Humane Society director: ‘We’ve come a long way’

Marcy Gallo, left, kennel director of the Warren County Humane Society, and Lavenda Denney, right, executive director, give some attention to Levi, an American pit bull terrier who was surrendered to the shelter recently. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Five years and a number of changes have taken the Humane Society of Warren County far away from euthanizing 52 percent of its animals and having $315 to its name in 2011.

Lavenda Denney has served as executive director of the Humane Society since joining on in September 2011. Around that time, she said the shelter was euthanizing more than half the animals it was taking in.

“Marcy (Kennel Director Marcy Gallo) and I went and toured the Charlottesville SPCA that year, and we spoke to their director,” Denney  said. “She was telling us all of these great things they were doing and how they had achieved no-kill status. And I just looked at her and I said, ‘We have $315.'”

They formed a connection with the shelter’s then-director Susanne Kogut, who is now executive director of the Petco Foundation. Denney said that foundation is the shelter’s largest national source of funding.

By 2012, she said 92 percent of shelter dogs were going home with new adoptive families. Now, Denney said the shelter boasts a 92 percent live release rate overall. No-kill shelters must rescue 90 percent of pets or more, providing for some terminally ill or extremely aggressive animals.

Denney said the board of directors started an 11-step strategic plan in 2014 with the aim of achieving no-kill status. Originally, she said the plan was expected to take around five years, but the shelter achieved the plan’s goals by the end of 2015.

Gallo said that she’s one of around six or seven people who have helped the shelter reach those goals since shifting gears in 2011.

“There was not a lot of direction,” Gallo said. “And animal sheltering as a whole has changed so much in the past 10 years, so we are lucky enough that we got involved when it’s transforming like this.”

Denney noted that the shelter is a much happier, financially healthier place, and a much safer place for the homeless animals of Warren County.

“We have very little staff turnover anymore, we’re able to invest in staff development,” she said.

Gallo said kennel attendants now have access to more training to learn about dog behavioral issues. Not only are they able to directly inform future owners, she said the attendants have begun addressing those problems while the animals are still at the shelter. With cats, she said attendants have been learning more about stressors that can cause feline health issues.

Denney said that partnerships with grantors have linked the shelter with different specials and promotional materials.

“We did all of our own in the beginning when we weren’t getting any grants, but having these national partnerships is huge,” she said. “It’s really our partnerships with the national grantors that allow us to do really great adoption specials at this point.”

The shelter has started a Hand in Paw program to assist owners who are considering surrendering their pets because of financial issues or other complications. Denney said that program has kept 108 pets from entering the shelter as surrenders this past January and February.

“Maybe it was a vet bill that they couldn’t afford, they needed a trainer…temporary boarding because they were going to be homeless for a time…it’s really open, we can help people in any way they need,” she said.

Another program she said the shelter has started recently is Trap-Neuter-Return, which neuters and re-releases feral cats that might’ve otherwise faced euthanasia at the shelter.

Denney said Hand in Paw and Trap-Neuter-Return are both “huge projects” that will be ongoing with the shelter and will help reduce intake. For animals that are already at the shelter, she said around 50 foster families in a growing program allow them to live in a caring home for periods of time. Gallo said an appointment system that provides owners with advice before they surrender their pet has also helped reduce intake. Posting pictures of rescued pets on social media has also helped owners reclaim their lost loved ones from the shelter.

Gallo said a wider shift in vision and perception of animal shelters has helped with the Humane Society’s successes – in the past, she said many people would think of a shelter as a home for “broken” animals.

“Getting away from that thought process and hiring people with fresh ideas is really what made the biggest change,” she said.

Alongside donations, the shelter receives contracted funding through the Warren County Board of Supervisors that Denney called “instrumental.” She said the board has increased the contract by $90,000 annually and that it hadn’t been renegotiated in a long time.

“It does cost more to save them than it does to kill them, and I think we’ve been honest with everybody about that,” she said. “And the community, when they saw that we wanted to do the right thing, just really stepped up.”

She said the shelter received its first award from the Front Royal Chamber of Commerce in 2013 as Nonprofit of the Year. Last week, the shelter received the Chamber’s 2016 Community Impact Award.

“I can’t think of many people in this small community that aren’t involved with us in some way,” she said.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or