Brandywine Valley SPCA leads way in making Delaware no-kill state

Walt Fenstermacher, Director of Administration for the Brandywine Valley SPCA, greets Quinn in one of the dog run areas at the Georgetown adoption campus. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

GEORGETOWN — Chances of a homeless canine or feline finding a loving, forever home are greatly enhanced when up for adoption in the state of Delaware.

The First State is officially the only “no-kill” state in the union, and the Brandywine Valley Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is at the forefront.

Animals brought in from Delaware and neighboring Pennsylvania, as well as those airlifted from the South and Midwest regions, can be found at the BVSPCA’s adoption centers in Dover, Georgetown, New Castle and West Chester, Pennsylvania.

“Annually, we have over 14,000 animals come through our shelters each year,” said BVSPCA director of administration Walt Fenstermacher. “About 30% of those animals are transport animals that may come to us from disaster relief efforts or even just communities where the animals are considered at risk for euthanasia — the rural South and Midwest. Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are some of those states that we look to help the most because they have the most animals at risk.”

The Best Friends Animal Society recently released its 2020 pet lifesaving findings, which gives a national view of dogs and cats entering and leaving shelters.

For the second year, Delaware is identified as the only no-kill state in the country, with a save rate of 93.9%. A state is considered no-kill when every shelter within the state sports a save rate of 90% or higher. BVSPCA, as well as other shelters, has achieved that status.

“This prestigious recognition has resulted from hard work by all of the state’s shelters and rescues, legislators who advocate for animals, state leadership and especially the community supporting progressive policies,” said Adam Lamb, BVSPCA’s CEO. “Historically, the biggest barrier to Delaware achieving no-kill save rates was the open admission shelter providing animal services for lost/stray animals. We’re proud that the BVSPCA has reversed that trend to help Delaware crest to and sustain a no-kill lifesaving rate since taking the state contract in 2016.”

“To make Delaware a no-kill state, it has really taken a collaborative effort and support of the community, and also a great partnership with the Office of Animal Welfare,” said Mr. Fenstermacher. “Having all of animal control fall under one umbrella and the animal care be provided by one provider has been a really important part of our mission.”

The line of families and individuals seeking to adopt pets grows as noon approaches on July 1 at Brandywine Valley SPCA’s Georgetown adoption center. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

More than 90% of the animals that come into BVSPCA shelters leave with a positive outcome, either through adoption, transfer to rescue or returned to their owner.

“We don’t euthanize for length of stay or for space,” said Mr. Fenstermacher, adding the only time an animal is humanely put down is if it is “behaviorally dangerous to itself or to the public or if an animal is so far gone medically that there is not any medical intervention that we can offer. We do not want the animal to suffer.”

During the coronavirus crisis, adoptions have increased. It is not uncommon for potential adopters — individuals and families — to be waiting at the door when adoption centers open.

“We have seen a really positive response from the community,” said Mr. Fenstermacher.

“We kind of expected there would be a decline in adoptions just due to the shutdown and the different businesses that were affected. But we’ve seen a steady interest in adoptions. A lot of people are spending more time in their homes, so they have a little bit more time to spend with new family members. We’ve seen an increase in foster applications and families where folks will take in an animal temporarily. A lot of that is to do with having more time on their hands and spending that time at home.”

BVSPCA’s foster program is geared toward animals that may be underage, too small to be spayed or neutered, or that may have medical conditions “where they need a little bit of (tender, loving care), and those animals are successfully placed through our foster care program. We’ve had over 600 animals go through our foster program this year alone — January through May.”

Typically, BVSPCA receives airlift transports twice a month, in collaboration with Wings of Rescue. On hand when the plane touches down is a small army of staff and volunteers. Volunteerism plays a vital role in BVSPCA’s success.

“Organization-wise, we have over 1,000 volunteers. They help with anything from photography, dog-walking, cat-cuddling, helping out with the flights or helping out with our pet food pantries,” said Mr. Fenstermacher. “An integral part of the equation is the adopters and the support from the community.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, BVSPCA changed gears, implementing drive-thru food pantries. As of July 1, BVSPCA’s 10 pantries had given out 100,000 pounds of dog and cat food to pet owners in Kent, Sussex and New Castle counties.

Virginia, one of the adoptable dogs at Brandywine Valley SPCA’s Georgetown shelter, gets some tender loving attention from BVSPCA Director of Administration Walt Fenstermacher. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

“That is one of the things that due to COVID, we kind of had to evolve that process,” Mr. Fenstermacher said. “We normally host a pet food pantry at our shelters on the first and third Saturday of the month.”

Path to no kill

Delaware began gathering shelter statistics as far back as 2006. Statewide lifesaving reached no-kill levels starting in 2016 and has continued since then without interruption. With the Best Friends No-Kill 2025 initiative, comparative data identified Delaware as the only no-kill state in the country as of 2018 and continuing into 2019.

A big influence was consolidating animal control for dogs and humane law enforcement at the state level under the Delaware Office of Animal Welfare. In 2016, the BVSPCA was awarded a five-year, statewide animal services contract by the OAW. The BVSPCA was the first contracted shelter to deliver no-kill lifesaving, which it has sustained each year.

The BVSPCA has invested more than $5 million from private donations and grants to build a supportive infrastructure, including a shelter and low-cost veterinary clinic in each county.

In 2018, BVSPCA emerged the successful bidder in the public auction of the former Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary, which it then converted into a rescue/rehab center. The 11,500-square-foot facility is located on 13 acres on Shingle Point Road off U.S. 9, several miles east of Georgetown.

While the rescue/rehab center is not open to the public, “that is where we often receive our transports,” Mr. Fenstermacher said.

As the largest animal welfare organization in Delaware, the BVSPCA’s contributions to the state achieving a no-kill save rate for the past four years include:

• Progressive adoption practices, such as implementing open adoptions and holding “mega” adoption events in which most of the state’s shelters participate.

• A nationally recognized return-to-field program for cats with limited adoption options otherwise.

• A behavior program to help dogs needing a little more support to be adoptable.

• Medical resources internally and in partnership with outside organizations to save animals that might have previously been deemed not treatable.

• An extensive adoption support system, including a 24/7 adopter hotline, a free follow-up exam at a BVSPCA Animal Health Center and lifetime access to free behavior counseling.

• Intake intervention programs that focus on keeping pets out of shelters and with families who love them, such as low-cost veterinary clinics, free-shot clinic days, mobile wellness services and a pet food pantry.

Looking to the future

“Just because we’ve met a statistical measure of success, the work doesn’t stop,” said Mr. Lamb. “We’re expanding our community programs and continuing to find ways to save animals on the fringe of adoptability, those that make up the final percentage points in a live-release rate. We’re also taking that local success to other communities that are still struggling.”

In addition to its pet food pantry, BVSPCA also rolled out its Animeals program in partnership with Meals on Wheels Delaware for statewide pet food delivery to seniors.

BVSPCA also continues its work on behalf of cats. According to Best Friends, more than two cats are being killed for every one dog in shelters across the country. The BVSPCA animal care staff just received training in the nationally renowned Cat Pawsitive behavior program from the Jackson Galaxy Project, expanding the organization’s skillset in helping cats that might otherwise be deemed adoptable. In the community, the BVSPCA has been expanding its relationships with cat-focused rescues, such as Forgotten Cats and Just Us Cats.

Helping others

While Delaware tops the country for lifesaving, 71 dogs and cats are killed each hour simply because they don’t have safe places to call home. With the success achieved over the past four years in Delaware, the organization has been able to also help communities not as fortunate.

“We have ongoing relationships with shelters in states such as Florida and Louisiana, which are among the top five states for euthanasia,” said Mr. Lamb. “Not only do we relocate highly adoptable animals to save them, we invest in mentoring and giveback programs to help those communities make sustainable change.”

How to help

Much of the BVSPCA’s work takes place outside of the scope of funding from the state contract, such as cat lifesaving programs, intake intervention programs and humane education. Monthly Circle of Life donors provide a sustained resource for those programs; those interested in helping can sign up at

For more information on BVSPCA, visit or its Facebook page.