EDINBURG, Texas (ValleyCentral) — Former Palm Valley Animal Society employees say the animal shelter’s no-kill status was lost due to mismanagement and inflexible euthanasia.
Every year the Palm Valley Animal Society (PVAS) sees approximately 21,000 animals go through its shelter, one of the highest intake levels in the nation. Prior to 2018, an animals’ chance of coming out of the shelter alive was slim; at some of the worst times the save rate, the rate at which animals leave the shelter alive, was at 34%.
Starting in 2018, under the leadership of former embedded Director of Operations and Interim Executive Director Michael Bricker and with support from national organizations, such as Best Friends Animal Society, the shelter’s save rate began to rise. By January 2020, PVAS had reached the aspired 90% save rate and was deemed a no-kill shelter. Bricker left PVAS after two years, and Donna Casamento took his place as Executive Director in April 2020.
After the country shut down due to the pandemic, animal intake levels slowed and the save rate held steady. However, by March 2021, PVAS began sounding the alarm that their no-kill status was at risk. Regular pleas to the public to foster and adopt carried on through the summer. By the end of August, the shelter was no longer a no-kill.
ValleyCentral obtained an email between a PVAS staff member and an Edinburg resident who had recently adopted a cat, but was struggling with the cat’s separation anxiety and asked if it could be returned to the shelter at the end of August. The shelter emailed back asking the resident to keep the cat as all animals at the shelter were “at equal risk for being euthanized.”
“We always encourage adopters to work with the animal, and try crate-training or other methods to avoid having the animal return to our shelter, especially as we are no longer a no-kill shelter and all animals brought in are at equal risk for being euthanized since we don’t have adequate space nor resources to house them all,” read the email.
At the same time as residents were being advised not to return adopted animals, the shelter had already begun a month-long intake freeze.
“Our intake is still at an unsustainable level. With current staffing limitations, we cannot continue to provide the lifesaving outcomes our community demands with the current number of animals we have in our care. In July 2021, PVAS took in 1,715 animals,” read an August 11, PVAS Facebook post. The post explained that only animals that were “sick, injured, dangerous, or require quarantine” would be picked up by the municipal partners.
Soon after this post, ValleyCentral was sent an email containing allegations that under Casamento’s and Board of Directors’ leadership, the shelter was not operating with animal welfare in mind. Two former employees who requested anonymity came forward and spoke to ValleyCentral about their experiences working at PVAS under Casamento.
ValleyCentral will refer to them as Former Employee A and Former Employee B.
“In mid-July 2021, half a dozen of us shelter employees requested a meeting with Palm Valley Animal Society’s board of directors to bring their attention to the dangerous, unstable, and callous leadership of Donna Casamento. Once information was presented to board president Keely Lewis, rather than holding Donna accountable for her complete failure as a leader, the board of directors decided to circle the wagons around their incompetent executive director, retaliate against whistleblowers, invent outlandish excuses for those many failures, push a false narrative about a sudden intake spike and short staffing, and continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the animals at PVAS… Under Donna Casamento’s leadership, PVAS is failing the animals, its staff, the municipalities it contracts with, and the community.
19 PVAS employees no one will ever be able to shut up or explain away.”Letter sent to CBS 4 Local 23 Newsroom
Detailed in the letter were allegations that Casamento had relaxed the criteria for euthanasia to make space for the influx of animals. Under the no-kill practice, shelters are to only euthanize animals in an act of mercy or if the animal is dangerous. The former employees say adoptable dogs started getting euthanized based on strict behavior requirements that began as soon as the animal arrived at the shelter. Efforts to network these dogs to partners or on social media were also discouraged according to the former employees.
Former Employee A explained that shelters are high-stress environments for animals and expecting good behavior from every animal is unreasonable; they say many walked up to the euthanasia table while wagging their tails.
“I was the person who had to euthanize those animals…That’s why we fight to the very end,” said Former Employee A. “We were at a place where we had no space for these animals. We were euthanizing for space. It wasn’t for behavior; it was for space… It was the way those decisions were made that was the ugliest part. They just weren’t given a chance before they were killed and nobody knows that they existed.”
ValleyCentral brought these accusations to Casamento and the Board of Directors and was told that behavior modification training and other resources were scarce. She says rescue partners all over the country were also experiencing high intake levels and it was difficult to find partners who would take their animals. Furthermore, Casamento says while they continue to “strive for 90%,” their save rate as of the beginning of September is 88.5%.
“We have a huge responsibility to the community to make sure that we are putting safe animals out. So, we do identify animals that have aggression issues that are not safe for our staff to be able to handle and are not safe to adopt out. Those animals, we do euthanize… We did not euthanize animals for space. We were making sure we had a safe population in our care,” said Casamento. “When you’re in a crisis situation like this, with the numbers coming in at this level and having to adjust… What we want to make sure is instead of looking and saying ‘no-kill is our main marker,’ are we doing the best for every animal in our care every day that we’ve had them? And are we using our resources to make sure that we are able to support the work that is being done here? When our resources are so limited are we using them wisely?” Casamento feels they are.
As of October 1, PVAS has been releasing daily statistics on their population, adoptions, euthanasia, fosters, etc. According to their statistics, they currently have 741 animals in their care. The former employees feel cutting services off from the community to achieve “manageable numbers” is not the appropriate solution for a reoccurring issue.
“It always confused me because that is not a crisis, that is the day-to-day of Palm Valley, always having too many animals and always having too little resources… Obviously, we want to improve it but that doesn’t mean you shut down the whole shelter because you can’t figure it out or because you can’t act fast enough,” said Former Employee B about the recent intake freeze. “We should be thinking about how to save all the animals in the valley and how to grow the shelters in the Valley to save more. Not get rid of problems just because you don’t want to deal with them… [Leadership at the shelter doesn’t] deserve to be bailed out of this situation.”