Few people visit the animal shelter in this small, rural town.

But these days the facility is overwhelmed with phone calls and e-mails from people around the country worried about its cats and dogs.

Online photos of malnourished dogs and unsanitary conditions at the Chesterfield County Animal Shelter have been circulating widely for months.

The postings have prompted hundreds of phone calls to the shelter. Rescue groups, including the Humane Society of Charlotte, have removed dozens of animals. The Humane of Society of South Carolina is investigating complaints.

Other groups from Washington to Colorado are raising money and collecting food to help.

Chesterfield officials deny accusations of neglect and mistreatment. They acknowledge the shelter has serious deficiencies, but say overzealous activists are spreading lies and half-truths.

Brian Burch, shelter supervisor, said he was shocked when he started receiving complaint calls last month.

“These e-mails have gone all over the world,” said Burch, who is frustrated by the portrayal of the shelter.

Word of mouth widens

No one knows when the photos first surfaced on the Internet. Burch and animal rights groups said they started seeing them this summer.

In July, Pat Shannon of Monroe said she posted a video and photos online to persuade the public to donate money for the shelter. So far, Shannon said she has raised about $3,900.

She said she started the effort after she and other volunteers with the Animal Adoption League of Greater Charlotte visited the shelter. They said they were appalled that kennels were unclean, littered with feces. Some of the dogs had severely low body weight, Shannon said.

Other animal activists viewed the video and photos and started sharing them. Some have posted their own pleas for donations.

Lisa Marie Ordakowski lives in Virginia, but saw photos of dogs at the Chesterfield shelter.

Ordakowski, who volunteers with a group that finds homes for unwanted pets, is now organizing a pet food drive for the shelter in the Washington area. She hopes to fill a cargo van with food and drive the more than 350 miles to Chesterfield this month.

After seeing the photos “there was no question I was going to help,” Ordakowski said. “It's amazing. Without the Internet, I would have never heard about this.”

Volunteers from Wescott Acres Pet Rescue, based in Columbia, took 24 cats and dogs from the shelter after one member saw photos online.

Many of the dogs suffered from illness, skin infections, worms or low body weight, they said.

Conditions and concerns

About 60 miles southeast of Charlotte, Chesterfield, like many small communities, has struggled with the cost of animal control. The town of about 1,300 people has a median household income of about $26,000, below the national figure of about $49,000.

Census figures show one in five Chesterfield residents lives in poverty.

Chesterfield has too little money in its $13 million annual budget to hire additional staff to adopt animals or provide medical care, said Ronald Thurman, county administrator.

The shelter is open to the public only on weekends when volunteers clean kennels and feed animals.

It employs three full-time workers, so the county relies on inmates from the local jail and volunteers. Workers are often out responding to complaint calls, leaving no one at the shelter.

Thurman and Burch, the shelter supervisor, disputed allegations that animals were neglected and not fed daily.

“Our workers are there every day,” Thurman said.

Burch said animal activists have taken photos of dogs that came to the shelter underweight or ill and wrongly blamed the shelter for their condition.

Butting heads

On a recent day, the shelter housed about 75 cats and dogs in kennels under wooden pavilions with no walls.

Several dogs appeared severely underweight with their ribs visible beneath their skin and fur. One brindle boxer appeared to have trouble walking.

Burch said the dog had recently arrived in bad condition and that an animal rescue group planned to adopt it.

Some other dogs sat in kennels partially covered in filth although Burch said workers had cleaned the facility a few hours earlier.

Most of the animals will soon be euthanized. From the start of the year, the shelter has killed nearly 80 percent of the 1,903 animals it housed, Burch said. More than 50 others have died at the shelter of natural causes, he said.

The national euthanization rate for shelters is about 50 percent, according to the American Humane Association, a Colorado animal rights group. The statistic helps measure how successful shelters are at getting animals adopted.

A 2003 Observer investigation found high euthanization rates at shelters across the Charlotte region.

Animal activists complain the Chesterfield shelter is open to the public for adoptions for only eight hours total on weekends. Most shelters conduct adoptions through the week in addition to weekend hours.

Burch said he usually euthanizes unwanted animals after they have been at the shelter for more than 10 days. S.C. law allows shelters to euthanize animals after holding them for five days.

He acknowledged he has “butted heads” with volunteers who wanted more time to find homes for animals.

Burch said the county is considering whether to upgrade operations. Some officials hope to construct a new building on an adjacent parcel of land and hire someone to oversee the shelter during the day.