Just a few years ago, Sacramento's Front Street animal shelter was a place where wayward cats and dogs went to die.
A startling 75 percent of the shelter's animals were put to death for lack of space or because they were considered "unadoptable" by community standards.
But the fate of animals that wind up at that facility and the county's three other major shelters is starting to change. Today, in response to unprecedented collaboration among formerly competing groups and an assist from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, far more dogs and cats are leaving Sacramento County shelters alive.
According to a new report by the ASPCA, the number of pets killed at Sacramento shelters has fallen 28 percent since 2009. Shelters returned more animals to their owners and adoptions are up significantly, according to the ASPCA, which has been working with the Sacramento city and county shelters, the local SPCA and the Happy Tails pet sanctuary for nearly four years on a program to save more animals.
At the same time, shelters have taken in about 2,000 fewer strays each year, a trend that likely reflects a combination of budget cuts to animal control services and successful efforts to spay and neuter more cats and dogs.
Nearly half of all animals that wind up in Sacramento shelters still are put to death, either because they are sick, are deemed dangerously aggressive or because of a lack of space to house them. Area shelters put 12,561 animals to death through September this year.
But that number has dropped since the ASPCA launched its Sacramento partnership in 2008.
"This is real," said Jodi Buckman, an ASPCA staffer who has been working with the Sacramento groups. "Sacramento has a long way to go, but I'm so proud of the collaborative effort to change things there."
Shelters across the country are making similar progress, according to Maddie's Fund, a Bay Area animal welfare foundation. The number of healthy pets killed for lack of a home dropped 10 percent nationwide between 2009 and 2011, according to the nonprofit group.
"In the 1970s, we were euthanizing 20 million animals a year. The euthanasia rate in this country was around 80 percent," said Ed Sayres, ASPCA president and chief executive officer. Today, fewer than 4 million animals are killed in shelters each year, and the euthanasia rate is about 50 percent, he said.
The change reflects a cultural shift in attitudes toward pets, which many people now consider family members, said Sayres.
During the four years since the ASPCA targeted Sacramento for help, the agency has awarded local shelters $950,000 in grants that funded spay and neuter programs, advertising campaigns and community adoption events, among other things.
"We're not competing against each other anymore," said Dave Dickinson, director of animal care for Sacramento County. "We're one big group working together and sharing ideas for the sake of the animals."
Representatives of the four shelters meet monthly to brainstorm and plan promotions, such as their upcoming "Home for the Holidays" adoption event, and they have regular contact with Buckman, the ASPCA liaison.
The shelters have been holding open houses with special themes to highlight their animals. Confronting a burgeoning population of pit bulls, they have been visiting neighborhoods where the breed is most common and offering free spay and neuter services. They have been shipping Chihuahuas and other small dogs to facilities as far away as Oregon, where the pups are in greater demand.
The county has launched a barn cat program in which feral felines are vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and placed on ranches and farms. "People need mousers, and this is a way for us to get some of these cats out of the shelter alive," Dickinson said.
Shelters also are taking more time with animals which, in years past, would have been put to death automatically, including feral cats and dogs that growl or nip during their first hours in custody.
"In the past year, I have made sure that every single animal is tested for behavioral issues before they are euthanized," said city shelter director Gina Knepp. "I routinely pull animals from the euthanasia room that turn out to be great pets."
The city no longer kills all animals weighing less than 2 pounds. Instead, the shelter contacts rescue groups such as Cats About Town, whose volunteers are willing to care for the babies and find them homes.
"This is a community issue, and we all need to take responsibility," said Becky Maclay, president of the board for Happy Tails. "People need to understand that animals are not disposable things. We want to make sure that the shelter is the last and final option."
Among the four shelters taking part in the ASPCA effort, the city has led the way in reducing euthanasia rates while increasing adoptions and live-release rates. The city's euthanasia rate fell from 75 percent in 2011 to below 50 percent so far this year.
The county also has made strides. So far this year, about 1,400 fewer animals have lost their lives at the shelter on Bradshaw Road compared with the same period last year. Euthanasia rates at the Sacramento SPCA and Happy Tails already were lower, and have held fairly steady.
"When I came here 12 years ago, the mentality was, 'Euthanize for space. Just get it done,' " said the county's Dickinson. "Now the mentality is, 'Find a way to stop the inflow, and reduce the numbers at the back door.' This entire group is committed to that, and it feels real good to see the numbers changing."
The shift also has lifted spirits at the city shelter, where staff members' duties often include putting cats and dogs to death at the end of the work day.
"It's the worst and toughest part of the job," said animal care technician Michelle Hitch. "Seeing more animals get good, loving homes is so rewarding. It has lifted a weight off of my shoulders to see so many leaving here alive."
Editor's note: This story was changed Nov. 9 to correct the spelling of the name of Ed Sayres, ASPCA president and chief executive officer.