Animal shelter history shows progress in euthanasia

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The Flathead County Animal Shelter reported a 9 percent euthanasia rate in 2010, a stark contrast to the 73 percent recorded in 1983 when the agency first began keeping statistics.

Cliff Bennett, shelter director, presented a chart to the board of health recently showing the annual intake of dogs and cats and rates of euthanasia fell dramatically from 1983 to 2010.

“It’s pretty amazing to look at,” he said in an interview. “It tells such a story.”

In 1983, 1984 and 1985, pet populations were out of control with 3,000 to 3,500 dogs and 2,500 cats each year ending up at the shelter when the valley population was much smaller than today.

Only about one in four animals survived the visit to the shelter that then was located at the Flathead County Landfill.

“The euthanasia method at that time was a gun,” Bennett said. “They would shoot and bury them.”

Things began to turn around in 1986 through the spay and neuter assistance program started by the Humane Society that spring. Flathead Spay & Neuter Task Force formed in 1998, expanding spay and neutering of pets.

By the early 1990s, the numbers of euthanized dogs and cats began a slow decline. By 2006, the percentage of dogs euthanized dropped to 26 percent from 53 percent in 1990 and the percentage of cats was reduced from almost 80 percent to 48 percent.

Bennett pointed out the significant progress made in the last four years to 2010, when only 6.6 percent of dogs and 12.7 percent of cats were put down. In the same time frame, total intake of animals decreased from 2,857 to 2,236.

“I’m sure that’s directly related to spay and neutering,” Bennett said.

According to the chart, 2006 was the first year that a significant number of animals went to rescue organizations. Using that resource and a large effort with adoptions and foster homes, the shelter found homes for more than 90 percent of the animals in 2010.

“This started before me,” he said. “We have a strong group of volunteers and staff and a strong database of rescue organizations.”

Bennett said the shelter website now has pictures of all the animals and an FM radio station features a different dog each week. Even some restrooms feature ads for pets for adoption through an unique marketing approach.

At the health board meeting, Bennett said it is still not unusual to find animals put down after seven to 10 days at some shelters around the country. He said the cooperation of the Humane Society, spay and neuter task force and the public has made a big difference.

He referred to the recent seizure of more than 100 cats as an example of the invaluable role played by the Flathead Spay and Neuter Clinic in taking in and housing the animals. The shelter was overbooked with cats when that crisis happened.

“Thank God we have a good relationship with the spay and neuter clinic,” Bennett said. “They’re housing them and we’re helping with food and litter.”

Volunteers from both organizations have pitched in to take care of the cats. Bennett said Mimi Beadles of the task force and Myni Ferguson of Flathead Shelter Friends put together and ran that operation “like a finely oiled machine.”

 However, he said the cats remain the shelter’s responsibility.

“They’re wards of the county,” Bennett said.

The cats can’t be adopted until the case against the couple from whom they were seized makes its way through the judicial system. Even without those more than 100 cats, the shelter still faces crowding issues with a wide variety of cats who need new homes.

Bennett said only one spot opened at the shelter for a cat in recent weeks.

“We’re right on the edge of full of cats,” he said.

Bennett said the shelter also needs help from the public with five heelers surrendered from a person “on the edge of a hoarding situation.” They have resided there since last summer.

He said the dogs were well-fed at their former home but not socialized. Shelter volunteers Bruce and Joni Aronson have worked to try to socialize the heelers.

“They’re afraid of people,” Bennett said. “They’re not biters but they’re not the type of dog you can hug or hold on your lap.”

As work continues to socialize the heelers, the shelter has applied to Best Friends, a sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. The facility may represent the last hope for the dogs unless another rescue organization or someone in the community steps forth to adopt or provide a foster home.

 The low-kill policy of the shelter calls for euthanizing only pets that are “too ill, too injured or unadoptable.” Bennett said the county may have to assess if it makes sense to continue to feed, water and care for dogs no one will adopt.

“Their time is running short,” he said.

People interested in more information may see the heelers on the website, call 752-1310 or visit Flathead County Animal Shelter from noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at 225 Cemetery Road in Kalispell.

Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at cchase@dailyinterlake.com.

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