By Stephanie Aikin, Michael Stahurski, and Sarah Davis
Four years ago, Brittni Spedding was driving down a Morgantown road on a rainy summer night when she noticed a skinny dog emerging from the bushes. The dog looked badly malnourished and he was shivering.
“I called him into my car,” Spedding recalls. It was only when he got into the car that she noticed he was a Rottweiler, a breed known for being aggressive. “I got a little nervous, she says.” But she decided to take the dog to a clinic and see what the veterinarian said.
“He was severely underweight. The vet said if I had waited any longer he could have died,” said Spedding.
The Rottweiler, whom Spedding renamed Koda, is one of thousands of animals who are abandoned every year in West Virginia. In 2011, 77,000 dogs and cats were euthanized in West Virginia animal shelters, according to fohowvla.com.
The Federation of Human Organizations estimates that nearly 16 percent of all pets in West Virginia will end up in an animal shelter, compared to six percent of pets nationwide. Of these abandoned pets, 54 percent will be killed.
Countless more pets are neglected by owners who don’t feed them properly or get them appropriate medical care. In many cases, West Virginians leave their dogs tied to stakes or ropes outside even in the dead of winter.
Animal rights advocates attribute such high rates of neglect and abandonment to cultural attitudes about animals and a lack of education in the state. Students at West Virginia University who adopt pets on a whim and then abandon them are a large part of the problem in Monongalia County, according to local humane societies.
“Students get dogs and cats and realize they can’t afford them, so they leave them on the streets without [getting them] spayed or neutered,” said Patty Hicks, head of public relations at the Monongalia Humane Society.
“This state does very little for abandoned cats and dogs,” said Hicks. “It does more for abused farm animals than for abused pets.”
According to the “West Virginia Spay/Neuter Act,” a person may not adopt a dog or cat from an animal shelter without having it spayed or neutered. But many animals adopted by students do not get surgery. With the cost of the procedure exceeding $100, many students feel they cannot afford it.
“It took me about four months to have my dog neutered,” said Dan DiCocco, a recent WVU graduate and dog owner. “I didn’t have the money at first but I couldn’t just leave him on the streets. With the cost of feeding myself and him, it took me a few months to have the money.”
Recently, the Monongalia County Humane Society announced they have begun offering free spaying and neutering to WVU students. “We now get more calls from students who want to take care of their pets versus students who don’t want their pets anymore,” said Hicks.
Other than the Humane Society and the SPCA, many people who find stray dogs and cats automatically contact a local police department. But with so many calls coming in, the police often bring the animals to a shelter that may eventually euthanize them.
“When I first found [Koda], I contacted the SPCA and they really stressed not to call the Morgantown Police Department because of his breed,” said Spedding. “They said that they would put him to sleep within a couple days if I turned him in to them.”
In some cases, a no-kill shelter will go to other shelters and try to take in animals.
“We take them from Animal Control, which is a kill facility,” said Tossone. “They hold them for two weeks and if we have the space we try and take them in.”
In many cases, however, these no-kill shelters are filled to capacity, and are unable to take in more animals. The Marion County Humane Society is home to around 45 dogs and 60 cats; some of the animals have been living there for almost two years.
“We’re at capacity now,” said Kayla Tossone, kennel technician at the Marion County Humane Society. “We even have a dog living in the bathroom.”
With nowhere else to go, these animals are brought to Animal Control shelters. Many of them will die there.
Koda is one of the lucky ones. When Spedding first took him in, he was infected with parasites and worms and on the brink of death. But he now has a safe and loving home.
“He’s now a healthy, 130-pound dog,” said Spedding. “I can almost tell he’s thankful. He listens and he’s a great dog and everyone loves him.”