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New nonprofit helps pet owners in need

MEMBERS OF THE nonprofit Addison County Animal Advocates are hoping to promote animal welfare in the area by providing animals and their owners with the resources they need. The team is partnering with the Addison County Sheriff’s department on the effort. ACAA co-founder Bev Soychak is in the middle holding a poster; Sheriff Mike Elmore is immediately to her left. Independent photo/Marin Howell

ADDISON COUNTY — A new county nonprofit is working to prevent instances of animal cruelty by ensuring more local pets and their owners have the resources they need to thrive. 

Addison County Animal Advocates, or ACAA, is made up of volunteers with various animal and rescue experience, from behavior experts to animal control officers. The team is partnering with the Addison County Sheriff’s Department to promote animal welfare by investigating nonemergency concerns and providing support when the situation demands it. 

“We are sort of a filter,” explained ACAA co-founder and Monkton resident Bev Soychak. 

Community members with an animal welfare concern can reach out to the ACAA team, which will evaluate the tip. The group is not authorized to respond to criminal cases of animal cruelty, so concerns that rise to that level would be turned over to officers at the sheriff’s department. 

“If it doesn’t escalate to a cruelty level, then our individual group will get involved in helping that person find the help they need, whether it be food, spay and neuter, low-cost vet care, whatever they need to stop that situation from escalating,” Soychak said. 

ACAA would work to identify needs and help connect community members with available resources to navigate their situation. 

“A big part of what we’re doing is bridging gaps,” ACAA co-founder Carly Lehrer said. “Help exists in the individuals in our community who deeply care, and in groups like ours or in rescues.” 

However, ACAA members said community members often don’t know who to go to for help with an animal welfare situation. 

“You never know who to call,” Soychak said. “It depends on what town you live in, whether you call state police, whether you call Vermont Fish and Wildlife, whether you call the sheriff’s department.”  

CREATING A NETWORK 

ACAA team members underscored the fragmented nature of Vermont’s current animal welfare system, which lacks a centralized, state-funded entity for investigating and enforcing welfare requirements.

The shortcomings of this patchwork system were highlighted in a January 2023 report released by the Vermont Department of Public Safety, which found that “functions and duties are fragmented, some statutory language is outdated or no longer applicable, and some functions are not carried out at all. The buck really stops with no one person or agency.” 

A bill, H.626, seeking to develop a Division of Animal Welfare within the Department of Public Safety was introduced in the Vermont House in January and referred to the Committee on Appropriations last month. 

Bob Galvin is a member of ACAA and the Vermont state director of the nonprofits Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy. He emphasized the role H.626 would play in improving the state’s animal welfare system.  

“The current system in Vermont for dealing with animal cruelty cases is fragmented, inefficient and ineffective in addressing the welfare needs of animals in the state,” Galvin said. “(The bill) meaningfully addresses this patchwork system by authorizing the creation of a new Director of Animal Welfare within the Department of Public Safety to deal with these issues.” 

While H.626 makes its way through the Legislature, ACAA is hoping to make it easier for county residents to find support for animal welfare cases.  

“It’s a network,” said Mark Gutel, a deputy at the sheriff’s department involved in the group. “This is creating a network where we can help each other help the animals.” 

WORK UNDERWAY 

The ACAA team has already responded to a handful of calls, some of which have involved rescuing animals left behind after evictions. 

Soychak said in one case, the team helped remove a three-foot lizard from an abandoned home. 

“The owners were evicted from their home and this animal was left behind,” she said. “Nobody helped this animal; it was left in a home with no heat.” 

ACAA is also hoping to support pet owners who find themselves in overwhelming situations. 

“This (group) applies to anyone who feels like they could use help ,” Lehrer said. “Whether they’re saying, ‘I’m in over my head, I can’t afford my animals,’ or ‘My house is crowded,’ or ‘I’m stressed.’”

Soychak said the group is committed to helping community members find the resources they need for their animals, whether it be pet food or affordable veterinary care. 

“There are resources out there, but people don’t know where to find them,” Soychak said. “You can call us, and we’ll get you where you need to go.” 

The nonprofit is looking to address other animal welfare-related concerns. 

Emily Lewis is a certified dog behavior consultant working with ACAA. She told the Independent she and others in the field have seen an uptick in behavior concerns, including serious aggression, in Vermont’s dog population over the past several years. 

Lewis said she feels one of the main factors contributing to the increase is a lack of state oversight and legal protections for animals, which limits how welfare advocates and law enforcement can address neglect and cruelty situations. 

“We are unable to intervene in a meaningful way,” Lewis said. “Law enforcement and animal control don’t have the tools they need to remove animals from dangerous situations. Welfare advocates are unable to prevent harm to our community due to medically and behaviorally compromised animals being released into the population.”

She noted another contributing factor is the number of dogs brought into the state that end up exhibiting dangerous behaviors in their adoptive homes, as resources for behavioral help and rehoming may not be available to owners from the original rescue.

“The only way to address both of these challenges is to overhaul and improve the animal welfare systems in the state of Vermont,” Lewis said. “In the meantime, we have to look to grassroots movements like Addison County Animal Advocates to help where and when we are able.” 

As ACAA gets up and running, the team is looking to raise funds  for a handful of initiatives. 

The money raised would go toward veterinary care for injured and sick animals, compensating officers at the sheriff’s department investigating animal welfare concerns, creating an emergency housing facility for crisis cases at the sheriff’s department, and providing temporary housing for animals in limbo.

“One of the things our group is looking into is how to create safe spaces, whether it’s temporary or a little longer than temporary, just to have a place to go,” Lehrer explained.

Multiple ACAA team members noted that finding a space to temporarily house animals involved in cruelty cases is a challenge as doing so often requires finding a local nonprofit rescue, shelter or sanctuary with space available. 

The local group is partnering with sanctuaries in and around Addison County to ensure such animals have a place to go. ACAA is also looking to work with local vets, animal rescuers and animal control officers to bolster its network and provide as much support as possible. 

Soychak added that another aspect of the group’s work will include education and talking with community members about gaps in the state’s animal welfare system. 

“If the burden of taking care of animal welfare is going to be left up to the towns themselves, then the people within those towns need to know that there is no funding that’s going to help them,” Soychak said. “It’s up to the communities to support their local rescues, their local sanctuaries, their local police departments.” 

Team members are optimistic about the potential to help local animals and their owners through ACAA, but acknowledge that systemic changes will require a push at the state level. 

“We will do our best with the existing laws to support animals in any possible way,” Lehrer said. “But if we are going to enact real change, across the state, we need H.626.” 

More information about ACAA can be found on the group’s Facebook page at tinyurl.com/ACAApage. 

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