Shelter working hard to limit euthanasia


Ramona, 1, is available for adoption at Alachua County Animal Services on Friday.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 4:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 4:20 p.m.

A light-brown pit bull named Winny was featured along with the euthanasia list that Alachua County Animal Services emailed out to rescue groups on Jan. 19. Winny's photo was accompanied by a short explanation of her history and what she's like.

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Ramona, 1, is available for adoption at Alachua County Animal Services on Friday.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer

Every day, Animal Services sends an email to organizations like Gainesville Pet Rescue about the animals scheduled for euthanization at the county shelter in hopes the organizations are able to take them in and find a permanent home for them, said Vernon Sawyer, the county's Animal Services director. Winny was set to receive a lethal injection soon — until the Alachua County Humane Society took her in a few days later.

But the rescue groups don't always have the space for another homeless pet, and some of the animals pictured in those emails aren't as lucky as Winny.

For 10 years, the county shelter and area organizations like Gainesville Pet Rescue have collaborated in their efforts to end needless animal euthanasia in Alachua County.

They've successfully reduced the shelter's euthanasia rate over the past decade but still haven't reached their zero percent goal.

The shelter euthanizes animals that are terminally ill or too aggressive to be adopted.

But when they have more animals than space or resources, the shelter must sometimes euthanize homeless pets that would otherwise be adoptable.

Animal Services has to accept any animals brought through its doors, while local no-kill rescue groups can refrain from taking in more animals if they don't have room. The euthanization of these surplus animals are what these groups are working together to stop.

"We all have the same mission. We just approach it differently," Sawyer said. "This is all of us coming together — working together — to save animals' lives."

In 2000, 8,063 dogs and cats were euthanized because of a lack of homes for them, according to a report on pet overpopulation in Alachua County that Sawyer provided to The Sun. By the end of June 2012, the number of deaths had been reduced by 79 percent.

There were fewer than 1,150 euthanasias in 2012, and Alachua County now has the highest live release rate in the South for animals, Sawyer said.

Euthanasias were reduced by close to 50 percent in the last year, Sawyer said. The local success has attracted interest from grant programs, and Animal Services is applying for a couple of grants that could help it and other community organizations better manage issues such as feral cat populations.

This year, the shelter is striving to overcome a challenge that hinders its ability to save more homeless pets from euthanasia: direct adoptions.

While rescue groups take in many of its animals and care for them until they find their "forever homes," the county has a difficult time getting people to adopt pets directly from the shelter.

Sawyer emphasized the need to educate people to adopt — not shop for — a new feline or canine companion, especially since shelter animals can carry a stigma among pet-seekers.

"Just because you get them from a shelter doesn't mean that there's something wrong with them," Sawyer said.

Sawyer has adopted a few pets housed there, including a German shepherd named Maggie who turned out to be what he calls the best dog he's ever had.

To attract more adopters to the shelter, Sawyer has asked the Alachua County Commission to give Animal Services more flexibility in its fee schedule. Adoption fees usually range from $75 for cats to $85 for dogs, although pets that have been there for extended periods of time can be adopted at a reduced rate of $33 and $45, respectively.

If given more flexibility, the department could more easily organize adoption events with reduced fees to encourage people to bring home a furry friend. This would be useful when the shelter is close to capacity and needs to move animals out quickly to make more room and avoid euthanizing otherwise adoptable pets.

Healthy animals are less likely to be euthanized now, but the animals that have difficult, non-terminal illnesses are harder to manage, said Amanda Burks, executive director of the Alachua County Humane Society. Sick animals must be cared for long enough to complete their medical treatment before they can be adopted — an expensive undertaking that rescue groups and the shelter can't always handle.

About 95 percent of the animals the Humane Society cares for come from the shelter, Burks said. People thinking about adopting an animal should consider the financial responsibility and time constraints that come with an adorable new pet, since those are the two main reasons people return animals to the Humane Society.

"We joke a lot here that it's like having a baby," she said. But it's true, and people should be prepared to make that commitment and seek out local resources like low-cost veterinary clinics for help, she said.

Sawyer suggested the county shelter could host a Black Cat Friday event or a $14-fee Valentine's Day special to increase adoptions. It also could offer free or reduced fees for older pets, which are harder to get adopted than kittens or puppies.

In July of last year, the shelter participated in a local adoption event where people could adopt pets for a $5 fee. That day, 183 shelter animals found new homes.

"To walk in the kennels and not see dogs was beautiful," Sawyer said. "We're not far off from that reality."

More flexible rates can help. Research shows that adopting a pet with a lower fee doesn't mean it will go to an owner who provides worse care than one adopted by a family that paid a higher price, said Dr. Julie Levy, a veterinarian and director of the Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida.

Lower adoption fees make people who've been open to the idea of getting a pet decide to do it that day, she said.

"It just is a call to action, and it really works," Levy said. "And that's what we need. We need to get these pets out of the shelter and into a home as quickly as possible."

Other groups have tried different marketing tactics to improve shelter adoptions that have become tried-and-true tactics in other communities, and fee flexibility would allow the shelter to implement some of them locally.

"Our shelter director just needs to be empowered to make those decisions quickly," Levy said.

Getting pets adopted straight from the county shelter is more cost-effective and better for the animals, which don't have to spend more weeks or months in a rescue facility instead of a permanent home, she said.

The county shelter used to adopt out twice as many animals as it does now, partly because working with rescue groups allowed more animals to be shifted to their facilities and foster homes rather than directly to permanent families.

Although it may lose money in the short term by charging lower fees, in the long term the shelter will save money because it won't have to continue paying for those animals' care, Levy said.

For each animal to come into the shelter, be cared for, and either be adopted or euthanized, it costs at least $150, she said. Every extra day an animal stays there saps further funding and resources.

Increasing adoptions at the shelter will be a primary focus this coming year, Levy said. Not all of the adoption strategies the shelter and other groups try will work. Levy expects some ideas to fail.

"But if we're not creative, we're not going to be saving more lives," she said.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3103 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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