MARTINSVILLE–In a regular year, Martinsville’s Animal Control department handles five to six animal cruelty cases. Already in 2018, Animal Control Officer E.C. Stone has dealt with 14 and it’s drained the operation’s budget.
“We’ve had an unusual amount of animal cruelty cases this year,” Stone said. “Usually we’ll have five or six in a year. We’ve had 14 since May.”
Animal cruelty involves highly neglectful or abusive acts, such as not properly medicating an animal or not giving it enough food.
Stone said he’s not sure why there’s been a recent spike in cases, but offered some speculation. Some animal-related cases likely hinge on personal finances.
“I don’t know what’s involved, but I do know vet care’s expensive,” Stone said. “I’ve ran across it where people would rather their dog eat than them, but the dog’s still hungry.”
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If it’s a problem that Stone can help solve, he takes action. He’s given out dog food to people who fell on hard times and couldn’t afford it, but otherwise took good care of their pets.
Nicole Harris, executive director at the SPCA of Martinsville-Henry County, said that a person’s upbringing often plays a factor.
“I really think it’s morals, what you were brought up believing,” Harris said.
Another problem facing the city appears to be dumping, when people drop off an animal and drive away.
“I think some were dumped in Martinsville because we could not locate the owner,” Stone said. “Nobody knew the dog. Right after it was dumped, people would call us.”
Sometimes, it’s purely neglect.
“People forget about them,” Stone said.
That’s when a real problem occurs.
“Any time a dog loses 20 percent of his bodyweight, he’s malnourished,” Stone said.
While the community often helps save a dog’s life by calling animal control, the officer still runs across pets that are beyond help.
“Sometimes I see a dog and say, why in the world haven’t I heard about it?” Stone said. “…A lot of people wait until it’s too late.”
This year, Stone rescued one dog that an individual had on an all-lettuce diet. The dog stayed at the vet’s office for over a month, but showed no signs of improvement. To alleviate his suffering, the dog was euthanized.
‘ Speak up quickly’
Stone urged community members to speak up quickly when they see an animal being mistreated.
“Reach out. Don’t wait until it becomes emaciated,” Stone said. “When it’s emaciated, it takes months at the vet. They feed him small portions with special food to get his stomach back in shape.”
While calling animal control or the SPCA are great options, sometimes a simple visit to a friend or neighbor’s house can help a pet in need.
“Nine times out of 10, there’s a neighbor who knows someone’s not caring for an animal,” Harris said.
Telling someone that there’s a hardship might not come as the surprise some pet owners fear.
“Speak up, first of all,” Harris said. “Start off with people close to you. There’s probably someone who wants to help, but doesn’t know how to.”
In some cases, circumstances changed quickly. There could have been a death or illness in the family that hindered a pet’s care.
“Any time there’s a broken person, there’s a broken animal,” Harris said.
If an individual can no longer care for an animal, it’s better to let a friend, animal control or the SPCA step in to help than to let the pet suffer.
“To drop that pride and ask for help, that’s hard,” Harris said. “Some people are ashamed and they don’t ask for help out of embarrassment.”
Putting the person before their pride, the SPCA seeks not to lecture those who surrender their pets, but to help them through a difficult time.
“The SPCA is a refuge. We help rehabilitate the animal and we help rehabilitate the person,” Harris said. “…There’s no judgment. It’s never our place to make judgment. It’s our job to counsel those tears. The person could be facing a hardship no one knows about. We can be sensitive and listen to those cares.”
For those who don’t admit that there’s a problem and mistreat their animals, misdemeanor or felony charges could befall them.
“Animal cruelty is a class 1 misdemeanor. It’s a class 6 felony if the animal dies,” Stone said. “We’re trying to get kind of like a malicious wounding charge if someone violently beats a dog.”
However, it’s not easy to prosecute the cases.
“Animal cases are harder than human cases because the animal is the victim and the victim can’t speak,” Stone said. “You prove your case through a veterinarian. You’ve got to prove who was responsible. We are the voices for the animals.”
Out of the 14 cases Stone’s had since late spring, only eight people were charged.
“We’ve had a lot of cruelty cases and a lot of vet bills, but we haven’t been able to find the owner,” Stone said.
Sometimes, the owner intentionally disappears by dropping off an animal without leaving a trace. Other times, there’s just not enough evidence to convict.
Those with animals for which they can no longer provide are encouraged to seek assistance from friends, family, neighbors, the SPCA or animal control.
“Our community is so rich in resources for animals that there’s really no excuse for (animal cruelty),” Harris said.
When Stone rescues an animal from poor living circumstances, the pet’s recovery effort doesn’t end with a bowl of food and water.
“You take an injured dog and that’s at minimum $700 to $1,000,” Stone said. “If they’re emaciated, they’re going to need a lot of medication. The vet will house them. You can’t just feed them any dog food. You feed in portions to expand their stomach.”
If a dog’s ribs, backbones and hipbones are exposed underneath the skin, the canine’s recovery time could take over a month.
During that time, animals must be properly nourished and monitored by a medical professional. That adds to the overall cost of treating the pet.
The medical procedures necessary to save an animal’s life often come out of animal control’s budget.
“Vet bills can be several thousand dollars for one dog,” Stone said. “You can spend a lot of money on an injured dog. If you take it to the vet and they say, ‘We can save it,’ it’s our responsibility to keep it safe until we can find its owners.”
While veterinarians often show compassion toward animal rescue agencies, their services aren’t rendered free of charge.
“You have to have money to pay the vet,” Stone said.
While saving an animal’s life is of utmost importance, there also has to be enough in the budget to pay for necessities for animals housed at the pound.
“The money is supposed to last until July,” Stone said. “It usually runs out at the first of the year.”
The budget covers everything from shelter supplies, traps, Clorox and other cleaning agents to electricity, fuel and gas for heat. It's hard to request more from the city, because Martinsville finds itself in a yearly financial struggle. T he city’s revenue each year over the last decade has come in at around $27.5 million. Sometimes, that’s varied as low as $27 million or as high as $28 million. The problem is that the general fund budget each year is between $30 to $31 million. To fund the current fiscal year, the general fund budget was set at $30.885 million, with only $28.2 million projected to come in revenue, including both local and state sources. That shortfall was plugged with $1.642 million coming from the reserve and $1.038 million taken from the water fund. However, as costs increase for utilities, that's not always an option.
For Animal Control, help comes from the SPCA of Martinsville-Henry County, as the non-profit donates dog food when they have an abundance at the shelter.
“If I had to buy dog food, it would be $10 to $15 a day,” Stone said. “It saves me several hundred dollars a year.”
Residents can provide most types of donations to Animal Control, but it gets a bit trickier if someone wants to offer financial help.
"The framework within which the city must act protects both the city and the taxpayer, both with regard to legitimately exercised financial authority and the management of any funds generated,” said Dr. Mildred Robinson, law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. Dr. Robinson, who has taught law at the school since 1985 and received her master’s degree in law from Harvard University, is an expert in federal income tax, state and local tax, trusts and estates. “No such protections exist for voluntary requests like the one that is proposed.”
Robinson added that a request for voluntary contributions could also not be characterized as an exercise of the city council’s power to tax, fine or assess fees. She also cautioned there could be an issue if any city officials asked for private donations to fund a city operation like Animal Control.
“My concern would be for personal liability for the actors (requestors), who lack legal capacity to make such a request, even on a voluntary basis,” Robinson said.
Some people might question why this is not allowed, but schools can ask for donations from parents. The difference, Robinson explains, is that the school districts don’t ask for the money and no individual residents asked for the money on their behalf. Instead, those requests and another donation drives are done through the Parent Teacher Organizations, which are certified non-profits.
“Independently organized nonprofits may provide support to schools,” Robinson said. “Nonprofits, of course, operate under their own rules.”
The same would be allowed for Animal Control, going through a non-profit that is willing to provide support. To be clear, however, there is no such rule preventing donations of other kinds to Animal Control, such as dog food, cleaning supplies or other needed materials. The issue only comes about with money donations.
There’s also another pertinent way to “donate” to the pound – provide a loving home to an animal in need. If there are fewer dogs at the pound, then that means less money spent by the department.
“These dogs, a lot of them are very loving dogs. Very loving – that includes pit bulls,” Stone said. “They haven’t had a chance at a loving home. I always say if you’re looking for a new dog, try to rescue one out of a pound or shelter.”
For those with animal welfare concerns, contact the SPCA at (276) 638-7297 or animal control at (276) 638-8751.