Cages upon cages of cats were stacked on every flat space that could hold them this past week in the feline wing of the Great Plains SPCA animal shelter in Merriam.
Some cats and kittens had been there for quite some time. Others were recent transfers from another shelter that had to quit accepting cats in August after far exceeding recommended capacity.
“Just trying to get as many cats in as we can,” shelter employee Carolyn Tate said as she cleared a path.
Years ago, this kind of problem would not exist. When space got tight at animal shelters, the operators put to death as many animals as needed to make room for more.
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But this is the age of the no-kill animal shelter, where crowding is commonplace.
Some shelters, like Great Plains, use discounting and aggressive marketing to meet the challenge. Adult cats were free in August, while kitten adoption fees were cut.
Others are overmatched. This past week the Humane Society of Missouri took custody of 126 pets from an overcrowded, no-kill shelter in Lebanon, Mo., less than an hour’s drive northeast of Springfield. Some dogs had been caged for two-and-a-half years.
“It was just crazy filthy,” said Judith Koch, the new president of the Lebanon Humane Society.
Such horror stories and the fact that many no-kill shelters turn away pets that end up being dumped by their owners on back roads are reasons the national no-kill movement has its critics.
Among the staunchest, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“Sometimes euthanasia is the more compassionate option than these other cruel fates,” said PETA spokeswoman Teresa Chagrin.
Still, by putting greater emphasis on finding homes for stray and unwanted animals in the past decade or so, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of animals killed in the nation’s animal shelters.
A trip to the Kansas City pound once was a death sentence for all but the luckiest pets. Two out of three were “put to sleep” within days of their arrival.
No more. Since private contractor KC Pet Project took over management of the city shelter and declared it no kill two years ago, the death rate has plummeted. Fewer than one in 10 animals are euthanized. Pets stay until a home can be found for them, which is, on average, a couple of weeks for dogs and 20 days for cats.
All thanks to aggressive marketing, two new satellite adoption sites and strong ties to pet rescue organizations that run foster programs.
“I honestly think we have done something amazing in two-and-a-half years,” said Teresa Johnson, KC Pet Project executive director.
Local no-kill advocates do agree with PETA that no-kill shelters are not an end in themselves.
Without taking more aggressive steps to curtail the population explosion that keeps the shelters full of strays and other unwanted pets, they say, Kansas City can never achieve the goal of becoming a no-kill community.
But the strides made so far have been considerable, said Courtney Thomas, president of Great Plains SPCA.
“I think the community has a lot to celebrate in what has been achieved in the past decade,” she said. “They were euthanizing 25,000 animals a year when I came to town in 2002, and now it’s about 2,000.”
Adoptions way up
There’s no such thing as a no-kill animal shelter in a literal sense.
Generally speaking, “no kill” means that at least 90 percent of the animals coming through a shelter’s doors end up leaving the facility alive. They have been adopted, they have returned to their owner or they wound up in a foster home.
The other 10 percent are euthanized because someone has deemed them unadoptable due to poor health or behavioral problems.
Private animal shelters were the first to go no kill more than 20 years ago, among them the Humane Society of Greater Kansas City in Kansas City, Kan.
But it’s only in the past decade that no-kill shelters have become more pervasive across the country, partly in response to public sentiment. According to an Associated Press-Petside.com poll, seven out of 10 pet owners in 2011 said animal shelters “should be allowed to euthanize animals only when they are too sick to be treated or too aggressive to be adopted.”
That’s a big change. Back in the 1970s, upward of 20 million pets were euthanized every year in this country, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Now by some estimates it’s more like 3 million to 4 million.
Only in the past several years have Kansas City’s biggest shelters joined the no-kill movement.
Kansas City-based Wayside Waifs, for instance, used to euthanize half of the animals it took in, but it only began to reduce that number after capping admissions in 2006.
With that ability to limit intake, shelters can achieve no-kill status almost overnight.
“We have the luxury of being no kill because when we’re full, we can say we’re full,” said Keith Wiedenkeller, president of the Humane Society of Greater Kansas City.
City animal shelters, on the other hand, can’t simply turn away animals brought in by the public or animal control.
But increasingly, even many municipal animal shelters are bowing to public sentiment and making greater efforts to go no kill.
“Up until eight years ago,” said Brent Toellner, president and co-founder of KC Pet Project, “catch-and-kill was sort of the model for municipal shelters.”
Just 11 percent of the animals held at the police-department-run animal shelter in Kansas City, Kan., were euthanized in 2013, down from 15 percent in 2012.
That’s partly because more than 40 percent of the animals were transferred to animal rescue groups and because of efforts to increase adoptions with the help of volunteers at a satellite site in Olathe.
Lee’s Summit has employed similar methods to keep its kill rate down.
“We can put our adoption numbers up against any no-kill center and compare well to them,” said Rodney Wagner, manager of animal control in Lee’s Summit. “We haven’t had to euthanize for room since we got in this new shelter six years ago.”
As recently as 2008, under city management, the Kansas City animal shelter killed 400 animals a month. Under KC Pet Project’s management, out of 8,179 animals taken in last year, 638 were euthanized in total and 73 of those killings were at the request of pet owners.
Credit for that goes to KC Pet Project’s successful adoption program. Thanks to donations that a city-run shelter would be unlikely to garner, the nonprofit group has added two satellite adoption facilities — at Zona Rosa in Kansas City, North, and inside Petco at 95th Street and Quivira Road in Overland Park.
All three adoption centers are staffed seven days a week and impose fewer restrictions than some other shelters.
“When you make it no kill,” Johnson said, “you have to make it easy for people. We don’t have a lot of set rules, like you have to have a fenced yard (for a dog).”
The payoff from all that convenience and aggressive marketing — it’s common for KC Pet Project to have sales to reduce crowding — was 4,500 adoptions in 2013, compared with 2,434 the year before the group took over.
The first city to call itself a no-kill community was San Francisco in 1994. According to No Kill Nation, there are now 230 no-kill communities in the United States. Big cities like Austin, Texas. Smaller ones like Ithaca, N.Y., and Duluth, Minn.
That list doesn’t yet include Kansas City.
Local animal welfare groups agree it won’t be easy for Kansas City to make the list unless more is done to stem the overpopulation problem that keeps their shelters full to overfull.
“We’re not going to adopt our way out of this,” said Geoff Hall, president of Wayside Waifs.
That’s the crux of PETA’s argument against the no-kill movement. Absent an area effort to become “a nonbirth community,” Chagrin said, no-kill shelters are a sham.
“All of the efforts that are now being spent to warehouse animals, to move them around,” she said, “if all that was spent on spay-neuter programs … we would be a lot further ahead.”
Michelle Rivera, executive director of Spay and Neuter Kansas City, agrees that the community needs to become more aggressive about controlling reproduction.
Paid for by donations and fees from pet owners, her program offers free or low-cost pet sterilization to urban residents, many of whom take in strays that haven’t been fixed.
“Eighty-five percent of the owners we serve are taking their pets off the street,” she said.
Expanding that program and others like it would be one way of reducing the pet population, she said. But it’s not the main goal of Spay and Neuter Kansas City and its four no-kill partners — Wayside Waifs, Great Plains, KC Pet Project and the Humane Society — in a new coalition called Professionals for a Humane & Safe Kansas City.
They’re also working to change local ordinances that outlaw specific breeds of dogs based on appearance rather than behavior. Reversing the bans would make it easier to find homes for pit bulls, which account for more than half of the dogs in the Kansas City shelter.
Another major push will be to address the the number of feral cats. Rather than killing them, the coalition proposes to trap those cats, neuter them and then release them back to their colonies, which will gradually dwindle.
Problem is, laws must be changed first for that to become widespread.
“Most cities have leash laws on cats, and most cities have animal abandonment laws,” said Katie Barnett at Professionals for a Humane & Safe Kansas City.
Some cities are stricter about enforcing those laws than others, which is why Great Plains had to start turning away cats at its Independence location recently, Thomas said.
Of the 492 cats it had on hand last week, 177 had been picked up by Independence animal control.
“They need to change the leash laws,” she said.
She suggested that the city change its policy and only pick up stray cats that are injured or dangerous. On Friday, Independence announced it was doing just that, at least temporarily.
Also in response to the cat moratorium, Independence this past week converted a former fire station into a temporary cat house.
“While it’s not the prettiest shelter in the world,” said assistant health director Mike Jackson, “it’s functional.”
And no kill.
Here is the trend on the percentage of animals euthanized at the Kansas City animal shelter.
Source: KC Pet Project