Animal Abuse, Theft Highlight Longtime Problems

Tethering laws are rarely enforced.

Cape Charles Wave

February 9, 2015

The news of animal abuse and theft that has been documented over the last few months, accompanied by graphic video and photographic evidence, has been an eye-opening experience for some.  But for those that have been working this issue for many years now, it was nothing more than confirmation of the status quo.

On January 23, many of the Shore’s animal rights top guns came together at the Bank Coffee House in Onancock for a meeting of the Accomack Animal Cooperative. President Charles Knitter led the meeting, and the fundamental message was that there are many folks that really care, whether it is the staff at the Accomack-Northampton shelter, County animal control agents, or non-profit groups and private citizens. But the situation on the ground is so overwhelming that, given current funding and available workers, it is almost impossible to influence meaningful change.

From a facilities management standpoint, the regional Accomack-Northampton animal shelter, despite being a first class operation, is still considered undersized and not fully able to meet the demands of the population — not unusual for any county facility. What is lacking is an adequate means of dealing with the overflow. According to Knitter, “we need to bolster our network of fosters, some way to help with overcrowding at the shelter.”

As always, funding is major issue. A problem that Knitter pointed out is that, even as fines are levied for any number of abuse cases, those fines generally go right into the general fund. Knitter recommends instead that such revenue should go back into the animal welfare operations, freeing up resources for expanded capacity and allowing the county to hire additional part-time staff to relieve some of the burden felt by the current staff limitations.


Most in attendance understood the logistical challenges that face both county governments, but the real concern is still for the population of animals in Accomack and Northampton that are abused, mistreated, and neglected. Gathering fines is well and good, how do we tighten loopholes and strengthen code? The state provides basic, high-level guidance in regard to animal treatment and welfare, but it leaves it up to localities to create and implement the more appropriate, granular code and ordinances.

According to Knitter, much of problem comes down to definitions, such as what is adequate space, what is adequate exercise, maximum and minimum temperatures to bring animals inside, and what does the minimum requirement for shelter really mean? By fully and accurately defining these items, it may be possible to finally “put some teeth into the ordinances.”

Another critical issue is the establishment of mandated minimum penalties and fines (now, penalties are arbitrary and at the discretion of the judge). In many cases, even serial abusers are able to plea down, or negotiate lower penalties based on any number of logistical and socio-economic factors. According to Knitter, for change to happen, there have to be adequate numbers of citizens willing to petition the County Board of Supervisors.

Some members of the audience complained that even after alerting the sheriff’s office, animal control is slow to respond, or in some cases, never comes at all. Once again, so much of this is the result of animal control being underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed by the volume of cases (there also can be a communication breakdown between animal control and the sheriff’s department, where animal control never even gets the message). Due to lack of funding, animal welfare staffs just can’t be everywhere at once, and even an attempt to add additional volunteers would still require funding for training.

Other members of the audience stated that the dysfunction goes even deeper, and that strengthening the ordinances won’t matter if there is no effort made by the counties to enforce them. An example cited was the more stringent tethering law implemented in Northampton County, which states that no animal shall be tethered for more than 12 hours in a 24 hour period. Several attendees said that unfortunately, it is common knowledge in the community that there are still many animals chained up on a continual basis which the county either can’t or won’t address.

Knitter noted that one area that should be explored and that has worked elsewhere is the instantiation of a county Humane Investigator. The Humane Investigator is an appointed officer of the court, similar to a justice of the peace. Their role would be to take on the time-consuming investigative and evidence-gathering role for the Department of Animal Welfare. Once again, the Board of Supervisors must come up with funding, as this position would require not only training both in animal control and also law enforcement.

Longtime Shore animal rights activist Hattie Buchholz of Jamesville addressed the audience, urging that “numbers speak volumes. If we have the volume of people that care, we will be heard . . . we must each organize into specific mission areas, which will allow us to more effectively contribute.” Buchholz also urged the audience to demand accountability, because in the end, it’s all up to the law. Unless officials enforce the ordinances on the books, the entire process won’t work. We should look for ways to improve the legal process, she said. It may be time to re-evaluate our current animal control model, and re-invest in a more modern approach.

Buchholz recognized the role of housing and adoption, but said that real change requires more aggressive spay/neuter initiatives, focused outreach, and education. She pointed to local success stories such as Eastern Shore Spay Organization (ESSO) in Cape Charles and their partnership with Lighthouse Veterinary from across the Bay. She added that she hoped more cordial relationships with vets, such as this one, could be built all up and down the Shore.

Knitter concluded that, even as there are obviously many folks that really care, much of the work being done is occurring in silos, and is too disparate. There needs to me more organization, more dialogue, and more networking across all the different factions, groups, and individuals. And that is the main message of AAC, that together, the community can make a difference through lobbying, outreach, education, awareness, and ultimately action. In essence, to “advocate for every animal to have a warm bed, a full bowl, a happy life, and safe environment,” and to finally give voice to those that have none.

For information about Accomack Animal Cooperative, and how you can become more involved, contact Charles Knitter at 757-387-2828, or check them out on Facebook at Accomack Animal Cooperative



5 Responses to “Animal Abuse, Theft Highlight Longtime Problems”

  1. Carla Jasper on February 9th, 2015 8:51 am

    Kudos to the many people who are trying to make a change for animals on the Shore. We should all be involved! In my opinion the mistreatment of helpless animals speaks volumes about the humans who see and know about their suffering yet do nothing. Whether you are a law enforcement member or not we must all do our part to help end this sad, heartbreaking way of life for too many animals in our communities. I hope the photo of the above abused dog stays with all of us to prod us into action. How many times have most of you witnessed these animals in your travels? Let’s do what it takes to end this for animals on the Shore.

  2. Karen Davis, PhD on February 9th, 2015 12:41 pm

    Thank you for your informative and much needed article about animal abuse on the Eastern Shore. Two friends of mine who moved to Accomack 2 years ago tried hard to gently educate some of the residents that keeping dogs on a leash so tight the dog could barely move or even breathe, putting dogs in enclosures where they could almost not turn around, forcing dogs and cats to live in filth often without water, food or weather protection, and without any kindness, was inhumane.

    They tried to teach owners about basic humane care and cleanliness, about spay & neuter, and even bought things for the abused and neglected animals like straw and food.

    Overwhelmed, my friends finally had to stop. I know it’s complicated but I do not think that living in places like Accomack in a culture of violence and brutality toward chickens, offers good lessons in compassion for animals. Chickens are as sentient and deserving of kindness as dogs and cats, but they are treated with unspeakable cruelty, and many of those who abuse their companion animals work for the chicken industry where they learn lessons of inhumanity toward those who are helpless including children, spouses and pets. And of course, chickens.

    I’ve never understood how any person could see a truckload of chicken on their way to being slaughtered and put a piece of those poor, sick birds in their mouth or that of their children. The Food Lions in Northampton County have been carrying a variety of chicken-like and other meat-like products and vegetarian choices. Wouldn’t it be great if the Shore could become a model of compassion for all creatures.

    Karen Davis, President
    United Poultry Concerns
    PO Box 150
    Machipongo, VA 23405

  3. Wayne Creed on February 10th, 2015 10:47 am

    As an update, Malissa Watterson reports from the ES News that AAC will be contacting Delegate Robert Bloxom in support of Senate Bill 1381, which will close a legal loophole for animal shelters (The loophole has allowed organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to euthanize most of the animals they take in) Great report here:

  4. Carla Jasper on February 10th, 2015 5:38 pm

    With all due respect Mr. Creed, what does the brouhaha over Peta supposedly taking animals have to do with the rampant animal cruelty issues? There have been several letters to the editor in the Virginian Pilot that defend Peta and document the good that that organization has done for animals and their owners. Peta has always been a handy target due to their high profile and unabashed defense of animals. Why aren’t the good citizens of the Shore trying to get their senators to promote and forward bills that would put some teeth in the laws that supposedly protect animals from the everyday cruelty that they suffer?

  5. Valeria Cinollo on February 20th, 2015 4:54 pm

    No chicken abuse, no animal abuse!