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Can Savannah become a 'no kill' community?
Last in a three-part series on animal welfare
Reducing the number of healthy, adoptable animals euthanized in local shelters is the goal of all animal welfare advocates. - photo by Jon Waits

In the first part of this series, we examined the criticisms levied at and challenges faced by Savannah Chatham Animal Control and its staff. Next, we looked at efforts by local pet rescue groups to combine data and resources. This conclusion explores how Savannah and Chatham County might move forward towards a unified, productive approach to animal welfare.

Regardless of past conflicts, all parties involved in the care and management of homeless dogs and cats cite a common goal: To reduce the number of healthy, adoptable animals euthanized in local shelters.

According to statistics compiled by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), over 2.7 million animals are put down in shelters in the United States each year—about a third of the total animals taken into 13,600 facilities around the country.

About the same number are adopted out to homes—approximately 35 percent of dogs and 37 percent of cats. A quarter of the dogs that come in as strays are returned to their owners, while less than five percent of stray cats find their way back home.  

Locally, a third of dogs and more than half of cats impounded by SCAC were euthanized in the first quarter of 2014. Depending how the raw data numbers are crunched, as few as 38 percent but no more than 47 percent of the total animals that come into the shelter are emancipated back into the world.

“I cry about it almost every day,” sighs Dana Bertagnolli, co-founder of One Love Animal Rescue.

Bertagnolli and fellow One Love volunteer Heidi Hammerstein are passionate about increasing live release rates, and along with a core of committed volunteers, they are exploring how an approach known as “no kill” might help.

Shelters designated as “no kill” save at least 90 percent of adoptable and treatable animals brought to their facilities, reserving euthanasia for the most vicious and terminally ill. The “no kill” concept first received national attention in the late 1990s, when California passed three pieces of animal welfare legislation, including the Hayden Law that extended the time animals could spend in the shelter, and the Kopp Law, which reformed how euthanasia is carried out. Under the Vincent Law, state shelters are now mandated to spay and neuter all animals before they are adopted out.

“No kill” has gained momentum with support from Maddie’s Fund, a national non-profit organization that awards grants to local communities. Also at the forefront of the movement is the No Kill Advocacy Center, which promotes the idea that homes can be found for every dog and cat with the right combination of community partnership and shelter accountability. No Kill Advocacy Center founder Nathan Winograd began implementing his philosophy at the San Francisco SPCA in 1994, and within six years turned San Francisco into the first city to almost completely eliminate euthanasia of “healthy, treatable and adoptable pets.”

Since then Winograd has shared his No Kill Equation with hundreds of communities, including Austin, TX and Hampton Roads, VA, where shelters save over 90 percent of animals brought to them.

But what defines a successful implementation has proved controversial.

While many shelters start out with marked reductions in euthanasia, reports of neglect, overcrowding and abuse have surfaced. Government-run facilities from Shelby County, KY, to Palm Springs, CA returned to putting down dogs due to lack of space, and many more have been shut down for health violations. Even the celebrated SF/SPCA has received its share of bad press.

“’No kill’ sounds great, it really does,” says SCAC’s Lt. Cary Hill, who oversaw the impoundment of more than 5,000 animals in 2013.

“But it’s just not realistic, especially at an open admission shelter like ours. We have to take in every animal, no matter how sick, injured or aggressive.”

Lt. Hill explains that many success stories are due to limited admission policies that reject unhealthy or unadoptable animals, therefore boosting statistics. Animals not eligible for these limited admission shelters end up back at open admission shelters, or worse, abandoned.

In recent years, many animal welfare advocates have begun to distance themselves from Winograd and the “no kill” designation. Though they may agree with the philosophy, Bertagnolli and Hammerstein aren’t sure it’s a good fit for Savannah.

“If you talk to people who work in shelters, they will tell you that “no kill” is very forced,” says Bertagnolli.

“And forcing change rarely works.”

Though the objective remains to increase live release rates—the metric calculated from total animals impounded and audited for health and behavior then adopted out—she and Hammerstein are approaching Chatham County’s animal overpopulation issues from a different angle.

Lobbying for mandatory spay/neuter laws, low-cost spay/neuter options and community education could all be parts of a multi-pronged, long-term action plan.

“The idea is to reduce the number of animals that come into the shelter in the first place,” says Hammerstein.

“And that’s not going to happen overnight.”

The volunteers hope to work with SCAC to come up with shelter standards based on the Asilomar Accords, a set of guiding principles and definitions designed to make animals more adoptable by treating them for minor conditions such as broken bones or mange and providing behaviorial training.

Also being studied closely is the highly successful Countdown to Zero program in Palm Beach, FL, a partnership between public servants and private citizens who collaborate on facility management and community education. Spay/neuter legislation is also a consideration.

“There’s an ocean of information out there,” says Hammerstein. “We want to figure out what works best for Savannah.”

Mandatory spay/neuter laws and a low-cost spay and neuter program would go a long way towards reducing the amount of animals in shelters, agrees Humane Society of Greater Savannah Executive Director Lynn Gensamer, who reports an 80 percent live release rate from what she calls HSGS’ “managed admission shelter.” (Owners are required to make an appointment to surrender their pets, and strays must be directed to Animal Control next door.)

“’No birth’ makes ‘no kill’ obsolete,” says Gensamer, who reports that every animal adopted from HSGS has been spayed or neutered.

However, she points out that mandatory spay and neutering can present unintended consequences.

“If people can’t afford it, then they won’t take their pets to the vet for vaccinations or to treat illnesses—and that can turn into a public health issue like rabies,” says Gensamer. She reminds that 28 percent of Chatham County citizens live under the poverty line.

“How high do you think animal welfare is on their lists?” she asks drily.

Instead, she and HSGS Director of Operations Guinn Friedman are working to create the county’s first low-cost spay and neuter facility next to the Humane Society headquarters on Sallie Mood. The only obstacle is approval from Chatham County Board of Commissioners, which owns the land.

“This isn’t a pipe dream. We have the money. But the county has decided that our lease—signed in 1992—predates the existence of the county’s animal shelter, and now needs to be reviewed,” says Gensamer.

“So we’re waiting to hear whether we can move forward.”

She blames part of the county’s homeless animal overpopulation—in particular the issue of feral cats, which can reproduce at the exponential rate of up to four litters of six a year per animal—on confusing and oblique language within the county’s Animal Control Ordinances.

Section 22-407 dictates that “no person shall feed or provide sustenance to any animal, dog or cat upon the public property or private property of others,” which criminalizes anyone seeking help control cat colonies.

That includes groups like the Islands Feral Cat Project, which works in specific parts of the county to trap, neuter and release (a practice known as TNR) as many cats as possible.

“The ordinances are so unclear that people don’t even want to admit that they’re trying to help a colony for fear of getting into trouble,” criticizes Gensamer.

Though TNR efforts can effectively manage a feral cat colony, often people will dump their unwanted, unneutered cats in these locations, impeding successful attrition rates. Other well-meaning citizens will feed cats without trapping and sterilizing them, causing sharp spikes in birth rates and diseased animals.

Bertagnolli reports that in one Sunday, One Love received five different emails about feral cats with six kittens each.

“That’s 30 cats in one day,” she bemoans.

“I don’t care what Nathan Winograd says, there are not enough homes for that.”

A Feral Cat Task Force headed by Dr. Blake Caldwell met several times last year to help define more effective policy towards controlling the county’s cat population, but Gensamer says it was curtailed after county attorneys brought forward concerns about the liabilities of public land use. Another TNR project started by Coastal Pet Rescue called the Milton Project was suspended in 2012.

The only way to counteract the “neverending battle,” says Gensamer, is to facilitate an “orchestrated, coordinated strategy that optimizes animal care and welfare, public health and county revenue.”

That’s also the aim of Bertagnolli, Hammerstein and their crew, whose initial step is to delve into the ordinances so that they can survey people on issues to bring to the county commissioners. Spay and neuter legislation and a feral cat policy remain priorities as does lobbying the board to approve SCAC’s request for increased staff.

“You can put all the laws on the books you want, but if there aren’t enough people to enforce it, it won’t work,” says Bertagnolli, coming full circle to part one of this series.

While a shelter with a 90 percent live release metric may not be achievable any time soon, a combination of clear public policy, community education and thoughtful strategy can bring Chatham County closer.

“We’re looking at the next 10 years,” affirms Hammerstein, though she reminds that people can begin saving dogs and cats immediately by becoming involved in volunteer and foster programs.

Bertagnolli agrees that local animal advocates don’t need a set equation or a quick fix to reduce the number of cats and dogs put down in local shelters.

“We don’t have a catchy slogan, but we are ready to change the way animals are treated in this community.”