Metro no-kill shelters and rescue groups are at capacity and turning away hundreds of animals
By Mark Woolsey
The reasons are as numerous and varied as there are members of the animal kingdom. Among them: “I have to give up my dog because my home was foreclosed on and I don’t have a place for him.” “We need to get rid of the cat because we had a baby.” “The dog was cute when she was a pup but now she weighs 60 pounds and she’s tearing up the house.” “We found a stray cat on the street and didn’t want to take her to a county shelter to be euthanized.”
Whatever the scenario, those surrendering animals in Atlanta—and animal groups say surrenders are up 20 percent—are finding themselves just about out of luck if they’re taking them to one of the area’s relatively few no-kill or “low-kill” shelters. The shelters are caught in a triple vise: Dogs and cats are coming in record numbers, with the economy frequently cited as a culprit; adoptions have dropped precipitously as people fear making a commitment in uncertain times; and donations to the nonprofit groups have plummeted, forcing staff reductions and a commensurate lessened ability to house large numbers of dogs and cats.
Rebecca Guinn, executive director of the LifeLine Animal Project, one of the metro area's no-kill shelters, has seen the developing conundrum head-on—and is heartbroken.
Guinn, a former defense attorney, became interested in animal welfare after she helped free a stray dog caught in a barbed-wire fence. Upon taking it to a shelter, she learned the dog would be euthanized if nobody claimed it within five days. A mortified Guinn subsequently adopted the German Shepherd mix herself. She was particularly struck, she says, by her two visits to the shelter. The first time, it was almost full, but on a second visit it had largely emptied because of euthanasia. It was, she says, “horrifying.”
Now she’s shaken by the increasing rate of abandonment of dogs and cats at her Avondale Estates shelter, “which began about a year ago. Sometimes they are left with carriers and food and a note saying, ‘Please take care of me.’ It’s heartbreaking. We are suffering like everybody else. We are having trouble making ends meet and are relying on donations that are at best inhibited by the economy. We often get requests from people who can’t even afford basic veterinary care.
“We get about 100 requests a day from shelters and the general public asking for animals to be taken and we just can’t help,” Guinn continues. “We have room for about 110 to 115 animals in our program and there’s just not any more room.” She says policy is not to accept animals from the public. What if an animal is left on the doorstep? She prefers not to say, wary of encouraging an even greater level of abandonment.
Atlanta Animal Rescue Friends Inc. (AARF) gets approximately 60 to 70 e-mails from the public each week, and almost as many phone calls, along with 20 to 25 e-mails from shelters with lists of pets in danger of euthanasia. AARF Director Susan Leisure says a recent study commissioned by PetSmart Charities found that 76 percent of people surveyed underestimated the number of unclaimed animals that are euthanized every year in America: Most thought roughly 1 million are killed annually, while the number is actually 4 million.
“This economic crisis has taken a toll on all of us, and abandoned and neglected pets are one of the voiceless victims in these tough times,” says Leisure. “When someone calls or e-mails and asks if we are currently accepting pets, I don’t really even know how to answer. We never have an open space. No one does. If we could convince one in 50 people in Atlanta to adopt a pet each year, we can save all of the pets that are dying in shelters. Until we can get at least that 2 percent of the population engaged in finding a solution, the epidemic of killing pets in Atlanta shelters will only continue.”
Tara Mitchell, director of operations at PAWS Atlanta, says her group has no room for new cats and dogs, either. Its facility on Covington Highway is currently at capacity and has been for several months. PAWS has room for right around 100 dogs and cats and would like to be able to help more, but Mitchell says it doesn’t have the ability to expand either the shelter or staff. Already, she says, staffers turn away about 75 animals a day, “between phone calls and e-mails and people bringing in pets and strays. I’ve never seen it this bad, honestly.”
Mitchell does say that owner-surrendered animals can be accepted on a limited, case-by-case basis, if there’s room. And if there’s a busy adoption weekend at PAWS freeing up space, staffers will go to a local kill shelter and pull out as many animals as they can house. That heads off a potential death sentence: Lifeline’s Guinn estimates county shelters’ euthanasia rate might be higher than 50 percent. But such rescues further strain a heavily volunteer-dependent and nonprofit organization suffering just like everyone else in a tight economy. At Lifeline, almost all admissions come from animal control officials.
What’s the reaction when one of the no-kill shelters tells the owner of a dog or cat, or someone bringing in a stray, that there’s no room at the pet inn?
“The reactions range to anything you can imagine,” says Mitchell. “Some people get very angry and blame it on us and make it as if it’s our fault we’re not taking in the animal, when their animal is their responsibility. Others understand and we give them options on how they can re-home their pet.”
Those options, say Mitchell and Guinn, can range from putting a notice on www.petfinder.com
to working with a small-scale animal rescue group of the kind that brings dogs and cats to pet-supply stores for adoption on a weekend. The groups advise taking a pet to a government animal shelter only as a last resort.
Guinn says Lifeline places most emphasis on its spay and neuter clinic, but adopts out about 500 animals each year. Dwarfing that is the Atlanta Humane Society, which claims 7,200 successful adoptions each year. You could call it a “low-kill” shelter, as the Society’s euthanasia rate runs at less than 3 percent.
Miguel Abi-hassan, Director of Animal Welfare Initiatives and Outreach for the Humane Society, says his group accepts strays and other surrendered animals “from areas where there is no animal control. We try not to duplicate the services of the animal shelters, because that would be a nightmare. … We want people to take such animals as strays down to the animal shelters instead of driving them down to the Humane Society, so that people can look for their dogs at the shelters.” Plus, he says, county shelters have the resources to reunite lost pets with their owners.
DONATIONS IN SHARP DECLINE
The Humane Society uses a form of triage to decide whether to take in an animal, says Abi-hassan. Staffers ask what the animal needs, and what problems would be solved by taking it into the shelter’s 300-cage operation. Space is also a factor, as the Humane Society is caught in the same trap as other shelters, with rising animal surrenders pushing it to capacity more frequently.
The Society has taken a hit in the donations department, as well. Abi-hassan says individual donations have dropped about 15 percent this year. Despite that, the group just completed a renovation of its facility and increased its caging capacity by some 20 percent.
LifeLine is also beefing up its operation, but on the prevention side. The group spayed and neutered almost 9,000 dogs and cats last year. Now it plans to open a second clinic in College Park, with the goal of another 10,000 operations per year. That’s in the face of a 20 percent decline in general donations. Guinn hopes the new clinic will generate revenue and eliminate the need to look at any potential reductions to what she calls a “shoestring” staff.
“What we realized,” says Guinn, “was that there were very few, if any, high-volume, low-cost spay and neuter resources. That’s why we started our clinic.”
PAWS' Mitchell says her organization's staff has been cut from 24 to 14 in the past year because of economic pressures. Unlike the others, she says there are no financial resources available to expand facilities.
Ultimately, say local animal-welfare groups, there has to be a much greater emphasis on prevention to curb the surging dog and cat populations and drastically slash the level of euthanasia in Atlanta. An estimated 80,000 to 150,000 dogs and cats are killed by shelters across the 20-county area each year.
“This is a community issue,” says Abi-hassan. “It has to be approached not just from a shelter standpoint, but from a legislative standpoint. If we turned every Wal-Mart into a shelter, there still wouldn’t be enough room for all these animals.” He also suggests the legislature pass a selective sterilization law, noting there could be a provision stipulating mandatory sterilization for pets not intended for breeding.
Lifeline’s Guinn says spaying and neutering alone would make a big dent in the problem of having too many unwanted animals. She also says a better job needs to be done in getting resources for people to keep their animals. With so many animals given up for behavioral issues, more training resources would be a partial answer. Only 25 percent of dogs and cats come from shelters or rescues. She urges people to consider adoption before purchasing a pet.
A lot of the solution, she says, just comes down to owners taking more responsibility from the time they bring home that cute furball.
“It’s a 15-year commitment or more,” she says. “Our pets love us unconditionally and they expect the same from us. We bring a being into our lives, and that being is not disposable.” SP