Exhausted humane society workers share challenges of running a no-kill animal shelter

Local News

HARLINGEN, Texas (ValleyCentral) – Behind the walls of the only no-kill animal shelter in the Rio Grande Valley, is a hardworking staff that wishes the public understood their plight and would stop abandoning animals at their doorstep. 

The Humane Society of Harlingen (HSH) came out on top at the end of 2020. While many operations were forced to fold under pressure from the pandemic, HSH was able to have their best year yet – quantified by lives saved.  

The distinction as a no-kill animal shelter was earned after a long year of adjusting to unforeseen circumstances. Constant and proactive efforts through social media, networking with rescue partners, and community engagement spared the lives of thousands of animals. 

Dogs wait in kennels in the font lobby while staff finds space for them at the shelter. [Photo: Gaby Moreno]

In an ideal scenario, animals brought to the shelter have space to recover from curable diseases or behavior issues, and only those with injuries too severe to heal are euthanized. HSH achieved that scenario and was able to care for a difficult rottweiler named Chief.  

At many shelters, dogs like Chief with severe behavior issues have a narrow window for making it out of the shelter alive. But at shelters like HSH, Chief was bought time and able to stay for an entire month while the staff worked towards finding a solution for him.  

 “We have to try until we have no other option,” explained HSH Executive Director, Luis Quintanilla, about being a no-kill shelter.  

While Quintanilla celebrates the lives saved through their no-kill mission, he feels there is a misconception by the public that all animals are safe from euthanasia when they are left at HSH. He says what the public needs to realize is that space is often limited at the shelter.  

“We are the only no-kill shelter in the Valley, which is great for our community here in Harlingen. But the catch 22 of getting all this extra support through donations, volunteers, adopters, and foster is that we also get a massive influx of people wanting to drop off animals here,” said Quintanilla. “No-kill doesn’t mean that we have an infinite amount of space.” 

Well-meaning residents from all over the Valley, as far as Rio Grande City, take notice of the shelter’s good work and choose HSH as the place to surrender their animals, many times without following the proper procedures. On a daily basis, the front desk turns away dozens of people trying to surrender their animals, and some do not take it too kindly.  

“They threaten our staff. They get really mad when we tell them that we have no space to humanely house this animal,” said Quintanilla.  

Others circumvent the “by-appointment-only” system and abandon animals outside the shelter at night, frequently causing the staff to scramble to find space the next morning.  

Lately, staff at the shelter feels like a broken record – having to frequently tell their social media followers that they are at capacity, soliciting help in getting supplies, and pushing for adoptions. While the community comes through in amazing ways, the relief is always temporary.  

During one of these influxes, Chief the rottweiler found him in a difficult situation. After a month of relentless efforts, interactions with the likely traumatized animal continued to be dangerous for the staff, and with the shelter at capacity, there was no longer room for dogs like Chief. The staff networked Chief on social media in hopes of finding someone who could work with him within the next 24 hours. 

Luis Quintanilla, left, speaks to Jason, right, while building make-shift kennels outside the shelter. [Photo: Gaby Moreno]

Staff at the shelter says the hardest part about working there is watching animals who are there for a long time get overlooked. Adopters often choose dogs of desired breeds and puppies, but it’s those left-over dogs whom the staff grows attached to, and they will try everything possible for a live outcome.  

Chief had already been sedated when his last glimmer of hope appeared. Someone reached out to the shelter and said they would take him. The staff waited, but that person never showed up. 

The staff had to proceed with euthanasia; they had no other option.  

Quintanilla says he and his staff lamented euthanizing Chief. As they exhaust every resource to continue with their no-kill mission, those animals they cannot save get harder to let go.  

“This is our life,” said Quintanilla. “That’s why we’re so intense about what we do. Because we’re the ones that have to deal with it and it never gets easier.” 

Staff at HHS hopes people will realize that the no-kill mission is a community effort. They hope that the community will do everything possible to make sure more animals are not left at the shelter. Whether that is making sure your animals are spayed and neutered, rehoming animals amongst your own friend group, or fostering and adopting animals.  

You can learn more about what you can do to help HSH on their website.  

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