Every day, our customers display incredible acts of compassion that impact the lives of animals and humans alike. Jessica Vass Boyer is the Animal Shelter Supervisor at Galax Carroll Grayson Animal Shelter.
Jessica Vass Boyer always wanted to work with animals, but she never expected to work in animal welfare. “Growing up, I was very active in 4H and livestock judging and I studied animal and poultry science at Virginia Tech, so I always just assumed that I’d be doing something in agriculture,” she says. But after graduating from college, she came across an opening at Galax Carroll Grayson Animal Shelter and decided to apply. “I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned into something that was so amazing.”
As Galax Carroll Grayson Animal Shelter’s sole full-time staff member, Vass Boyer oversees every aspect of the organization, which takes in nearly 3,000 animals every year across three municipalities. “I was fresh out of college, there was definitely a learning curve—no one ever taught me how to manage employees! It’s hard and complicated sometimes when you’re in a leadership position, but I’ve just taught myself along the way,” she says. “I work with one other staff member, Christy, who’s part-time, and luckily she’s become one of my best friends and supporters.”
Even though there are thousands of animals moving through her custody, Vass Boyer connects with all of them. “It’s crazy how they’ve come to love and trust me, but it’s such a critical thing to have when doing this job,” she says. “I call every animal that comes in here my ‘kid.’”
She mentions Red Rum, a 90-pound pit bull that was surrendered to the shelter by his owner. “I was told not to touch him because he was aggressive,” Vass Boyer says. “I started working with him slowly and he would just give me this look. There’s something about an animal’s eyes—they always tell you so much about how they’re feeling. Red Rum’s didn’t say aggression, they said fear. So I just sat with him for days. I’d feed him with a fork through his cage. I’ll never forget the day when I saw his tail wag and he came to give me a kiss. I sent him off with a rescue group and he was adopted—he turned out to be a great dog!”
Vass Boyer also notes that her job has allowed her to connect with her community through a shared love of animals. “I credit a woman named Denise Davis so much. Way before rescues were allowed to pull animals from here, Denise would come and take dogs out one by one all by herself. She later started a local rescue group. Every time I get a difficult-to-handle animal, I call Denise.”
She adds, “I had a former volunteer come back to the shelter to tell me that he has been clean for three months, and that being at the shelter and working with the animals had changed his life. He thought highly enough of me to share that incredible news with me, which was so touching and something I’ll never forget. I remember that we’re not just saving animals here, but we’re also saving people too.”
Working at a “Kill Shelter”
When Vass Boyer started her job as animal shelter supervisor in 2017, the shelter’s euthanasia rate was 50% for dogs and 98% for cats, a number that she has helped bring down to 3% and 40%, respectively.
Although Galax Carroll Grayson Animal Shelter is considered a “kill shelter,” Vass Boyer rejects the label. “I’d love to be a no-kill shelter, but we have such a long way to go until we’d be considered one. We are almost at capacity right now and I can’t promise that we won’t euthanize for space in the next few days,” she says.
She emphasizes how hard it is to make the decision to euthanize an animal. “I feel like I am being called a killer, yet I am the one that’s here day and night helping these animals find homes and fighting for them. Euthanizing an animal is a heavy decision that I don’t take lightly at all. I can’t tell you how many times a week that I end up crying down here. It’s really hard. But for some of these animals, it’s not fair to let them suffer.”
Vass Boyer hopes that those who disagree with euthanization at least be understanding of her situation. “The people who decide to euthanize animals and have to actually perform euthasia should be supported and encouraged instead of bashed. Until you are the one who holds a life in your hands and has to take it away, you will not understand how hard it is to do this every single day.”
In order to improve Galax Carroll Grayson Animal Shelter’s save rate, Vass Boyer says that she has constantly networked, cultivated relationships with various rescues, and started a volunteer program. “The biggest challenge has been changing the public’s perception of us. Everyone thought that when an animal came here, chances were that it was going to die. Now I have so many people say to me, ‘I finally have the guts to walk in this door since you took over.’ I am not giving up. Our motto is, ‘We believe in second chances and everybody gets one.’”
One of the animals that embodies Galax Carroll Grayson Animal Shelter’s motto is the aptly-named Chance. “Chance was a senior golden retriever who was probably around ten years old,” Vass Boyer says. “He was very arthritic and in so much pain that you couldn’t touch him. So I gave him some medicine and would feed him with a fork through his cage. It took two weeks before I was able to touch him. I got him to come outside and he ran around and played like he was the biggest puppy in the world. He adored squeaky toys and he would grab three at a time. It was so sweet.
“I got a rescue in D.C. to take him and we sent him out on transport. But as soon as he was dropped off, he turned around and bit the woman that drove him there. So he got sent right back to me. His eyes were rolling in the back of his head and he was snapping from all the stress. But as soon as he heard my voice, he just stopped. I got him out of his cage and he was behaving just as he normally did. He eventually found an adopter who lives about four hours away and understands his behavior issues.”
Being at the helm of a large municipal shelter can feel lonely at times, Vass Boyer notes. “I have not found another shelter that operates like ours, so I haven’t quite found another person in animal welfare that I can really connect with on what I am going through. But my husband, Christy, and my faith in God have really been my support system.”
“For me, this isn’t just a job. We die a little each day so that they can live. You have to just accept that sometimes these animals will go to great homes and sometimes they don’t. But at the end of the day, you are dealing with these animals who are suffering, and you are responsible for not letting it continue in whatever way is best for them,” she says. “Even though I can handle the mental burden, it’s so easy to get compassion fatigue. There should be more support for animal welfare workers from the outside.”
To get through the tough days, Vass Boyer keeps pictures and words of inspiration in the shelter. “I have a list of the special few that we saved, and the list of the few that didn’t make it. It helps me ground myself when I feel like I am going to explode, because I realize that, despite the hard days and decisions, what I am doing is working and helping animals find their second chance.”
Outside of the shelter, Vass Boyer occasionally indulges in a warm bubble bath and a glass of wine to relax after a hard day’s work. “I also love bottle feeding little kittens as a way of relaxing. There’s never really a day off in this line of work, because animals will come and find you!”
Getting the Grant of a Lifetime
In August 2019, Galax Carroll Grayson Animal Shelter received a $285,000 grant from the Petco Foundation. “I met the president of the Petco Foundation at a conference this past March, and she was in complete disbelief that I was single handedly taking in 3,000 animals each year. I hoped and prayed that we would get this grant and am so grateful that we did,” Vass Boyer says.
The grant will help Galax Carroll Grayson Animal Shelter hire one full-time and one part-time staff member, add an additional 1,000 square feet of space to the front of the shelter building, and continue to work towards a 90% save rate. Reflecting on the milestone grant, Vass Boyer says, “This is only the beginning.”