Shelter suddenly swamped with pets, leading to euthanasia


Bob Almeida, of Waldo, searches for a new companion at the Alachua County Animal Shelter Wednesday, June 25, 2014. He said his last dog past away about 9 months ago. I'd rather have a new puppy than a new wife, said Almeida. "Their love is unconditional". The shelter puts multiple animals in the same cage only if they are from the same litter or were captured together.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, June 26, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 26, 2014 at 12:14 p.m.

The euthanasia of cats and dogs at Alachua County Animal Services has risen sharply recently after a five-year period of declining animal intakes and euthanasia, jeopardizing Animal Services' goal of becoming a no-kill facility.

Animal Services Director Vernon Sawyer says the shelter has been running over capacity and that more animals, especially kittens, continue to be brought in.

"We had 74 animals come in on one day. There were some dogs, but it was mostly litters of kittens. Whenever we have a day like that, it puts us in a tailspin," Sawyer said. "We need to put out a plea to the public to look at other alternatives before they surrender an animal. I cannot turn anybody away, but people need to look at friends, family, rescue groups in town and in surrounding counties before you bring in an animal."

Sawyer added that animals brought to the shelter are in jeopardy of being immediately euthanized because of a lack of space.

University of Florida veterinary professor Julie Levy, a specialist in shelter medicine and founder of the Operation Catnip spay/neuter program, said the rise in euthanasia comes just after a successful adoption event by Animal Services and several rescue groups.

"This is a crushing blow for local animal advocates and shelter staff, who have worked together to increase pet adoptions, foster programs, spay/neuter for pets, and trap-neuter-return for community cats," Levy said. "Euthanasia is up 35 percent this year. That's a big jump, and reversing the progress we've made all these years. The shelter is extremely overcrowded. It's not that they are rushing to euthanasia. They are holding animals as long as possible."

Since 2001, both intakes and euthanasias have declined dramatically. In 2001, for instance, more than 10,000 animals were brought to the shelter, and nearly 8,000 were euthanized.

Last year, fewer than 6,000 animals were brought in, with fewer than 800 euthanized.

A few years within that period had slight rises in both intakes and euthanasias, but both have been on the decline since 2009.

But so far this year, the rates of both are up.

In 2013, from Jan. 1 to June 18 the shelter took in 2,408 and euthanized 215. For the same period this year, the shelter took in 2,501 and euthanized 333.

A snapshot from June 18 shows that 241 cats were at the shelter, which has about 82 cat cages. Dogs numbered 126, with 105 dog runs.

Multiple animals from the same litter or animals that were brought in together are sometimes being held in the same cages or dog runs. Other animals were in portable cages.

Levy said she believes the success of adoption programs might have created an impression that the shelter has plenty of room for animals.

"Just three weeks ago, local adoption agencies held a record-breaking adopt-a-thon in which 856 pets were adopted. Immediately after that, it filled back up again. Now it is super crowded," Levy said. "We have adopted a communitywide attitude of being positive about everything — not complaining and pointing fingers but working together to be successful. We get a lot of positive news coverage, but I think that can create the impression that our problems are solved and it's safe to take animals to the shelter. It becomes a more attractive option than it used to be."

Animal Services is an open-admission shelter — it must take any animal brought to it. Private no-kill shelters or rescue groups can refuse to take in animals.

A coalition of rescue groups in Alachua County primarily gets the animals offered for adoption from the county shelter.

Despite the county's policy being open-admission, Sawyer set a goal of the county shelter becoming no-kill by next year. Only aggressive animals or those for which it would be inhumane to keep alive would be euthanized.

"If I have people bringing 74 animals in in one day, it's going to be a hard road to travel to achieve the goal," Sawyer said. "People need to spay and neuter their pets so they are not contributing to the problem, and look at other alternatives before surrendering the dog to Animal Services."

People who are unable to keep their pet because of finances, or because of a move to an apartment that does not allow pets or other reasons should try to find a new home for it with family or friends.

Sandi Richmond, director of the low-cost spay organization No More Homeless Pets, said the community needs to build a support network for pet owners who find themselves in difficulty.

Examples include food banks, short-term boarding for a pet when the owner is hospitalized, veterinary care for expensive emergencies, pet behavior training and similar services.

Meanwhile, people who find a litter of kittens should try to raise them until they are the adoptable age of eight weeks and then try to find homes for them or, as a last resort, bring them to the shelter.

Spaying and neutering is the single most important action that can be taken to reduce populations.

Operation Catnip performs free trap-neuter-return surgeries for feral or stray cats. No More Homeless Pets runs the low-cost Operation PetSnip for cats and dogs.

Operation PetSnip has done 19,426 spay/neuters since it opened in 2009.

"We do about 4,000 a year, but it's obviously not enough," Richmond said. "We try to do 25 to 30 a day, but there are so many people who don't know that this is an option for them."

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