A Backward Glance for the Richmond SPCA

As the Richmond SPCA prepares to celebrate its 120th anniversary with a gala event on June 9, we invited Robin Robertson Starr, its chief executive officer, to limn for us how the organization began, and to offer her thoughts about what lies ahead.

Shortly after the Civil War, people in this country became increasingly concerned about the ways in which animals, especially horses, were being abused. The humane movement can be said to have truly begun with the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals by Henry Bergh in New York City in 1866. In the years that followed, the humane movement took hold and organizations around the country began to form for the protection of animals. Most of them, although not connected or related in any way, used “society for the prevention of cruelty to animals” as their name with the city identifier at the beginning. This has lead to the mistaken belief of many people that organizations bearing this name are somehow all connected or related, which they are not. The Richmond SPCA is an independent, free standing charitable organization and there is no umbrella or parent organization of which we are a part or a chapter.

As this humane movement was taking root nationally in the late nineteenth century, a woman named Nellie Nalle Palmer here in Richmond was concerned about these issues and passionate about establishing a society for the protection of animals in our community. Nellie was a socially well-connected former debutante. She married W. Ben Palmer, who had served in Mosby’s Rangers in the Civil War. Mosby’s Rangers (43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry) was a legendary group of Confederate cavalry soldiers under the command of Col. John Mosby (often called “the Gray Ghost”).

In 1883, Nellie and Ben Palmer gathered a group of people at their home at 315 East Grace Street for the purpose of starting a Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (An interesting tidbit is that this house, now demolished, was located where the Richmond Times-Dispatch building now stands.) Sadly, they were not able to inspire enough enthusiasm or support to get it off the ground in 1883, but Nellie Palmer did not give up.

She worked with dedication for eight more years to raise the money and inspire the enthusiasm for the establishment of a humane society for Richmond. She and her husband convinced some of the most prominent men in Richmond that this was an important cause. Note I say “men” – Nellie Palmer was the only woman involved in the effort.

In October of 1891, Nellie and Ben Palmer again hosted a group in their Grace Street home and, this time, they successfully founded the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They had recruited for the initial group of Board officers some of the most influential and respected Richmonders of the time, including Joseph Bryan (the founder of the Richmond Times-Dispatch who had served with Ben Palmer in Mosby’s Rangers), Dr. Jud Wood and Captain Alexander Guigon. Nellie’s husband, Ben Palmer, was also one of the founding officers.

Nellie, while an initial Board member, was not among the officers. Nonetheless, she continued to be the source of energy and inspiration for the organization for many years to come. The organization engaged actively in lobbying efforts for humane issues but struggled with inadequate funding. Then, Nellie managed to convince her aunt, Mrs. Louisa Nalle, to leave her estate to the Richmond SPCA. Mrs. Nalle passed away in the first decade of the 20th century and the $24,000 she left the organization really put it on its feet.

During these early years, there was no concept yet of sheltering homeless companion animals—that idea did not come along in this country until about the 1920s. Humane organizations such as the Richmond SPCA were dedicated to advocacy for all animals. One of the great accomplishments of the organization was getting the Virginia General Assembly to adopt in 1894 the first statute making cruelty to an animal a crime.

Ellen Glasgow was a Richmonder and one of the most famous and honored novelists of the 20th century, receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for her novel In This Our Life. She was deeply devoted to animals and concerned about the ways in which they were being cruelly treated. Ellen Glasgow joined the Richmond SPCA in 1891, became a Board officer in 1910 and its Board President in 1924. She continued in that leadership role for 21 years until her death. She was a courageous and committed leader for the organization and recruited many prominent and powerful Richmonders to our Board such as Douglas Southall Freeman and James Branch Cabell. Miss Glasgow was the driving force behind the opening of our first shelter, one of the first in the country, in 1924.

Ellen Glasgow’s death in 1945 left a large hole in the organization’s leadership. However, her generosity in leaving the majority of her estate and the all of rights to her great works of literature to the Richmond SPCA gave the organization fiscal stability for decades to come. Her bequest to our organization in her will was left in memory of her beloved Sealyham terrier, Jeremy, reflecting the great role he had played in her life. To this day, the Richmond SPCA continues to honor Ellen Glasgow and Jeremy in the names of its major giving societies.

The Richmond SPCA in 2011 would amaze and thrill its early leaders. The organization has continued to be on the forefront of progressive thinking through the decades and has become a leader of the no-kill movement nationally. Pushing our community and our country to adopt non-lethal approaches to homeless animals and more humane attitudes toward all life has been the Richmond SPCA’s hallmark from its very beginnings. RichmondSPCA.org


Q & A

VL: Though many things have changed for the Richmond SPCA since its founding, what, if anything, would you say has stayed the same?

Starr: The Richmond SPCA has always been a wellspring of progressive thought about animal welfare and we have consistently had the benefit of courageous leadership. Pushing a community to act in more humane and compassionate ways toward animals can often meet with considerable initial resistance. We have always had leaders with the determination to stand firm in the face of, and ultimately overcome, that resistance.

VL: What achievement are you most proud of during your tenure?

Starr: Without question, my greatest source of pride is our transformation of the Richmond SPCA into a no-kill humane organization that is committed to the creation and retention of a no-kill community. Lethal approaches to issues regarding homeless animals or feral cats are simply not ethical. We do not participate in any such approaches and we provide our community with all of the tools so that it too can avoid lethal approaches.

VL: What do you think may be the greatest misconception the community has about the Richmond SPCA?

Starr: The greatest misconception is that the Richmond SPCA is a part of, or a chapter of, some national group or organization, which we are not and never have been. We also receive no government funding. We are a free standing non-profit organization that must raise all of our own funding from charitable sources.

VL: What is in store for the organization in the next few years?

Starr: We are now successfully saving the lives of all of the healthy homeless animals in Richmond and Hanover and a substantial portion of the treatably sick and injured ones. We will be dedicating ourselves in the coming years to saving the remainder of the treatably sick and injured and to pushing this life saving success into the other parts of our community.

VL: What do you hope for the long-term future of the Richmond SPCA—what might it look like 50, or even 100 years from now?

Starr: What you always hope is that our community and society will become so humane and compassionate that our existence will no longer be required. While I doubt that will happen in the next 50 years, I do believe that our society will come with time to value the lives of animals much more than it does now and that people will be horrified at how animals were treated in the past. I believe that societies become more fair and more sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed and powerless as they mature with time and that process is going to happen with regard to the thinking about our treatment of animals.

VL: Are there any particular adoption stories, or individual animals that have come through the Richmond SPCA that stand out in your memory?

Starr: Yes, something that happened last holiday season will always remain in my memory because it did so much to put all of us in the holiday spirit.

Week after week, a lady and her son had visited our Robins-Starr Humane Center because the son, Quinton, had asked for a dog for Christmas. Each time, they met nice dogs, but the mother and son kept looking for just the right match. Quinton had never had a dog before, and he wanted a small dog, big enough to play with but not too rough for a young boy.

Quinton and his mom came to the Richmond SPCA one day and met Grace, a 4-year-old beagle mix who was just the right size, around 25 pounds. They spent time with her in a visiting room playing with Grace and began to fall in love with her, but after eight weeks of visits, the mom was not ready to make a decision right away. They went home to think it over and decided Grace was just the dog they’d been looking for. Quinton was thrilled and decided he would call her “Gracie.” That night they went out to buy supplies – a bed, a crate and all the things a family needs to be prepared for a new pup’s arrival – with the plan to return to the Richmond SPCA when the adoption center opened at noon on Sunday.

They arrived at the adoption center later than they intended, and someone else was already visiting with Grace. The adoption counselor, Joe Bishop, who had helped them the day before, recognized the mother and son, and told them that Grace was no longer available. The lady visiting with her was already making the adoption final. They were heartbroken. Joe offered to introduce them to other dogs that would make great pets. As Joe walked with the family to meet other dogs in the kennels, they passed the visiting room where Grace’s adoption was in progress.

Joe recalled, “As we were walking toward the back viewing area, Quinton stopped by the visiting room and looked through the door at Grace to say goodbye.” The woman who was about to adopt Grace saw Quinton at the window and opened the door to him. Quinton told the lady, “I came back to get Gracie.” Quinton had tears in his eyes, and the woman said, “I see it in his eyes, and I see it in her eyes.”

“She seemed to know they needed to be together,” Quinton’s mom said of the lady who then handed her adoption survey back to Joe before turning to invite Quinton and Mary into the room. Joe said it was, “like something out of a Hallmark movie,” as he heard the lady say, “I can’t take this dog from a little boy. Just looking at his face, I know this is your dog. Merry Christmas.”

“She then gave the little boy a huge hug, gave his mom a huge hug, and everyone was pretty much in tears at this point,” Joe said. “I think we were all a little stunned by what just happened, and it took a moment for it all to sink in.”

Joe continued, “Because her act of kindness meant sacrificing her own happiness with a new pet in order to give a child that happiness, she is a real angel. It made me so happy to see that she would do that for someone she never met,” Joe wanted to return the kindness. He purchased a gift card for the amount of the adoption fee and gave it to the lady for when she found her own perfect canine match which she did some weeks later.

Quinton and his new best friend were united that day because of a stranger’s kindness. And, our wonderful staff member cared so much that he put his own money into making sure she could adopt a great pet later. That story really happened at the Richmond SPCA last year and I will hold it in my heart forever because it says so much about how kind people can be, how much animals mean to our lives and about what great people we have on our staff.


See the slideshow for historical images of the Richmond SPCA. Many of those images are courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center.

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