St. Croix Animal Welfare Center

Veterinarian Michelle Mehalick, medical director, and David Berg, veterinary technician, care for a cat at the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center’s clinic.

ST. CROIX — Less-than-ideal working conditions and a lapsed contract with the V.I. government did little to dampen the spirit and drive of those at the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center, who in 2018, had their highest save rate ever.

Nearly 2,200 animal lives were saved in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria — both of which, according to Executive Director Haley Cutler, effectively “decimated” their Clifton Hill center and forced them to rent space for a shelter and clinic, and a separate adoption center in La Grande Princesse.

The two facilities, she said, are not designed to be animal care centers and pose major logistical challenges and increase costs for rent and utilities. Yet, in spite of the hardships, along with the highest intake numbers in five years, the center oversaw a record-breaking 74 percent save rate.

“This is only possible from the tremendous support we’ve received from the community,” Cutler said. “We’re grateful that people are rallying together around this cause.”

Indeed, like the animal care facilities on St. Thomas and St. John, the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center is a nonprofit and relies largely on charitable donations and grants to maintain operations.

The center also relies on the V.I. government to provide animal control services via a contractual agreement.

Since 2016, however, these contracts have expired, forcing the centers to forego essential community programs and divert donated funds to other needs.

Cutler said, to this day, no contract is in place.

“Our contract lapsed in 2016, but we still provide [animal control] services in good faith,” Cutler said. “We are hopeful that with the new administration, we can rectify the situation this year.”

Others are not so optimistic.

Ryan Moore, shelter manager at the Animal Care Center of St. John, said he hasn’t heard from anyone in the Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. administration, including Agriculture Commissioner nominee Positive Nelson.

Moore, who said his shelter is owed at least $80,000 in payments dating back at least two years, said efforts to maintain service are increasingly an “uphill battle,” especially following the hurricanes.

“Not a single thing has changed,” he said. “And now that there’s a new governor and a new Department of Agriculture — basically, we’ll have to start a whole new contract if they decide to do that again. So, it looks like we’re not getting paid.”

Moore said the absence of a contract forces staff to work harder to get donations and grants, all while veterinary costs are spiking.

“It’s frustrating that we have to deal with this every single year — every year, it’s like pulling teeth to try and get this contract money,” he said.

Donna Nemeth, director of operations for the Humane Society of St. Thomas, agreed.

“We’re owed $202,000. And the last six months of uncontracted work would probably be another $50,000,” she said. “We are curtailing community services that we are no longer under contract for because we just cannot spare the staff to do it.”

Nemeth said the Humane Society on St. Thomas has stopped licensing dogs and only responds to serious animal control calls.

“If somebody calls and says there’s a stray dog running around, or there’s a bunch of cats outside their house and they want someone to come and trap them, we just cannot do that,” she said. “But if there are animals in need or if people bring us animals, then we are absolutely accepting all of those. We cannot send people out on the road without a contract.”

In January, The Daily News reported that officials with the St. Croix and St. Thomas shelters had signed contracts and submitted them back to the V.I. Agriculture Department.

The department forwarded the contracts to the Property and Procurement Department and the Justice Department for review, received them back, then signed and submitted them a second time.

The executed contracts were never returned.

Then-Agriculture Commissioner Carlos Robles said the recurring push-and-pull over shelter contracts stems in part from the way the territorial budget is structured. Rather than being funded through department headings, the shelter contracts are funded through the budget’s large miscellaneous section.

“We never knew what monies are going to be available to the shelters because it’s always in the miscellaneous portion of the budget,” said Robles, in an earlier interview. “That’s contingent on what’s coming in to the government of the Virgin Islands.”

The Daily News attempted to reach Agriculture Commissioner nominee Nelson on Thursday, but did not receive a response by press time.

In the meantime, all three shelters continue to forge ahead, reliant as ever on a generous community.

“We’re grateful that people see the value in what we’re doing because we’re not just helping pets, but the people who love them,” Cutler said.

Cutler said she plans to return the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center to its Clifton Hill location and is currently in the middle of a public assistance application process with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

If all goes well, the project will break ground later this year and potentially be operational 18-24 months later, she said.

— Contact A.J. Rao at 340-714-9104 or email ajrao@dailynews.vi.