More than 1,400 animal shelters and rescue workers gathered in Raleigh this week to discuss how to stop killing animals when shelters run out of space.
Best Friends, the Utah rescue group that has become a national name in shelter improvement, aims to bring all shelters to euthanasia rates of 10% or less by 2025. The goal is to only kill animals that are near the end of their life, need more medical attention than the shelter can provide, or are truly dangerous.
Mark Peralta, Best Friends program manager, said the conference, held at the Raleigh Convention Center, helps shelters share strategies they’ve used to reduce death rates.
“Most of the animals in our shelters that fall into what most shelters call euthanasia are actually animals that may have separation anxiety but are really great around people,” Peralta told The News & Observer. “Or [they] have nothing wrong with them at all; they or they [the shelters] just running out of space and time.
Euthanasia in North Carolina
Euthanasia was considered a viable animal population control measure since 19e century, said speaker Kristen Hassen, who is the director of American Pets Alive!
Animal welfare policies dating from this era have focused on identifying the most effective mass euthanasia strategies, including the drowning and gassing of dogs. This continues to lead to high death rates for some animals in shelters, including large dogs.
Hassen said that even when she started working in shelters in 1999, “there was no understanding built into the law that animals should come out alive.”
Last year, 10,291 dogs and 25,332 cats were euthanized in North Carolina, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reported. That’s more than 21.6% of all animals that entered shelters, the third highest euthanasia rate in the country.
Nationally, 17% of pets that entered shelters in 2021 were euthanized on average, Best Friends reported.
Best Friends chose Raleigh for this year’s convention to reach more North Carolina shelters, offering scholarships and travel allowances to some attendees.
Texas, Alabama, Florida, and California join North Carolina in having the highest rates of “killing sanctuaries,” or animal sanctuaries with euthanasia rates above 10%.
Peralta attributes this discrepancy to population growth, as well as cats, which make up the majority of animals currently dying in shelters.
“It’s a big thing not just in North Carolina, but especially in North Carolina,” Peralta said. “So we wanted to bring people to the states that need the most help and attention.”
The conference, which kicked off Thursday and will continue through Saturday, features more than 200 speakers, including Jennifer Federico, director of Wake County Animal Welfare Services.
Interventions to get dogs out of shelters can take place at several times between arrival and euthanasia. Speakers discussed transferring dogs directly to foster homes to reduce admission volumes, coordinating low-cost neutering programs, and posting new dogs on social media to encourage quick adoptions.
Others have focused on reducing medical and behavioral euthanasia, with new medical treatments and with calls to stop tagging dogs that haven’t harmed people or other “aggressive” animals.
Some shelters that have successfully stopped euthanasia for space have come to coach participants in hopes of doing the same while keeping animal stays within weeks.
CARE St. Louis, which took over the St. Louis Municipal Shelter after it closed in 2011 for using gas to euthanize dogs, described the legal process for taking over a kill shelter. The Humane Society of Midland County, Michigan, explained how new admissions procedures have supported a drop in euthanasia rates from 30% to 2% over the past decade, while getting most dogs out of the shelter in less than three months.
“We are reaching a moment like I have never seen,” said Marianne Sung, whose rescue in Nashville wants to start taking in dogs over 35 pounds and who came to Raleigh for advice.
“[Employee] turnover is high, everyone is understaffed, so I think people are just trying to do the best they can,” Sung said.
Involve the community
Shafonda Allen, executive director of the Animal Protection Society of Durham, attended sessions on building shelter leadership and increasing community member involvement.
APS has already implemented initiatives such as adoption promotions and pet food pantries, and reduced its annual consumption from 7,000 to 4,000 pets. In 2021, Durham’s euthanasia rate was 30.1%, excluding dogs brought in by their owners for voluntary euthanasia.
Allen, however, has noticed that consumption is increasing again, which she attributes to financial constraints and restrictions on pet owners in County Durham. She hopes to bring back more strategies from the conference.
“It changes every day,” Allen said of animal welfare. “And the best way to learn is from each other, and the best way for us to do that is to come together.”