Paws and effect: New life at Richmond's animal shelter

Christie Chipps Peters, director of Richmond Animal Care and Control, shared a warm greeting with Mocha, one of the shelter's occupants in July. In five years under Peters' leadership, the shelter has dramatically reduced its number of euthanized animals.

It's Memorial Day weekend, and the director of Richmond Animal Care and Control is in her customary Sunday position: behind the front desk, greeting a steady stream of walk-ins seeking a pet.

The rush is just beginning when Christie Chipps Peters spins around in her swivel chair and sets the bar for anyone within earshot.

"The goal today," she says, "is adopt out everything."

What lies ahead at the city's animal shelter on Chamberlayne Avenue is a dizzying afternoon of highs and lows that would rattle most people. It's an ordinary Sunday for Peters – and a day that would have been unheard of five years ago, before Peters became the department's first director.

Her leadership has been a revelation for an organization that once euthanized about 1 in 3 animals that came through its doors. That translated to between 1,500 and 1,600 animals put down each year before her tenure.

"Back then, they euthanized like crazy," said Kacie Wilkerson, a volunteer turned RACC staffer who began working at the shelter before Peters took over. "I was a volunteer at the time. I would walk these dogs and come in two days later, and then they wouldn’t be here. I was afraid to even ask what happened to them. I didn’t want to know at that point."

The transition wasn't easy for Peters. "I went home every day, literally, and I cried,” she said of her first days on the job in Richmond.

Through a combination of new policies and personal commitment, Peters has revitalized the shelter and given life to more animals in its care.

She immediately ruled out euthanizing to create kennel space – a policy that has been on the city books for more than a decade, though she questions whether it was followed based on year-over-year data. She also changed the shelter's hours so it was open on evenings and weekends, even scheduling herself to work the front-desk shift on Sundays.

Through expanded public outreach, RACC doubled the number of adoptions – from about 1,000 in 2012 to 2,091 in 2017 – and built a network of people willing to foster animals on a regular basis.

The biggest number of all? In 2017, RACC euthanized 254 animals, an 85 percent decrease from the year before Peters took over.

***

If the term "animal control" conjures only images of dogcatchers and cages, hold on.

Yes, RACC scoops up stray animals, and it coordinates with Richmond police when animals are ensnared in criminal investigations. But RACC also cares for pets that come to the public shelter. It issues licenses to owners in the city. It enforces rabies laws and investigates animal cruelty complaints. In 2017, the department's eight animal control officers responded to more than 6,000 calls from residents. 

RACC had been "the red-headed stepchild" of Richmond government, as Peters called it – passed among the police, public works and public utilities departments before the City Council established it as an independent department in 2010 and funded a director position in 2012. She came aboard in 2013 after stints at shelters in Williamsburg and Portsmouth.

"I really like a challenge, and I like going and accepting a position where it is sort of an uphill battle or there is a component that I can change and make better," Peters said of what attracted her to the Richmond job.

Essential to her transformation of the operation has been dispelling the notion of RACC as an adversary, not an ally, to pet owners in the city. As Peters says, they’re not the pound, and they're not dogcatchers. They’re "Your City Shelter."

That mantra – emblazoned on the wall behind the shelter's front desk – has become something of a rallying cry for her team, whose members say they fight the stigma every day.

“People didn’t want to come in here because it was sad,” Wilkerson said.

On this holiday weekend, continual foot traffic is evidence of their progress.

The halls echo with the sound of dogs barking, emanating from walls lined with kennels, nearly all full. Contributing to the interest this Sunday is an adoption special that Peters developed: free adoptions for veterans or service members and $20 adoptions for everyone else – a steep discount from the usual $110. The sum covers vaccinations, spay or neuter procedures, flea and tick treatment, the insertion of a microchip for identification purposes, and a registration fee for city residents.

When Jamaine and Ryan Arvin, uncle and nephew, return from the labyrinth of kennels, Peters asks them: "Do you love something? Something you can’t leave without?"

Yes, they say: Rooster.

The pair had visited several shelters in search of a pup, with no luck. After surveying the 90-some dogs up for adoption at RACC that day, they settled on the wiry black and white pit bull mix sporting a red bandana. His ears perk up at the sound of the copier as it spits out a form his new owners must fill out to seal the deal.

Peters is delighted at their choice. On this day, Rooster is the shelter’s longest-tenured canine tenant: He has been there since New Year’s Day, and he has quite the Facebook fan club – thanks to Peters' frequent posts featuring him in search of a prospective home.

Before the trio leaves, the shelter’s volunteers and staff gather around to bid them goodbye. Peters snaps a photo for social media.

Her go-to platform is Facebook. When she took the job, the shelter had about 900 Facebook likes. As of late August, it had more than 57,000. That following helps them adopt out animals faster and find foster homes for others, which opens space in the shelter if there’s an influx of animals that must be accommodated.

Whatever comes through the door, RACC must take in. That's the charge of a municipal shelter, and it’s what sets it apart from rescue groups or privately run facilities, including SPCAs.

The victories can be short-lived. As quickly as one dog is led by leash out the door, another is ushered in by RACC’s animal control officers.

It’s not just dogs: There are cats, birds, rodents, snakes and sometimes exotic animals. Once, Peters was called to a home to help police detain a macaque monkey.

***

The shelter’s charge is made more challenging by limited space, staffing and resources. Peters heads a team of 21 with a $1.6 million annual budget. The full-time staff works closely with a dedicated stable of volunteers that Peters has worked to expand during her tenure – another fruit of her Facebook efforts.

With about $1.2 million committed to salaries and benefits, that leaves $420,000 for a year of care for more than 3,200 animals.

That means Peters must be strategic in how she manages the shelter's limited space. An early policy she put in place: She eliminated same-day surrender, meaning if owners no longer wanted to keep their pets, they could not simply shove them off on the shelter. Instead, owners must go through mediation with a RACC staffer to determine whether the concerns with their pets can be addressed. If the situation can't be resolved, the owner must schedule an appointment to give up the animal.

Peters also prioritized building a network of people willing to foster animals, or take them in on a temporary basis. In 2012, the shelter fostered out 123 animals – but in 2017, the number soared to 1,583. The shelter's foster-to-adopt program allows a temporary arrangement to become permanent if desired.

"Thinking broadly about our mission of helping animals in the city, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything needs to come to the shelter – and frankly, we’re trying to do the opposite," Peters said.

Sometimes, the pressure of quickly finding homes for as many animals as possible leads to unexpected outcomes.

That happened this year when Peters, after a Sunday afternoon adoption, found herself at the center of a viral story.

The adoption was for two dogs: OJ (a 12-year-old blind dachshund) and Blue Dozer (a 6-year-old pit bull mix). The dogs came into RACC’s care in mid-April after their original owner became homeless. The dogs were friends, and shelter staffers believed that Dozer helped OJ navigate his surroundings.

Because the dogs were what they call a bonded pair, it was RACC’s preference, based on the previous owner’s wishes, that they stay together. A woman said she would take in both, and Peters said she felt good about the match at the time.

Within 48 hours, though, OJ was found wandering along the side of the road near Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley. An ID chip that RACC inserts in all of its dogs led animal control officers to call Peters. She reached out to the woman who had adopted the pair, who said she had entrusted OJ to a friend. RACC could have the dachshund back, the woman told Peters, but she wanted to keep Dozer.

The pair’s tale reached the airwaves and social media, and it took on a life of its own. Within hours, the new owner faced hundreds of angry messages, some threatening, demanding that she return Dozer to RACC.

The shelter had little recourse, Peters said. It couldn’t compel the owner to surrender him, though Peters said she had several conversations with the owner asking her to do so. Pressure built as the dogs' separation became a national and international news story. As the backlash crested, the owner agreed to return Dozer and OJ.

Peters took to Facebook in late April to announce that the dogs had been reunited and were back in RACC’s care. She defended the shelter’s handling of the adoption and made a call for civility among those angered by the situation.

“Our practices, adoption policy and choices to make adoptions are done in the best interest of each animal,” Peters wrote, adding that the shelter can't account for post-adoption decisions made by owners. "In the end, we have to trust people – trust them to love the pets we have cared for, and trust them to do what is best.”

More than 13,000 people reacted to the post, which had over 4,400 shares and 2,100 comments.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” she said weeks later on Memorial Day weekend, taking a breather outside to give OJ and Dozer a bathroom break. "Such a disaster."

Happily, OJ and Dozer – who at the time resided in Peters’ office – got another chance in a new home in June.

Even when things go wrong, the shelter's staff can't afford to dwell on one person's treatment of an animal.

"The only way we have been successful is because people are helping us get there," Peters said. "For the people that work here, it’s very easy to get jaded against people because we see the horrible things they do to these animals. I have to say out loud constantly, ‘The only way these animals are leaving alive is with people.'

"We have to be able to balance – you just can’t hate everybody because that one person wasn’t nice to this dog. We’re going to put that dog on Facebook and 500 people are going to love it, and it will get adopted and spoiled for the rest of its life."

***

Peters, 40, is a native of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Her father was a police officer and a private investigator, and her mother worked for a doctor’s office. She was born into a two-dog household, cementing her affinity for animals at a young age.

Her parents took her to visit the Kentucky Horse Park when she was a toddler. From that point on, her heart was set on owning a horse. She began riding at 11, and by 16, she had a horse of her own.

As a teenager, she volunteered at Fieldstone Farms Therapeutic Riding Center, which gives people with disabilities the opportunity to ride horses as a form of rehabilitation.

Peters was going to be a veterinarian, she would tell you if you asked her then. The plan hit a snag only after she enrolled at Bowling Green State University in its pre-veterinary program.

What happened?

"Organic chemistry," she said with a laugh. "I love animals, but I hate math."

Peters graduated with a communications degree and returned to work full time at the riding center. She still visits once a year to assist with one of its big fundraisers.

The move from the Midwest to Virginia occurred when Christopher Newport University hired her to work in its alumni relations department, a short-lived gig because a more personally fulfilling opportunity soon presented itself.

The Heritage Humane Society in Williamsburg was hiring a fundraiser to lead a capital campaign for a new shelter. Peters applied and got the job. She raised the money for the new facility and went on to become the organization's executive director. Afterward, she spent four years leading a Portsmouth shelter before learning of the RACC job in Richmond. She jumped at the opportunity.

***

At the city shelter, a day can turn on a dime.

Peters can finish celebrating a successful adoption one moment and be thrust into a dire situation the next. On this Sunday, the pivot comes in the form of a pit bull puppy in a cardboard box.

A man showed up at RACC’s front desk saying he found the box on someone’s porch. Inside, a puppy is whining in pain and breathing weakly. Notified of the situation, Peters rushes to join her staff. She dons protective gloves and extracts the puppy to conduct a quick examination.

"He’s struggling," one staffer tells her.

"Don’t die," Peters says to the dog. "You’re OK."

Based on symptoms, they worry that the puppy has parvovirus, a condition that, if not treated, can rapidly dehydrate dogs to the point of death. They administer a test, but it comes back negative.

RACC has an in-house veterinarian who wasn't working the Sunday shift. So Peters calls the Virginia Veterinary Centers emergency clinic in Carytown and says she is sending the puppy its way.

She bundles him in a towel, places him gently back in the box and summons a volunteer to rush him to the clinic. After escorting the volunteer to her car while relaying directions, she calls back the vet.

"If it doesn’t die before it gets to you, I’ll be grateful,” she tells the clinic.

A few minutes later, the clinic calls back to tell her that, surprisingly, the puppy survived the trip. Peters gives the OK to attempt to revive it by administering fluids – treatment that could result in a vet bill exceeding $1,000.

With limited operating money from the city, Peters leans heavily on a nonprofit foundation that raises funds to pay for vet trips and treatment. Last year, the foundation covered more than $100,000 in medical expenses for animals in RACC’s care.

Without money from the foundation, Peters said, she would have had to make the call to euthanize the puppy on the spot. Because of the foundation’s dollars, he has a chance.

Kim Gower, a former RACC Foundation board member and professor of leadership studies at the University of Mary Washington, has known Peters since 2016. She has seen the director steel herself for the heart-wrenching medical decisions she faces at the shelter every day.

Gower said Peters, even when faced with gruesome injuries or terrible cases of abuse, rarely loses her cool.

“She probably has to make more life and death decisions than anybody else, including doctors,” Gower said.

Later Sunday night, the puppy was suffering from recurring seizures. Peters had him put down.

***

By 4 p.m. – closing time – on this Sunday, Peters and staff have adopted out seven dogs and received applications for eight others. But animal control officers have brought in eight dogs off the street.

As quickly as they empty the kennels, new occupants arrive. The struggle for space continues.

If freed from the budget constraints, Peters said, she would launch a mobile clinic to travel to city neighborhoods, meeting pet owners where they are to provide shots and spay and neuter procedures. In a city where 1 of 4 people live below the poverty line, she said it is critical for RACC to expand its operation to reach pet owners who may not have the time or money to set up appointments or seek regular animal care.

After they lock the doors, Peters and her staff debrief for a few minutes. What’s the status of that application? Can we change that dog’s name?

A half-hour after locking up, no one has left.

Wilkerson, the staffer, is texting a couple who agreed to foster a dog named Zeus that she had grown close to. (“They say he’s doing great. They sent me videos,” she reports.) She said she planned to stay at least another half-hour to make sure each dog has been walked and their kennels are clean.

Peters will make it out the door eventually, too, and head to her South Richmond home, where she lives with her husband, 4-year-old son and five dogs: Chili (a 14-year-old Husky mix), Charlotte (a 14-year-old border collie mix), Lizzy (an 11-year-old Jack Russell mix), Harley (a 9-year-old Rottweiler-Lab mix) and Blue (a 9-year-old pit bull). All hail from the shelters she worked at in Williamsburg and Portsmouth.

Her husband says she can’t have any more – for now. She jokes that sometimes she’s so busy that she can’t keep track of them all, a realization brought on by the discovery that one was a month overdue on one of its vaccines.

As always, Peters will be on call if anything comes up. For now, she sums up her Sunday afternoon:

“Today was a great day.”

mrobinson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6734

Twitter: @__MarkRobinson

Mark Robinson covers Richmond City Hall.

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