Sacramento shelters are putting down fewer pets. Here’s how they’re saving lives

Animal shelters in Sacramento and across the country no longer are places where healthy dogs and cats are condemned to death.

At the city of Sacramento’s Front Street Animal Shelter, 84 percent of dogs and cats taken in last year left the facility alive, compared to 27 percent in 2010, according to figures provided by the agency. Sacramento County’s Bradshaw Shelter also has seen a significant increase in “live release” rates in recent years, a trend that is playing out around the nation, officials said.

Front Street manager Gina Knepp attributed the sharp decline in euthanasia at the facility largely to intensive efforts to market individual animals and the shelter through news media, social media and community events. The shelter also has benefited from the work of a nonprofit group, Friends of Front Street, which since 2012 has raised more than $2 million for programs to care for sick and injured animals that in the past would never have made it to the adoption floor.

Front Street has used some of the nonprofit money to pay a photographer who “takes gorgeous photos of our animals, which gets people into the shelter to adopt,” Knepp said.

Volunteers and staffers show off Front Street’s dogs and cats in unexpected places, including music events, parades and food-truck gatherings. They have been featured in cat shows and Sacramento Ballet productions. They have marched in the Pride parade and traveled to pet stores.

The events help “build a friendship with the community” and introduce the public to animals in environments that are less intimidating than the shelter, Knepp said.

“We’ll try pretty much anything to do a better job for our animals,” said Knepp, who has run the shelter since 2011.

The county shelter has had similar success with programs, promotions and community gatherings, said spokeswoman Janna Haynes.

In 2014, she said, 63 percent of Bradshaw’s dogs and cats left the shelter alive. Last year, that number soared to 78 percent, and the shelter is on pace for a similar “live release” number this year, Haynes said.

“It’s a trend we plan to continue for years to come,” she said.

A handful of other Sacramento shelters, including the Sacramento SPCA and Happy Tails Pet Sanctuary, long have had low euthanasia rates. Unlike municipal shelters, they are not required to take in stray, sick and aggressive animals.

A new national database, Shelter Animals Count, shows that municipal shelters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Kansas City, among others, released 80 percent or more of their animals alive last year.

But despite remarkable gains, the number of animals put to death at shelters in America each year remains in the millions. About 1.5 million dogs and cats were euthanized in 2016, according to the ASPCA, compared to 2.6 million in 2011.

Front Street, which is compiling comprehensive historical data about the shelter for the first time, is starting to place a higher priority on preventing animals from entering its facility in the first place, Knepp said. The city and county shelters regularly sponsor free or low-cost spay and neuter surgeries, and Front Street is stepping up enforcement of its pet licensing and microchipping program.

But the dogs and cats just keep coming. In 2016, Front Street took in 10,939 animals, 258 more than it did in 2007.

Today, however, most of those animals stand a good chance of reuniting with their owners or finding new homes. The shelter no longer kills animals because of a lack of space, Knepp said. Most of those put to death are either gravely ill, seriously injured or dangerously aggressive. Hundreds of dogs and cats with medical issues that in the past would have marked them for euthanasia now are being sent to “foster homes” where they can recover and gain weight until they can be placed for adoption, Knepp said.

“We know we have tons more to do in Sacramento city and the county,” Knepp said. “But I’m happy that we’ve built a friendship with Sacramento. Front Street has huge community support, and that’s great for the animals.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert