The Eastern Shore is a flat, marshy strip of barrier islands along the Atlantic coast of the Commonwealth, divided between Virginia's rural, and largely impoverished, Accomack and Northampton counties. Parksley, Virginia, occupies a fifteen mile stretch of the Eastern Shore's sandy, marshy terrain, an Accomack community dependent on its ability to produce tomatoes, wheat, cotton, and soybeans, and by way of two large-scale poultry operations, its ability to confine, concentrate, and violently disassemble millions of chickens every year for poultry industry giants Tyson Farms Inc., and Perdue Farms Inc. It is estimated that one in every twelve jobs along the Eastern Shore is directly dependent on the area's booming broiler industry.
Like more and more east-coast communities, as much as Accomack's economy is dependent on processing animals for large commercial food operations, it's equally dependent on the county's ability to attract Hispanic migrant workers to the area who'll perform the rigorous and dangerous slaughterhouse work that very few white and black American laborers are still willing to do. Attracting migrant laborers to the Eastern Shore is crucial, but exploring ways of preventing the hypertonic flow of skilled chicken processors out of the community, is becoming equally vital to turning Accomack's depressed economy around.
Sadly, however, Accomack's migrant workers comprise almost half of the county's 20.5 percent of residents who currently live below the poverty level, and though Hispanics account for over 9 percent of the population, they're woefully underrepresented within the county itself, occupying just 4 of Accomack's 266 higher-paying government positions. And the disparity doesn't stop there, unfortunately. The average home value in Accomack County is $153,600, but many Hispanic families reside in dilapidated rental dwellings valued well below $10,000, if they're lucky enough to have housing at all. Gathered together in rows in run down mobile home "communities," Accomack's Hispanic migrant workers are often living within spitting distance of the 24-hour a day large-scale poultry and farm operations that bring these laborers to Accomack County in the first place.
It's an extremely exploitative situation, and as much as Accomack wants to keep this disadvantaged labor force in its place, Hispanic laborers don't migrate to the Eastern Shore because they want to spend their lives on unrelenting processing lines, ankle-deep in blood and animal guts, or because they desire that life for their children. But the poor provide a fearful, vulnerable workforce for those who would take advantage, and a wage of $10.20 an hour is very attractive to laborers who would earn a daily wage of $8.00 in a rural area of Mexico doing the very same work.
Only a small percentage of these workers will leave their slaughterhouse and seasonal farm laborer positions for higher paying labor work elsewhere in Accomack, and because many may be in the U.S. illegally, and therefore less likely to challenge authority or complain when they're treated unfairly, they'll have almost no employment security, and there will be no guarantee that they'll be paid fairly even if they manage to get, and keep, "better paying" jobs. So despite the county's efforts to keep its seasoned slaughterhouse workers where it needs them, most Hispanic laborers will eventually leave Accomack to pursue work elsewhere, hoping to use the abundance of low-paying and undesirable animal enterprise jobs throughout the country as a launching pad to a life that's at least a little bit better than the one they'll leave. And when it's time to go, going often means leaving almost everything they've built behind. Cars will be packed to the brim, and if provisions can't can't be made for them, family pets will be fed one last time and released.
The Problem at Dreamland 2 Mobile Home Park
Matt Cormons and his wife moved to the Eastern Shore in 1985, endeavoring to carve out an independent self-sustained lifestyle on a 43 acre family farm the couple purchased in the town of Hopeton, a small subsection of the Eastern Shore's Parksley, Virginia. Later on, with the intention of providing his family with free-range, grass-fed sustainable dairy products, and at considerable expense to him and his wife, Matt Cormons applied his degree in zoology and arranged for the delivery of an organic dairy cow he purchased from a farm in Pennsylvania.
But in 2012, just a stone's throw away from Hopeton's "Dreamland 2 Mobile Home Park," a rundown mobile home community providing housing for many of Purdue Farms' migrant laborers, and a location that has historically been overrun with packs of stray and feral dogs, the Cormons' idyllic farm life was tragically interrupted, in the early hours one February morning.
"My wife and I were in bed when we heard our dog barking at dawn," Cormons stated when he addressed Accomack County Supervisors in April of 2012, adding, "I went out to investigate and discovered our cow in the middle of our pond with the dogs surrounding her from the land." Cormons said that in her attempt to escape the attack, his cow had pulled out the metal stake keeping her in a field where she had been set out to graze overnight. Cormons said that at least one of the dogs was barking at his goats, sheep, horses and other cattle, though those animals were protected by an electric fence and were otherwise unharmed. Cormons told County Supervisors that he shot one of the dogs with his .22 rifle and that all the dogs, numbering about five in total, immediately fled across a neighbor's farm field.
Relying on statutes written several decades prior to the attack on Cormon's cow, Accomack County Supervisors voted to reimburse Cormons the mandated amount of just $400, towards what had already become considerable veterinary expenses related to the attack on his dairy cow. During this meeting, County Supervisor Jack Gray acknowledged the problem of feral dogs in Hopeton, stating that animal control had already been in the area to trap several of the dogs, and that the county would continue to do so, but that he was also concerned about "collared animals being destroyed even though they should not be running at large," adding that, "a resident of the trailer park," had said her pet, "was loose that day."
The damage done to the Cormons' cow had been severe. Cormons, in the written statement he provided to Accomack's County Supervisors, said, "we are still giving her [his dairy cow] constant care, which has included administering intravenous and intra-mammary antibiotics, washing with antibacterial solutions twice daily, flushing out maggots from the wounds, milking out the infected quarters, and massaging the compacted udder to break up the clots clogging it," several months after the attack, and, "when her udder became gangrenous, maggoty and smelling of dead tissue," Cormons said that he and his wife "seriously considered putting her down," but decided to first give her every chance that they could. Cormons wondered aloud about what damage these dogs might do if they were to encounter a child next time, instead of a cow. And there were other matters to consider.
During this same April 2012 meeting, County Supervisor Gray made the statement that the county's health department had its own concerns too, primarily that the feral dogs who were running at large in Hopeton weren't vaccinated for rabies. Since the late 1970's, Accomack County has been dealing with a rabies problem that a local news outlet has since described as "rampant" and "rising." And even though the county has stated that it did make the effort to trap 27 dogs since Cormon's cow was maimed in 2012, on November 20, 2013, dangerous packs of stray and feral dogs were once again the topic of discussion at the Accomack County Board of Supervisor's regular meeting, and this time it wasn't just Matt Cormons who was complaining about them.
During his second public appeal to Accomack's Board of Supervisors, on November 20, 2013, Matt Cormons stated that he had personally visited the Dreamland 2 Mobile Home Park a week earlier, on November 13, 2013, and had counted 26 dogs, only 2 of whom were wearing collars, and only 2 of whom were either chained or confined to a fenced in area. Cormons told the board that, on November 7th, a pack of dogs had killed two large domestic turkeys on his property.
Next, David Van Dessel, Cormon's Dennis Drive neighbor, addressed the board with similar concerns, stating that, "we in the Hopeton area are having an increasing and rapidly accelerating problem with wild dog packs," describing the situation of wild feral dogs as "originating from Dreamland 2 trailer park," stating that the dogs are, "just roaming wild," and that, "they're in the street all the time, and they're running across the fields." Van Dessel presented County Supervisors with evidence of, "six recent dog attacks on household pets, livestock and two raccoons [sic] found torn apart in a field in the neighborhood," describing attacks on himself, and his companion animals, which had resulted in veterinary bills in excess of $850, and also described the death of his mother's cat, resulting from a vicious attack by dogs originating from Dreamland 2 Mobile Home Park.
Theresa Van Dessel, David Van Dessel's daughter, and like her father and Cormons, a resident of Dennis Drive in Hopeton, spoke to the County Supervisors about problem as well, stating that she had contacted county animal control on four separate occasions about the attacks, without results. Van Dessel said that she was told officers could not set traps to catch the dogs because the person who had the traps was on vacation, and that animal control officers would respond only if a person was bitten, claims Accomack County Sheriff, Todd Godwin, would deny.
But, in March of 2014, in a statement he made to Delmarva.com's staff writer, Connie Morrison, Accomack sheriff, Todd Godwin said that Accomack's feral dog and cat problem was getting worse and that he didn't know if the county would ever get on top of it. In Morrison's piece titled, "Virginia Animal Control is an Uphill Battle," Morrison writes that Godwin was, "not looking forward to the next wave of kittens and puppies," that would add to Accomack's existing unlicensed and feral animal populations, already susceptible to contracting rabies and other transmissible diseases. In the statement he made to Morrison, sheriff Todd Godwin said that though the problem has a simple solution--spaying and neutering, getting people to do it is the real challenge. "There just aren't enough people who care about their animals," Sheriff Godwin told Morrison.
Why PETA Entered the Fray
"The circumstances are these: Accomack County residents appealed to PETA for help with a long-standing crisis in which abandoned and feral dogs were attacking children, livestock, wildlife, and cats; giving birth to litters of sick puppies under trailers; and running in packs at an area mobile home park. PETA was contacted because we have an around-the-clock program to answer calls for help in southeastern Virginia, providing more than 112,000 free and low-cost spay or neuter surgeries for animals of indigent, elderly, military, and other citizens; free doghouse and straw-bedding delivery services; emergency veterinary care and counseling for animal-related problems; and working with other agencies."--People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
More than frustrated by the growing number of stray and feral dogs, and the mounting number of attacks on companion animals and people, the residents of Dennis Drive contacted PETA to help with a problem that the county was all but ignoring. In September of 2014, the landowner, James T. Lunn, who stated that free-roaming animals were in violation of the trailer park's residents' lease agreements, gave the PETA staff, Victoria Jean Carey and Jennifer Lisa Woods, permission to begin knocking on doors to talk to the residents of Dreamland 2 Mobile Home Park to inquire about the free-roaming animals, to try to determine which ones belonged to someone and which ones didn't, and to talk to residents about PETA's spay and the neuter services and the other quality of life services PETA provides to animals.
Dreamland 2 resident, Noelia Perez Gomez, claimed ownership of three of the free-roaming animals, a 1 year-old male black lab mix, a 6 month-old male brown and white pit bull puppy, and a 5 year-old female tan chihuahua, and formally surrendered the animals to the PETA staff. A second Dreamland 2 resident, Wilber Zerate, arranged for the PETA staff to return to set traps for the two sick and emaciated black and white kittens who were living under his porch, for the staff take custody of them once they were trapped, and for the animal rights group to provide a free dog house for the two pit bulls who were living chained in Zerate's yard. On October 18, 2014, having arranged for residents to notify them if there were animals in the traps under Zerate's porch, the two PETA staff returned to Dreamland 2 to take custody of the sick kittens, and to try to capture Noelia Perez Gomez's three dogs.
Later that day, Wilber Zerate returned home to find his tan chihuahua, Maya, missing, and according to surveillance footage captured by Zerate's security camera, taken by the PETA staff during the round-up of Gomez's dogs. Two days later, Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA's Vice President of Cruelty Investigations, and the person who oversees PETA's Community Animal Project program, came to Dreamland 2 Mobile Home Park to tell Wilber Zerate that Maya had been accidentally taken into custody as an owner-surrender, and on October 18, 2014, for reasons that weren't quite clear to Nachminovitch, euthanized the same day at PETA's Norfolk headquarters. Accomack County Supervisor Jack Gray's concerns that owned animals running at large might be misidentified at their peril, had sadly come to fruition. On November 4, 2014 the two PETA staff were arrested for larceny relating to their taking Maya into custody, though Gary Agar, the Commonwealth's Attorney for the County of Accomack, would decline to prosecute Carey and Woods on the grounds that, according to Wilber Zerate himself, Maya hadn't been tethered in his yard with his other dogs and she hadn't been wearing a collar or tags.
The fallout from this incident has been significant. On December 11, 2014, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services performed an inspection of PETA's animal shelter, "to investigate allegations that an animal named 'Maya' was euthanized prior to the expiration of the [state's mandated five-day] holding period," noting that the PETA staff who had taken the tan female chihuahua into custody had failed to have Noelia Perez Gomez directly identify the animal as hers on the day the exchange of custody actually occurred, invalidating the "animal give-up form" the PETA staff had obtained the month prior. On January 9, 2015, the VDACS issued its final report to PETA, stating that PETA would be assessed the maximum penalty of $500 for PETA's violation of Virginia code mandating that stray animals be held for five days prior to disposition by euthanasia, recognizing that it was the animal rights group's first known code violation in the seventeen years they've operated a shelter. Upon the VDACS receiving PETA's response, the VDACS investigation was officially closed. The documents pertaining to the VDACS' investigation became a matter of public record on February 27, 2015.
But on October 20, 2014, immediately after PETA management became aware of the incident involving Maya, the animal rights group began its own investigation into the events that took place during the round-up of Noelia Perez Gomez's dogs, and concluded that staff member Victoria Jean Carey had violated PETA's own existing protocol requiring that animals be directly identified by their guardians prior to the exchange of custody. PETA dismissed Carey for the infraction. To prevent future animals from falling through any other unforeseen cracks in their system, PETA created a detailed internal document that must be completed whenever animals are taken into custody, specifically stating that animals who are being surrendered must be directly identified by their guardians the same day the exchange of custody occurs, and that if this requirement is not met, the animals must be treated as "strays" and held at least for the state mandated stray hold period of five days, if there is no indicia of ownership, and ten days, if there is indicia of ownership. The new form requires that staff taking custody of animals in the field check with a supervisor prior, as an additional stop-gap measure. The animal rights group has also stated that a supervisor must now be contacted prior to staff taking unscheduled owner-surrenders in the field.
On February 27, 2015, when the VDACS' investigation officially ended, PETA issued a public statement about Maya, though the animal rights group hasn't yet issued a statement about why Maya was euthanized, other than to say that it is not clear to them why the PETA staff didn't start the process of trying to find a permanent adoptive home for Maya, and that the criminal investigation hasn't yet been officially closed.
"Today, PETA is finally able to express the deep sorrow that we feel over an incident that occurred on the Eastern Shore in October 2014, for which we have been investigated and cited by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). PETA has awaited the release of VDACS' findings before commenting publicly.
"The circumstances are these: Accomack County residents appealed to PETA for help with a long-standing crisis in which abandoned and feral dogs were attacking children, livestock, wildlife, and cats; giving birth to litters of sick puppies under trailers; and running in packs at an area mobile home park. PETA was contacted because we have an around-the-clock program to answer calls for help in southeastern Virginia, providing more than 112,000 free and low-cost spay or neuter surgeries for animals of indigent, elderly, military, and other citizens; free doghouse and straw-bedding delivery services; emergency veterinary care and counseling for animal-related problems; and working with other agencies.
"It was extremely upsetting, therefore, to discover that in the course of doing something helpful and good, something bad had happened. A dog picked up by a PETA worker in the mobile home park, collarless and without any indication of ownership, was mistakenly identified as an owner-surrender and was then euthanized in error, in violation of regulations and in violation of existing PETA protocols. Immediately after the incident became known to PETA management, our shelter supervisor visited the dog's owner to extend our heartfelt apologies to the family, and PETA began a comprehensive internal investigation. The person responsible for this tragic mistake was immediately suspended and subsequently terminated. PETA has implemented additional safeguards to ensure that such a mistake never happens again.
"A December 11, 2014, inspection by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) confirmed noncompliance related to the required holding period for this dog and acknowledged PETA's prompt action to apply additional safeguards. This is the first and only finding of noncompliance in more than 16 years of operation and flawless inspection reports for PETA's shelter. PETA takes full responsibility for and sincerely regrets what happened. This terrible mistake has provided fuel for those who habitually misrepresent and fabricate stories about the way in which PETA's shelter operates, and that, too, is regrettable. We ask the community to forgive this mistake and to remember the tens of thousands of animals PETA has helped, and our extensive efforts to help abate the overpopulation crisis through sterilization surgeries and thereby end needless euthanasia in Hampton Roads and beyond. Please watch this short video, which gives more information about our services and shows the work that we do in some of the most impoverished areas."
Very little has changed in Parksley, Virginia, since Maya's story broke in November of 2014. The stray and feral dog problem at Dreamland 2 Mobile Home Park hasn't gone away, the threat the dogs pose to wildlife, domestic animals, and people hasn't gone away, and the rabies threat in the area is nowhere near under control. And though PETA continues to this day to serve the animals of the Eastern Shore by providing them with free and low-cost spay and neuter surgeries, food, shelter, and life-saving veterinary treatment, not everyone is ready for this regrettable chapter to close.
PETA's most dedicated detractors, some of whom are Eastern Shore locals, have ignored the realities of Dreamland 2 Mobile Home Park, because acknowledging the realities makes it extremely difficult to fault PETA for trying to help. The "Eastern Shore Arsonist Hunters," a network of local vigilantes characterized as, "an industrious group of armchair detectives," in Monica Hesse's riveting Washington Times piece about a string of Eastern Shore arsons, took up Wilber Zerate's cause against PETA, admitting that the Eastern Shore's issue with PETA has more to do with "property rights" than animal welfare. One of the founders of the Eastern Shore Arsonist Hunters, Seth Matthews, a local sign-maker and general contractor who, on Wilber Zerate's behalf, started the the popular "Stand for Maya" page on Facebook, told me during a recent conversation that, unlike many who have exploited Maya's death to forward their "no kill" initiatives, he's "not a 'no kill' kind of guy," he's just a "stay off my porch kind of guy." He explained it this way during our conversation:
"I agree PETA made a mistake, but mistakes with people's property don't fly around here. I kind of compare it to a flower pot. What if you had a flower pot on your front porch that contained a very beautiful flower that you planted from a seed. They prettiest flower that you'd ever seen. Then someone comes while you're not home and takes the flower, pot and all. It was a mile from my house."--Seth Matthews, Parksley, Virginia We now know that Maya wasn't misidentified as a stray nor was she "stolen" by the PETA staff. She was misidentified as an owned dog of a matching description and she was taken into custody as an owner-surrender. And she certainly was more than a "flower in a pot." Maya was a small, vulnerable dog deserving of protection and she was left all alone in a chaotic and volatile situation. She wasn't wearing a collar or any identification, and, sadly, she was the accident waiting to happen that Accomack County Supervisor, Jack Gray had predicted would happen.