the alternatives and talking to Tracey when I was there really convinced me that Trish should be given another chance with support and supervision.
Tracey is an activist who lives in West Virginia.  She and her husband have spent tens of thousands of dollars of their own money to spay and neuter animals and get them to good homes outside of the state.  She works closely with The Animal Law Coalition, an organization here in New York headed by Laura Allen, the former corporate counsel of Best Friends.  I like Laura very much, as well as her husband Russ Meade, now of Farm Sanctuary.  As an aside, I need to mention that I think Laura and her group are way off on their opposition to Oreo’s Law but I trust their commitment to doing what is in the best interest of animals.
Tracey is a powerhouse.  She goes around from place to place in West Virginia and extols the virtues of No-Kill.  She rolls up her sleeves and gets her hands dirty, and isn’t afraid to play hard ball.  She is largely responsible for getting dogs out of SHARE and on to forever homes.
She has introduced the concept of intake to SHARE, updated the web site, and arranged regular pickups from other rescues for the dogs Trish takes in.  The problem, she said, was that she was having trouble getting the dogs to Hagerstown, Maryland, a few hours away.  Once they got there there was a solid network that could transport the animals to most of the northeast and mid-atlantic states.
As luck would have it two of the volunteers that had met us there were Frankie and her husband Ted.  They were a terrific help and offered to run stuff up to New York with us (they live in Virginia).  The main reason it was most fortuitous is that they are very involved with a network of people who transport dogs that way.  The two promised to get together and compare notes, and get a transport network together for these dogs.
The last thing I asked Tracey was whether she thought Trish was a hoarder or just in over her head.  She had been working with Trish for three weeks and helped get other rescues to take 70 of her dogs.  And she got them out and to their forever homes.  She said that Trish was happy to send them off, which is again very un-hoarderlike.  I told her Pets Alive would do anything we could to help and that I would hold her personally responsible for any animal that came into the shelter.  She was confident they would make it all work.  She’s a tough cookie and Trish is lucky to have her and all the other people and groups watching over her.
Xena and I spent some time together that afternoon, and we headed off to the hotel.  Patty stayed that night too with two dogs that came from a foster home that we didn’t want introduced into the shelter until we were sure everyone was okay.
The next morning was hectic.  Xena was running around the place, getting into stuff, sniffing all the other dogs as we loaded them into their crates in our rented box truck.  She was shuttled into the rapidly emptying runs in the building.  When we were about to leave it was time to get her.
For the first time since I arrived my footsteps echoed in the empty building.  Trish and volunteers were sweeping up the cedar shavings and throwing things away.  Xena knew something was up, and she was looking at me with curious eyes, her stubby tail wagging gently back and forth.
mangepupsI opened the door and we walked out of the empty building together into the light.   Neighbors had come to the truck to see the dogs off.  People of all ages were walking through the truck saying goodbye, crying as they emerged from the back.
Xena and I went over to the passenger side of the truck where the door was already open and I told her to jump in.  She hesitated.  Trish came up behind us and said “Load up!”  Zena jumped into the seat that I had plied with blankets for her comfort.
We started off on our twelve hour drive, John’s van in front, Xena and I in the middle, and Janet driving the Pets Alive van behind us.  Xena was very nervous at first, drooling and shifting uncomfortably.  She eventually settled down.  My suitcase was propped up between us (there was nowhere else to put it), and my hand was resting on it like an armrest.
Xena got up on the seat, turned around a few times and settled back down, pressing the side of her face against my hand.  This reminded me of Roscoe, who does the same thing.  At that moment I missed my dogs very much.  She kept herself pressed against my hand.  I drove 700 miles with one hand.  As we turned the corner onto one of the back roads I saw a Jack Russell terrier dead on the side of the road, the fur on his little body matted from the rain of the previous day.  I thought of Kerry’s Ernie, the little dog that was found running down the middle of the road in Arkansas, and I wondered how close to dying this way he had come.  And I looked over at Xena, snuggled against my hand.  She was safe.  She wasn’t one of the 90% of dogs in local shelters awaiting their death, nor was she this poor Jack Russell who had been struck and left.  I hoped (and still hope) that I had done the right thing in trusting Trish to save more animals and keep things running right.
As we got on to route 118 and the cacaphony of barks emanated from the back of the truck, we all noticed two dogs sitting on the side of the road, watching us pass by.
We got back to Pets Alive at 1:30 AM that night, and a dozen people were there waiting for us.  They took all of the dogs off the truck and gently guided them to their temporary homes.  I was home about 4:00, and as I lie in bed, curled among four of my dogs, I thought about Xena and the West Virginia dogs, and I wondered about Trish.  I remembered what I said to her just before I left.
“I hope you’re sure about what you’re doing because if I have to come back down here Im gonna kick your ass.”
I’ve been sneaking Xena out of the back kennel every day for a short walk.  And I’m going back to West Virginia to meet with Tracey and some humane law enforcement agencies and some vets and some government officials to see what we can do together about promoting spay and neuter and keeping more dogs from ending up dead.
And in the meantime we’re going to do everything we can to keep these sweet beautiful dogs from ending up statistics.  Thanks to Janet, Carmine, John and Becky for doing this.  Thanks to YOU for making it possible financially and thank you for allowing me to have this job that both breaks my heart beyond repair and brings me more joy than I’ve ever felt.
There are dogs, like people, who you connect with instantly.  If I could have one more dog I’d take Xena in a heartbeat.

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