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SPECIAL REPORT: The Bitter End; an in-depth look at euthanasia at animal shelters

Dog up for adoption at the Amherst County shelter (WSET)

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SPECIAL REPORT: The Bitter End; an in-depth look at euthanasia at animal shelters (Part 2)
SPECIAL REPORT: The Bitter End; an in-depth look at euthanasia at animal shelters (Part 3)

Reporter note: It has always been a heated and emotional subject in our region when healthy animals are put down at shelters, and I wanted to delve deeper into how the system works- why things are done the way they are- and if there are any solutions. I started working on this in-depth piece long before the situation with Sam the dog developed in Appomattox County. I went out to get a variety of voices , opinions, and explanations:

Lynchburg and Danville have the same structure--they're humane societies that have the public pound contract. Campbell County is strictly a public shelter, run by the animal control office. The Humane Society for Campbell County owns a feline facility in a house, but mostly deals in animal rescue without an actual shelter. The Amherst County Shelter building is partially the county run pound run by a shelter manager, and partially the humane society. They share a building but are not a combined operation, though they work closely together.

Those I spoke with hope this report will shed light on the challenges they're up against, and encourage more people to adopt from shelters, foster, donate, support, and spay and neuter their animals.

PART ONE: THE EUTHANASIA STORY

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WSET) -- Euthanasia at local animal shelters is an emotional subject and a highly contentious one. The ASPCA reports every year approximately 7.6 million animals come into shelters nationwide, and only a little more than half make it out alive. There are numerous reasons for euthanizing the animals, but it's euthanizing just to make room for more, that really shakes the animal loving community.

On any given week you'll find Bev Wisser and her husband Jim, driving down a highway to pick up a load of animals. She's been doing it for a little more than a year and estimates they drive about 1,000 miles a month. "Anything, if it's a dog or a cat, doesn't matter they're all worth saving," says Wisser.

Many times her trips take her to a rendezvous in Troutville, where she meets up with a couple of ladies who work tirelessly to pull animals from a high kill shelter in southwestern Virginia. One of them is Barbara Kuklock, who has been pulling animals out for the last two years. "The first year I did I ran 2-3 transports a week, out of there the first year it was over 1,000 dogs. And I know we're up to close to 2,000 if not more now, in two years," says Kuklock.

But sadly, that's just a drop in the bucket. In Virginia last year, out of 224,368 dogs and cats that came into shelters, 44,218 were euthanized for various reasons, including among other things, health issues, aggression issues, and unfortunately, space.

Benny David is the animal control officer for Campbell County. In 2015 47%, or nearly half of the shelter's dogs and cats were euthanized. More cats than dogs were put down. "I don't think we do it for space. Now we try to keep some open runs all the time but, and a lot of comments, I've seen comments 'they weren't full' well how would you operate if you stayed full? What would you do every time someone came in with an animal--'let me go make room--' well then you're doing it for space," says David. He points out there's a difference between rescue organizations and public shelters like his, which is run by the county, there to serve the taxpayers. "If you're a Humane society your primary goal is loving and taking care of animals. I feel my job, my primary goal is serving the public, the citizens of Campbell County," says David. "I don't think it's prudent to say if I went out and spent thousands of dollars on one injured animal or old animal or sick animal just to make it comfortable. That's not a good use of taxpayers' dollars," he adds.

Still he says he works very closely with rescue groups like Friends of Campbell County Animal Control, who pull as many animals as they can, work with the animals to make them more adoptable, and fund all the medical costs they can cover.

At the Danville Area Humane Society, it's a similar yet different story. "We get in over 4000 animals a year," says Executive Director Paulette Dean. The Humane Society also has the contract to run the city pound.

Her love of animals is unquestioned. "I'm the kind that will let flies out of my house rather than kill them, " she says. But the shelter euthanized 78% of the dogs and cats that came in last year. Again, that includes a wide variety of reasons. Dean explains they are an open admission shelter- they turn away no animal, and even take in large amounts from other jurisdictions. Dean says the numbers will improve once Pittsylvania County builds its new shelter, but she also says the numbers don't tell the full story. "So if a dog has bitten someone and shouldn't go back into a home, we take them in and they become a number on our report. Yesterday we had to euthanize a dog for people sobbing, a 14 year old dachshund who had bladder stones, needed $1,000 worth of surgery they couldn't afford it, and so that dog becomes a number on our report," explains Dean. She says her shelter often performs euthanasias for families who can't afford it, and they all go into the numbers.

Dean also sees the animal world through a different lens. She's a humane investigator. She has seen some horrible things, and believes in some cases, putting animals down is more humane than the possibilities out there. "Once an animal comes through our doors, their troubles need to be over.. and that means they need to be free from ever being hungry again, or cold in the winter or hot in the summer and thirsty ever again and sometimes tragically in this world today, that means being secure from a painful, horrible death," Dean says.

She stands by their methodology, and often has to make very difficult decisions. "No one, no one takes euthanasia lightly. If they do they don't belong in this field," she says.

"They have to realize that everybody does this because they love animals. And nobody enjoys ending the life of an animal," says David.

But that's why most of Bev Wisser's transports are brought to Lynchburg. Lynchburg is now a no-kill shelter. Last year, 94 percent of all cats and dogs left Lynchburg's shelter alive. "In order for shelters to be able to stop euthanizing, or euthanizing treatable animals they do need help from the community and they need help from other organizations," says Lynchburg Humane Society Exeutive Director Makena Yarbrough.

To see the numbers by shelter, click here for a link to VDACS state shelter reporting site. You can search by shelter. Keep in mind there are varying reasons for euthanasia besides space, but the state doesn't keep those statistics. Each individual shelter does. The Lynchburg Humane Society has also compiled a list of area shelter rates over the course of 10 years. On this list, 2009 is highlighted because that's the year the shelter became no-kill.

Note: The law surrounding animals in Virginia is if the pet comes in with no collar, there's a five day holding period to give the owner time to claim it. After that it becomes city or county property. If there is a collar, it's 10 days- that animal is clearly owned. If you surrender your animal, it immediately becomes the locality's property once you sign it over. Which means if the shelter is full, and all the animals are still in their holding period, your surrendered animal could be the first to go.

PART TWO: THE NO KILL CONCEPT

Though most people shutter at having to euthanize healthy adoptable animals, it's the reality many shelters face. The Lynchburg Humane Society's No-Kill movement has some in the animal care community very angry, and quite skeptical. It's not that they look forward to putting down healthy animals, but they don't feel it's a realistic concept.

Sona Bartley spends every day in the Amherst County shelter. As shelter manager she works with the animals to make them adoptable. She learns their personalities. She forms bonds. So you can imagine when her shelter gets full, the decisions she has to make are gut wrenching. Right now she's particularly close with a dog named Charlie. If he had to go-- "Somebody else would have to do it I wouldn't be able to do it. I'd say 'hey- y'all wait til I'm off.' They've done that for me before," says Bartley. Tears welled up in her eyes while talking about the decision process. "We get very attached to them, yes. You just have to look..." As she wiped a tear she continued, "You kind of have to look.. ok this one's been here for.. " and she paused, choked up.

In Amherst County, the humane society shares the building with the county pound and picks out animals to take under their wing, but they simply can't get them all. "I wish we could become no kill but I think we did pretty good," says Bartley. The shelter's euthanasia rate for cats and dogs in 2015 was 43%, mostly cats.

Makena Yarbrough, the Executive Director of the Lynchburg Humane Society is willing to share with anyone who's interested, how Lynchburg's shelter went no-kill. "Well the first step is just to make the decision not to euthanize animals for the mere reasons that there's no space for them," she says.

As in Danville's case, L.H.S. also has the contract to run the city pound. In 2009 the board made the decision to become no-kill, which means a save rate of 90% or better. Last year L.H.S euthanized only 5% of the dogs and cats that came in, and none of them for space. "We unfortunately have to euthanize for medical reasons, if the vet doesn't feel there's a positive outcome we'll euthanize humanely, or we euthanize dogs or fractious cats that cannot be safely placed if they have multiple issues," explains Yarbrough.

Yarbrough believes firmly that every shelter or pound, big or small, has the ability to do it if they have the will to, without having to spend much more money. "Our building was very small compared to this new facility and it was very rundown and it was horrible. But we were able to make significant changes pretty quickly by just engaging the community, setting up foster programs, setting up volunteer programs, taking away all the barriers for adoption so it made it easier for people to take home pets and we just communicated our problem- 'we're sorry, we're full, we can't help you today.'"

Yarbrough says it just takes a concerted effort . For animals with medical needs for instance, reach out to the public for help. Put more trust in people that they're coming to adopt for the right reasons. Remove some of the restrictions. "There are some organizations in the state of Virginia, in this area that will not adopt out a puppy or kitten to anyone with kids under the age of 4 for instance." Noreen asks: "Because they're afraid they're going to pull their tail?" "They're going to damage or hurt the animal," Yarbrough says.

But there's a lot of pushback to the no-kill concept. Campbell County's Animal Control Officer Benny David is in charge of the county's animal shelter. "What's the best word to use... I despise the no-kill, I just despise the no kill movement. I hate it," exclaims David.

For one thing, doesn't feel like his shelter has that option, as a county run pound. However, he does work with rescue groups to move out as many animals as they can. He says he does his best not to euthanize for space. And he and others say the no-kill movement is pitting animal lovers against each other over differing philosophies.

Danville Area Humane Society Executive Director Paulette Dean also runs the city's shelter, and doesn't like the movement either. "Any open admission shelter that euthanizes is vilified by the public members who are tender hearted and kind hearted and hallelujah we're glad you feel that way, but until you work in a shelter you just cannot know what goes on," she says. As an open admssion shelter, no animals are turned away.

And some even push for boycotting shelters that aren't declared no kill. "Well that's the exact opposite of what you should do. If they're no-kill everything over there's safe. I'm not! Come on over here adopt all my dogs take them out of here. If you want em to be no-kill come over here and get everything! Doesn't that make sense?" David exclaims.

And some are worried about just how long the animals would be stuck in a cage in no-kill shelters, just to protect the numbers. "We love our rescue groups and our adoption partners but when they come in and they don't think they can find this animal a home and that animal has been kept in here for four months, or even over a year, at what point does that become inhumane?" says Dean. "If no rescue group or adoption partner takes them, how can we find them a home?"

Yarbrough says the average stay for dogs in Lynchburg is 17 days, 38 for cats. The cats have spacious rooms with lots of play areas. If they're getting full, they move pets out quickly through adoption specials, and utilize fosters, or even boarding facilities if they have to. And they stopped doing landlord checks- where shelters call to make sure pets are allowed in the rentals. "We're not the landlord police we trust people to know if they can have a pet or not," says Yarbrough.

And with 30 percent of all animals coming to Virginia shelters last year as owner surrenders, Lynchburg instituted an appointment system, to give owners time to find their own solutions, change their minds, or find solutions. "We try to work with people to give them assistance to keep the animal or to find another home for it, because the shelter's not an ideal place for any pet," Yarbrough says. But she adds that if the owner needs to give it up immediately, they will take them right away. However some organizations fear what those owners might do to their unwanted animals instead. "If ever we had a waiting list and turned away an animal and then found later they've been abandoned on the side of the road, that would be very sad indeed," says Dean. Bartley agrees. "I have been told by people if you do not take this animal, because they'll be from another county, I'm going to throw it out on the side of the road, yes I have," she says, so they take the animal right in.

Yarbrough says if Lynchburg pet owners on the appointment system instead go to other shelters, Lynchburg will come and get them if they're made aware. They've gotten 8 such calls this year.

Paulette Dean wants to make clear she doesn't relish the idea of euthanizing animals, but she just doesn't feel it's a realistic goal, especially at a shelter that takes in more than 4,000 animals a year. "All of us want be no kill absolutely. And to get to the point where no shelter has to euthanize for space and every animal with a medical problem can be healed and every dog with a behavioral problem can be rehabilitated. We deal in reality at a shelter and that just doesn't happen," says Dean.

Lynchburg's shelter is doing it though, and says it just takes the will of city or county governments, or private shelters to make it happen. "It's a doable thing and I don't understand why some of the county, city shelters across the country aren't at least asking questions or asking for help or suggestions on why on how they can start similar programs in order to save more lives in their shelter. I think that's a better use of taxpayer money than to be a place where animals just go to die," says Yarbrough.

Note: many questions came up during the course of this report. Makena Yarbrough wrote a blog as a result of the questions she was asked.

PART THREE: TRAP NEUTER RETURN

The cats are overwhelming our area shelters, and they get euthanized at much higher rates than dogs. But there's quite a controversy over how to get a handle on itand cut down on euthanizing healthy adoptable cats. Of all cats brought into shelters, only 2-4 percent are reclaimed by their owners, which leaves shelters with an awful lot of unowned cats, and choices to make.

One way Lynchburg's shelter is staying no kill is by utilizing a method that has the animal welfare world polarized.

They are overwhelming our area shelters. Cats are reproducing in vast numbers , and with limited space.. many, and in some cases most, are losing their lives. Last year in Virginia, 30 percent of all cats brought into shelters were euthanized, but for various reasons, not just space. That compares to 11 percent for dogs. Nearly 40% came in as strays.

Just during my interview at Amherst County's shelter - two people came in with cats. One man with a whole basket of kittens, and a young couple with a cat they found along Route 29. Last year, only 30 percent of cats left the Amherst County sheltrer alive. It's a heavy load for shelter manager Sona Bartley to bear. She sometimes has to ask others to perform the euthanasia for her. "I don't, I let her take care of my cats, because I really have a hard time. I feel like cats never have a chance because there's so many," she said, as she pushed away tears.

"In the state of VA we don't have to take cats in, so why are we taking cats in just to kill them?" asks Lynchburg Humane Society Executive Director Makena Yarbrough. Yarbrough has worked to make Lynchburg's shelter no- kill. Last year 91% of the cats in Lynchburg made it out alive. She says taking cats in to shelters and euthanizing them hasn't fixed anything.

"That's been a tradition for over 2 decades l so it's time to try something different because it's obviously not working. There's still an overpopulation of cats."

That something different is Trap Neuter Return, or TNR. Here in our area, citizens trap however many feral cats they can, and take them here, to the South Central Spay Neuter clinic- where they also get vaccinations. Then they're put back outside with their colonies. "If you fix them they're not going to keep breeding, they'll maintain their right size to maintain the amount of food and home that they have, and they won't continue to grow and they'll live, they'll be fine," explains Yarbrough. Studies of TNR programs have pointed to a drop in shelter intake and therefore euthanasia rates in those areas.

But TNR has some vehement critics. In Danville, only 6 percent of the nearly 25-hundred cats that came in last year, left the shelter alive. That's for a wide variety of reasons. But Paulette Dean does feel humane euthanasia is a much better alternative to making the animals fend for themselves in harsh weather, and uncertain conditions. "Just because the animal has been spayed or neutered, doesn't mean that the animal won't still starve to death or be picked up by hawks, which has happened, we get the remains here, or eaten by foxes or coyotes, killed by cars and mean people putting out poison," says Dean. "I could show you hundreds of pictures we have of cats that don't have a home that are on the streets and they do not fend for themselves and they come to us in bad shape and broken and tortured at the mercy of the people they come in contact with," she adds.

The Executive Director of the Humane Society for Campbell County agrees with her. "There is a good feeling in doing it, I understand that. What I'm looking at it is from the animal's point of view. If the animals were living full healthy complete lives, I would be one of its biggest proponents," says Matt Smith. His organization has set up a "cattery," specifically to house and save as many cats as they can. But he too feels unwanted feral cats may be better off if they're put down. "We have a way, we as citizens have a way to control that animal's passing. Meaning does the animal pass with a full belly, it's had water, it's warm, or does this animal spend half a night trapped under a log before coyotes dig it out?"

Smith and Dean both add that the cats also take a toll on other animals. "Cats really do kill birds and they really do kill the other little chipmunks and squirrels, so how can you say a cat's life is more important than the life of a bird?" Dean asks.

The information on TNR is conflicting. Organizations like PETA claim the average outdoor cat lives just 1 to 5 years, compared to 12-20 for indoor cats. But other groups point to scientific evidence to the Contrary. Alley Cat Allies cites a long term study of a TNR colony that found 83% of the cats had been living there for more than 6 years. "I think cats are surviving on their own so why are we taking them out of that environment just to kill them?" says Yarbrough. "They live off dumpsters, they live in environments with shrubbery, bushes, places they can hide and be warm. Sometimes they hide under buildings I've seen that myself. They're surviving, so why are we taking them out of there just because we feel like it's not humane, but if you ask the cat- think they prefer to stay where they are than be killed," she says.

And in many cases in Lynchburg, humans are looking after them. Everyone I talked to who opposes TNR, feels better about it if they know people are taking responsibility for their well being, making sure they're healthy, getting vaccinations, and have food and shelter.

Warning: Graphic video from PETA opposing TNR.

Learn from the Million Cat Challenge on the potential value of TNR programs.

Below is the Attorney General's opinion on TNR.

CONCLUSION:

The bottom line is the need to cut down on the pet overpopulation problem in the first place. There is something on which everyone in this report agrees-- they all say too many people use the shelters as a dumping ground instead of taking personal responsibility for their pets. They also agree the problem comes from irresponsiblity. Pet owners who let their animals roam free, without having them spayed or neutered. The South Central Spay Neuter Clinic, run by the Lynchburg Humane Society does offer low costs spay neuter services, that includes a rabies vaccine. And several also reported the same people bring in litters of kittens or puppies time after time.

Benny David suggests he'd like to see more incentives out there for pet owners to get it done- perhaps even higher licensing fees for animals who are not spayed and neutered as one example. In some parts in the North, there are stricter laws, so they have fewer animals, and often shelters from our area send theirs up there for adoption. Others suggest perhaps stricter leash laws. Yarbrough says it's up to the will of the people and local governments if they want to see change at their local shelters. The bottom line, if you don't like seeing healthy adoptable animals euthanized, then make an effort to be part of the solution.

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