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Animal shelters are killing fewer cats and dogs in Sacramento. Is this approach sustainable?

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Shelters in Sacramento are putting fewer animals to death than ever before due to a "no kill" approach. This has created overcrowding and Bradshaw Animal Shelter is offering free adoptions.
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Shelters in Sacramento are putting fewer animals to death than ever before due to a "no kill" approach. This has created overcrowding and Bradshaw Animal Shelter is offering free adoptions.

Kittens are two for the price of one at Sacramento’s Front Street Animal Shelter.

The county’s Bradshaw Shelter is literally giving away cats and dogs.

The institutions have placed hundreds of newborn kittens in homes where they will be bottle fed by volunteers, to spare the shelters the space and time needed to care for them.

Despite these efforts and many more, Sacramento’s municipal animal shelters are overloaded.

In response to public pressure to save virtually every healthy animal that lands on their doorsteps, the city and county shelters have in recent years dramatically reduced the number of animals that they put to death. Now, in part because of that change, they face a crisis of overcrowding.

“To an extent, yes, we are a victim of our success,” said David Dickinson, director of the county shelter. “There is more and more pressure to raise the ‘live release’ rate, and we are doing that as we nurse illnesses and treat injuries” that in the past would have sent animals to the euthanasia room, he said. “Partially as a result of that, we are far, far exceeding capacity. We’re limping along right now.”

Despite the crunch, Dickinson and others insist that they have no plans to kill healthy animals to create shelter space, a practice that was common in the past.

In recent years, the city and county shelters have released far more animals alive than they have put to death. In 2010, the city shelter’s “live release” rate was 27 percent, Knepp said. Last year, it was 86 percent. The county shelter has made similar strides.

The shelters no longer automatically put to death orphaned newborn kittens that cannot eat on their own, or animals with serious illnesses or injuries that nonetheless can be treated. They no longer kill dogs simply for displaying aggression upon arrival, instead observing them and training them to see if they might be adoptable. Both shelters typically put animals to death only if they are deemed dangerous or are too sick or injured to survive.

“It’s a lot of work, but I refuse to go backward,” said Front Street shelter manager Gina Knepp. “I don’t want that to be my legacy.”

A big part of the answer to the overcrowding dilemma, she said, is ramping up efforts to ensure that animals never arrive at shelters in the first place. Those efforts must include providing more free or low-cost spay and neuter surgeries, and finding more space and veterinarians to do the operations, said Knepp.

Representatives of the nation’s top animal welfare groups agree.

“Some animals just cannot be adopted, and in that case it’s kinder to the shelter staff and the animal to euthanize,” said Kim Alboum, shelter outreach director for the Humane Society of the United States. “But I don’t think we are moving in a direction of starting to euthanize huge numbers of animals again. We just have to be more collaborative in trying to find homes for them.”

Shelters across the country have done a remarkable job of marketing animals, educating the public about the importance of spaying and neutering, and providing better access to basic veterinary care, Alboum said. “We used to euthanize 14 million a year,” she said. Today, fewer than 2 million cats and dogs each year are put to death in shelters.

“Still too many,” Alboum said. “But to get that number to zero, we’re going to have to be more creative, and we need more resources.”

Jodi Buckman, vice president of national outreach for the ASPCA, concurred. “There are enough homes for these animals,” she said. “The ‘bad old days’ of high euthanasia rates are in the past for a reason. We have a fundamental responsibility to not do harm or contribute to animal suffering.”

The ASPCA advocates shipping animals from overburdened shelters into communities where they are in high demand. In California and parts of the South, Buckman said, many shelters are overwhelmed, particularly with certain dog breeds. In New England and other sections of the East Coast, shelters have the opposite problem.

“In Phoenix, shelters are full of chihuahuas,” said Buckman. “If we can get those dogs to New York City, they’d be gone in a heartbeat.”

The ASPCA sponsors a relocation program and offers funding to shelters interested in shipping animals to other places. “This year our goal is to move 30,000 animals,” she said.

The city and county shelters have sent animals, mostly large dogs, to other jurisdictions. The county is currently working with a group in Canada that rescues pit bull terriers, a breed that typically crowds local shelters. The county also is sending an influx of large shepherds to Montana, Dickinson said. The city routinely sends dogs to Idaho, said Knepp.

One of the local community’s biggest challenges, the shelter managers said, is a lack of space and personnel to perform spay and neuter surgeries. All animals adopted from the city and county are spayed or neutered, microchipped and vaccinated.

Both Sacramento shelters have surgery backlogs, which keep animals off the adoption floor longer than necessary, the managers said. The city and county contract with the Sacramento SPCA to fund free and lower cost operations on shelter animals, but recently demand has exceeded supply of surgical slots, said Knepp and Dickinson.

Knepp recently contacted hundreds of private veterinarians, asking them to perform one free surgery a week on shelter animals. The response was tepid, she said.

“We all have bills to pay, but I do think every vet has the ability to do just one,” Knepp said. “If they did, I wouldn’t have a backlog. All of the money in the world won’t help if we don’t have available surgery slots, which is our challenge.”

Dia Goode, a retired legislative consultant and animal advocate who monitors area shelters, argued that the city and county are paying the price for focusing in past years on “getting animals out of the shelter as quickly as possible” rather than on preventive programs. She said more attention needs to be paid to cracking down on “backyard breeders” that churn out puppies that wind up in shelters, and on such programs as trapping and neutering feral cats.

“Reducing intake is the key,” she said, “and addressing pet overpopulation is the number one issue in reducing intake.

“Front Street has gone from reducing dog adoption fees, to giving them away on special days, to giving them away for months at a time,” she said. “And none of these things has made a dent” in the number of animals flowing in.

“Hopefully the current extreme overcrowding will result in long-term policy solutions,” she said. “Otherwise, we will be having the same conversation five years from now.”

Summer, known as “kitten season” at animal shelters, typically is the busiest time of year. The county shelter is built to hold a maximum of 260 cats, said Dickinson, but recently had 330 felines on the premises. The numbers fluctuate daily, but “this year seems worse than previous years,” he said.

“We’ve got to get these animals out of here,” Dickinson said. “We need more people to adopt from shelters rather than from the person with the sign on the corner,” or from breeders.

The city also is overloaded with cats and kittens, said Knepp. But staffers have found that the community is willing to step up in times of extreme need.

Recently, Front Street took to social media, sending an SOS seeking people to “foster” newborn kittens in their homes. “We had 97 families, probably 150 people, sign up,” said communications director Bobby Mann. “We’ll give them all of the supplies they need to care for these underage kittens, and they’ll provide love, support and space until they are ready for adoption.”

Such responses, said Knepp, give her hope for the future.

“We’re developing a relationship with our community, which leads to good things,” she said. “What we are accomplishing definitely is sustainable if we want it to be.”

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