— Briggs Animal Adoption Center is more than just an animal shelter. It is the fulfillment of a dream that started with a love story, and an extraordinary woman.
Anna Reynolds was born in D.C. in 1909; her father died when she was three. Her mother was too poor to care for her children, so Anna was placed in an orphanage for four years, then farmed out to an aunt, and finally returned home at 13. She considered her life a parallel to the way animals in a shelter feel. And during those early years, she longed for an animal companion, eventually finding one in an abused dog that she nursed back to health.
At age 15, while rescuing another hurt dog, she met a fellow animal lover, James Briggs—a Washington attorney, and president of the Humane Education Society of Washington, D.C. He operated Be Kind to Animals Rest Home, a farm sanctuary for dogs, cats, and old horses. Anna and James fell in love, and were married on her 18th birthday. She joined him in his humane work.
Sadly, the farm was lost during the Great Depression, but they continued on in a smaller scale.
And after James died in 1945, Anna carried on. In 1948, she founded National Humane Education Society (NHES) and Peace Plantation Animal Sanctuary in Sterling, Virginia. Her mission was “to foster a sentiment of kindness to animals in children and adults.”
Increased taxes and zoning changes forced two moves, and Peace Plantation relocated to New York State in 1984 as a lifetime animal sanctuary. In 2000, Mrs. Briggs built the NHES campus in Charles Town and opened Briggs Animal Adoption Center (Briggs). She died in 2011 at the age of 101, but her family continues her work.
Her daughter, Virginia Dungan, is treasurer, and has been on the board of directors for 40 years. Her grandson, James D. Taylor, is president. He stressed that NHES is not affiliated with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and in fact, predates it by two years.
There are around 5,000 separate U.S. humane organizations and shelters. Donations to the HSUS stay there and are not distributed to the other organizations, as many people mistakenly believe. Humane education is the principal focus of NHES, and educators, who are paid employees, give presentations all over the U.S., primarily to school children. They also provide humane education textbooks to teachers and others with their own programs.
Said Taylor, “We teach compassion, and explain that animals need friends just like people do. We educate without criticism and lay the foundation for the human-animal bond.”
The team at Briggs strives to change generational attitudes, such as the practice in many rural areas of keeping dogs permanently on chains or letting animals reproduce freely. “The only way to change that is through education,” noted Taylor.
He also pointed out that between 9,000–11,000 cats and dogs are euthanized per day in the United States. “That’s three to four million a year. But things have improved; there was a time when we were killing twenty million per year!”
Taylor emphasized that Briggs does not euthanize animals as a means of population control. “That’s why we are inundated with requests to take unwanted animals.”
NHES has Alliance Partnership Programs to work with diverse humane and environmental organizations. They help fund Operation Catnip, a Florida organization that spays and neuters feral community cats. They also partner with Network for Endangered Sea Turtles, which works for turtle preservation. And in association with Jefferson County’s Potomac Valley Audubon Society, they’ve set aside 10 acres of the campus in grassland for ground-nesting birds and milkweed plants for Monarch butterflies.
Taylor highlighted that there is no national standard for humane animal care, but the Briggs Center has its own standard. They consider not only physical space but also what they can do with the funds on hand, including veterinary care and staff salaries. They receive no local, state, or federal funding, while maintaining a humane holding capacity for 125 cats and 80 dogs. And they are usually at capacity.
Strays and homeless animals from rescue shelters get first priority over those that people want to give up. Briggs takes animals from all over the tri-state area, but nearly 30 percent come from Jefferson County.
Setting the Standard
Taylor also explained that Briggs administers the highest standard of veterinary care of any shelter. An on-site veterinary clinic provides surgery, x-rays, and dental care, with one vet on staff and two part-time volunteer vets. Incoming cats are isolated for 30 days, and dogs for 10 days. All are spayed or neutered and receive their vaccinations. “We treat their health problems as if they were our own personal animals,” he said.
Dogs are bathed and groomed once a month. They go outside every day, weather permitting, and interact with people on a daily basis. Kennels have radiant-heated floors in winter, and there are outside runs for each kennel. Three large outdoor exercise yards provide dogs with an opportunity to run free, and dog walkers enjoy about a mile of trails. As a testament to the standard at Briggs, over 200 volunteers socialize the animals, walk dogs, go to outside events, and work events on campus.
Cats have a pretty sweet deal at Briggs, as well. The enormous cat room is not only bright and airy, but it’s completely customized just for its feline residents—with built-in catwalks that wrap above the room and into the ceiling, soft beds and nooks everywhere, climbing areas, huge windows, and even an outside area that cats can enter and exit at their leisure.
About 400 animals per year are adopted out of Briggs. “We could send out more,” Taylor affirmed, “but you can’t come in and walk out with a pet in one day. All members of a family have to visit—even their dog, if they have one.”
Taylor explained that dogs need to meet on neutral territory, which helps prevent returns if they don’t get along. “And if there are children under four,” he added, “we require three visits. We look for the best match.”
During the interview, Senior Adoption Services Coordinator, Kristi Curtis, was preparing for a visit from a woman and her dog to meet a shelter dog. “Potential adopters fill out an application,” she explained, “then we interview them to see that they meet the guidelines.”
Following the interview, the family will visit. “We’ve done visits in the home if the home dog doesn’t travel well. And all dogs are delivered to their new homes.”
Curtis went on to say that this procedure is not followed with cats. “Cats get too upset in crates,” she said. “We explain to people how to transition a cat to a new home. There are transition rooms in the shelter cattery—so that new cats can get used to other cats. People need to do this in homes. I suggest a blanket exchange so that cats can learn each other’s scents.”
The woman Curtis was waiting for arrived with her dachshund—which was to meet a Pekingese potential housemate. The dogs sniffed tentatively, and then Curtis, the woman, and the dogs started off on a walk.
Another component of Briggs is Spay Today—which boasts a headquarters on the campus. Phyllis Saville is the Spay Today coordinator. She’s been with the center for nine years—six as a volunteer. She answers queries from people who cannot afford to spay or neuter their pets, and makes the connections with participating vets.
“We get about five thousand spays and neuters done each year,” she confirmed. “There are twenty-two doctors, and they provide reduced prices for us. The prices depend on which doctor you see. And if you get the spay or neuter, you can also get low-cost vaccinations.”
She added, “We charge you what the vet agreed to accept from us. You can’t get these prices yourself, only from Spay Today.”
She commends the vets for their commitment to preventing overpopulation, and is proud of her association with Spay Today. “You know you’re doing something good,” she reflected.
At the end of the day, Briggs Animal Adoption Center is also doing something good. “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals,” opined philosopher Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. The notion has been repeated and modified many times since. It’s a notion that young Anna Reynolds knew well. Her future husband shared her compassion—which soon became a mutual passion—one that, to this day, continues to provide shelter and support to the many furry friends among us who need a helping hand, and a place to call home.