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Charleston Animal Society

Image of Charleston Animal Society

Officially formed in 1874 as the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of South Carolina, the original organization focused largely on working animals, namely horses and livestock. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, many such organizations formed as an outcry to mass killings in government animal shelters. 

Renamed the Charleston Animal Society (CAS), the organization is nearly 145 years old and is one of the oldest animal rescue organization in the country. The nonprofit is run by eighty-five full-time and fifteen part-time employees as well as an enormous base of eight hundred active volunteers. It is governed by a board of directors with twenty-five members. CAS is a potent and multifaceted organization with an outsized mission. “We have three problems to address,” explains CEO Joe Elmore. “The first is unnecessary euthanasia. The second is overpopulation.” Obviously the two are intrinsically connected: too many animals strain the system, and many agencies resort to euthanasia to deal with the overwhelming population. “The third issue, of course, is other forms of animal cruelty.” 

The scope of CAS’s outreach, programming, initiatives, and leadership astound, and as Elmore so aptly explains, “We’re structured to solve problems. We engage a strategic framework more so than tradition strategic planning.” CAS doesn’t stop at animal intake—Elmore and his robust team not only react but also take strides to eliminate the cruelty and overpopulation problems altogether—humanely and compassionately. In 2017 alone, CAS spayed or neutered over eleven thousand animals. With a myriad of education programs, rural outreach, veterinary services, and innovative initiatives, the work of CAS is broad and holistic.

Five years ago, Charleston County became the first “No Kill Community” in the entire Southeast. The industry maintains two competing definitions for No Kill. One is to save every “healthy and treatable” animal, and the other is to save at least 90 percent of the animals that enter community shelters. CAS adheres to both definitions. “We care for 18,000 animals a year, and we’re saving over 90 percent of them,” says Elmore. “We keep more than half of them out of shelters.” There’s an uptick in the warmer months, during litter season. “We call it Mount Kitty. If you graph it out over the course of the year,” he laughs. In the last five years, Elmore and his team have cared for over 75,000 animals of 52 different species. At this moment they have around 470 animals in foster homes and nearly 1000 in the sheltering system. 

It works like this: An animal is brought in, most often from animal control. CAS works with six animal control agencies. The animal is immediately vaccinated on intake. “Our focus is on herd health,” explains Elmore. Then they spay or neuter the animals without identification after five days, fourteen days if they have tags or a microchip. The team of veterinarians make daily rounds for behavioral and physical evaluations. Most of the animals are strays that have been running at large. “Sadly, a number of animals brought in have been mangled—cats crawling into car engines, dogs hit by vehicles,” says Elmore. “We perform around twelve thousand surgeries a year. But sometimes the most humane option is to euthanize the animal.” And then there is the issue of aggressive behavior. If an animal exhibits any indication that it might break and become overly aggressive, CAS has no choice but to euthanize. 

Although many of the animals arrive at CAS as strays, some are pets whose owners can no longer care for them. “We’ll ask if they want to keep the animal,” explains Elmore. “We try to address how to help. For example, we offer financial assistance to individuals for their veterinary bills.” CAS also runs a pet food bank for owners without the financial means for every day care.

Ideally, an animal is reunited with its owner or adopted out of the system. CAS hosts weekly adoption events across Charleston County—at street fairs, business openings, sports events, and the like. In 2017, over five thousand animals were adopted and more than twelve hundred were reunited with their owners. 

In addition, the organization runs sundry day camps and school programs. You can even host birthday parties and bar mitzvahs for young animal lovers at the facility. “We deliver over 23,000 lessons in humane education to thousands of kids every year,” says Elmore. “Our summer camps are jam-packed throughout the summer—everything from advanced vet camp down to introductory education. We’re trying to use the animal sheltering environment to teach compassion.” 

But the work isn’t confined to Charleston County. As an industry leader, CAS works with 374 other animal organizations around South Carolina in an effort to build the first No Kill state in the entire South. There are only a handful of No Kill states in the country, mostly in New England. “We’re looking at a two-year phase that will aim to save every healthy dog. Then we can spring forward from that, use it as momentum. Let’s make that the benchmark to build confidence and momentum, then let’s hit another benchmark.” Crucial to this two-year initiative are key resource centers like Columbia, Greenville, Aiken, and Myrtle Beach. Shelters in these population centers roll out assistance with veterinary outreach and shelter standards to the surrounding rural areas. Elmore hopes this tiered outreach can someday become a nationwide model. 

But despite grand successes and even grander goals for the future, the larger institutional structures are slow to change. By federal law, animals are considered property. Even passing strong animal cruelty laws in South Carolina is an uphill battle. CAS partners with a number of shelters and employs a consulting firm in Columbia to fight for more humane treatment of animals. “For example, we just want humane tethering,” says Elmore. “We’re not saying that we have to ban chains on dogs! We’re just saying don’t allow the chain to be extremely heavy on the dog. We are finding twenty-five-pound chains on forty-pound dogs, dogs that should have weighed seventy pounds! Yes we would love to see chains banned, but we’re trying to achieve a piece of the pie if the whole pie is not feasible.” And a few years ago, the legislature passed a shelter standards law but then promptly exempted all the government shelters from the new regulations. 

But Elmore is endlessly optimistic. In fact, the whole organization runs on this wild enthusiasm and idealism. “The magic here is that we have an open mind and we make things work,” he says thoughtfully. “We’re not afraid to try things.” Elmore strives to elevate CAS employees and create upward mobility within the organization. Until recently, CAS had more certified SAFER® behavior assessors than any other animal organization in the country. The CAS Senior Director of Education was just elected the National President of the Association of Professional Humane Educators nationwide. The Senior Director of Veterinary Care is the first animal shelter veterinarian appointed to the South Carolina Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners and will soon join the National Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Board of Directors. And the Senior Director of Animal Services was just elected as President of the South Carolina Animal Care and Control Association. “We have a highly credentialed staff, and that’s a value for us. Another value is that we have a disproportionate responsibility, and we assist more organizations than any other animal society that exists in the state. No Kill South Carolina is about teaching a man to fish.”  — H.W.


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