No-kill nation

December 26, 2018

The numbers of dogs and cats euthanized annually in Texas is staggering: 220,000.The Lone Star State leads the nation with highest kill rates at animal shelters, according to a report by Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, which is based in Utah. The organization is working with local animal-rescue groups to change that. It’s striving for a “no-kill” nation, with a lofty goal of ending euthanasia nationwide at shelters by 2025.“We know that more shelter animals are being killed in Texas shelters than in any other state,” said Best Friends CEO Julie Castle during a recent Houston visit. “We also don’t see the stray animal populations in any other state like we do in Texas.”A no-kill community is generally a city or town whose brick-and-mortar animal shelters are working collectively to save at least 90 percent of their animals.More than 40,000 of the animals euthanized annually in Texas are from Houston and cities along the border with Mexico, including Harlingen and Brownsville.Such statistics are part of the organization’s 2017 national shelter assessment, in which 400 volunteers nationwide collected data from government sources, voluntary data submissions from shelters and Shelter Animals Count, an independent nonprofit focused on standardized reporting of shelter statistics. The assessment, which includes data from more than 4,000 shelters nationwide, revealed that nearly 7 million animals are put in shelters each year, of which 1.4 million are euthanized.Prior to the survey, Castle said there was no way to determine just how severe the situation was.“We had never seen anything like what we’ve seen in Texas,” she said. “This assessment gave us the ability to target our resources, and so we can concentrate on spay and neuter efforts. We know we need high-volume spay and neuter efforts to meet the demand. Intake is a big issue in Texas. Last year, about 100,000 dogs and cats entered the shelters in Houston, and there are simply not enough spay/neuter providers or services in the Houston area to meet the need.”To address the problem, Best Friends plans to open a 24,000-square-foot Lifesaving Center in the Heights by 2020 to provide spay/neuter services and offer free and low-cost services to communities in need. It will be a high-volume adoption and foster center, as well as a transportation hub for service to other areas of Texas. There are similar facilities in Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York, and all have significantly increased the animal save-rate in those cities.One of the major efforts for the Heights location will be continuing the community cat program, which started in May. Best Friends works with the Harris County Animal Shelter to catch feral cats — which live outdoors and have had little or no human contact — neuter or spay them, then release them back into their natural environment. The program has saved more than 2,100 cats.Feral cats are frequently euthanized because they are hard to adopt out. Unlike dogs found as strays in urban and suburban environments, cats can often survive on their own.During the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Best Friends also partnered with Harris County, Houston PetSet, Houston Pets Alive! and Austin Pets Alive! to open the Pet Reunion Pavilion at NRG Arena to reconnect people with pets lost in the storm. While the reunions were few, the organization was able to transport 192 cats, nearly 599 dogs and one rabbit to its partner organizations around the country to be adopted out. The pavilion, which was open for almost two months, enlisted some 960 volunteers from around the nation and 160 Best Friends staffers.The organization set up a similar reunion effort after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.“With Hurricane Harvey, we had volunteers come to Houston from all across the country. It was a testament to the commitment of animal lovers,” Castle said.Best Friends and other animal-rescue groups also rely on volunteers to foster animals before they are placed in permanent homes. Liz Gorman Jones, who has fostered 40 dogs through Best Friends and Rescued Pets Movement since March 2017, said fostering is an integral part of the solution. Typically, shelters or groups that place animals in foster homes provide for food, medicine and veterinary care.“Fostering gets these pets out of the shelters and off death row. It also helps to make room in the shelter for new pets. It’s a cycle, which becomes less vicious with the help of rescues and fosters,” Gorman Jones said.Like Castle, Gorman Jones also advocates for more spay/neuter efforts. She said groups such as SNAP and Emancipet are doing great work in helping communities that don’t have access to education and low-cost spay/neuter and veterinary care options.“I do think it’s possible we can be a no-kill city, but that won’t happen overnight,” she said. “Our biggest issue is spay/neuter education. There are people who just don’t understand the benefits or they don’t know of the low-cost options in our city.”Best Friends Animal Society was started in 1984 on 3,000 acres in Kanab, Utah, and is a leading national animal welfare organization. It was featured in the acclaimed documentary “The Champions,” about the dogs rescued from the dog-fighting ring of former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in 2007. Best Friends took in 22 of the toughest cases.Castle, a native of Bountiful, Utah, said she became more familiar with the organization some 20 years ago when she and several friends made a road-trip detour to visit the sanctuary. She had just finished college at Southern Utah University with the plan of attending law school at the University of Virginia.The trip changed her life. “Once I was at the sanctuary with the animals, I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life.”Castle started out doing chores — from cleaning animal kennels to answering phones. She eventually led No More Homeless Pets in Utah, a statewide no-kill coalition led by Best Friends that comprised more than 160 rescue organizations, animal control agencies and veterinarians. During her six-year tenure, Utah achieved a 30 percent reduction in shelter deaths statewide.Since heading up the organization, Castle organized No-Kill Los Angeles, a community-focused initiative that brought together the city of Los Angeles and more than 130 organizations, in 2012. It has helped Los Angeles improve from a save rate of 58 percent to nearly 90 percent today.She hopes to make similar strides in Houston.“Best Friends is leading the no-kill movement, and people laughed at us when we started. We now have 4,000 communities in America that are no kill. It can happen here, too,” she said.joy.sewing@chron.com

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