Chicago shelter employs array of approaches to spare dogs


Second of two parts

CHICAGO - In the animal control world, the difference between numbers and names can signal a lot about chances for life or death.

Naming is standard practice at one of the Midwest's most prominent so-called "no-kill" shelters, PAWS Chicago, which euthanized fewer than 1 percent of the formerly unwanted dogs and cats it took in during 2008 from the city's animal control agency or got through owner surrenders. All the others - 1,751 dogs - it adopted out to new homes.

It's strictly a numbers operation in Toledo at the Lucas County pound, where even the healthiest dogs and cutest puppies are organized by digits printed on their metal cages. The county-run, open-admission shelter killed 1,951 dogs last year, or 72 percent of all dogs that entered and weren't reclaimed by owners.

To be sure, it takes more than name tags to run an effective and humane animal-control operation. Yet the effort to name the dogs up for adoption at the Chicago shelter is one simple step among an array of best practices encouraged by ani-mal-welfare advocates to help save shelter dogs from needless deaths.

Now, after decades of overkill at the Lucas County Dog Warden's Office, the pendulum of fate could swing the other way for the many hundreds of dogs that each year enter the pound on the outskirts of downtown and ultimately leave in body bags.

With controversial Dog Warden Tom Skeldon out of office, dog advocates say the county has a chance to work toward an admirable long-term goal for both pets and public: a "no-kill" community for dogs. Achieving that mark would require new practices and an about-face from the county's long-prevailing catch-and-kill approach to animal control.

"It is a whole change in mindset that we don't kill animals just because we don't have homes for them," said Jean Keating, county resident and co-founder of the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates. "You have to change your focus from the law-enforcement perspective to making the community more humane for people and for animals," Ms. Keating said.

"So you place emphasis on education and spay and neuter programs," she said, "as opposed to your emphasis being on driving around and threatening people to surrender their animal so you can kill it."

The "no-kill" movement actually allows for the limited use of euthanasia for a small percentage of dogs or cats - generally the gravely injured or sick and the truly vicious.

Ideally, up to 95 percent of all dogs or cats who enter "no-kill" shelters will leave, according to Nathan Winograd, executive director of the national No Kill Advocacy Center and author of Redemption, an influential 2007 book on "the myth of pet overpopulation and the 'no-kill' revolution in America."

"The goal is to save all but truly, irremediably suffering animals, and for obvious public-safety reasons, dogs that are truly vicious," Mr. Winograd said in a phone interview from outside Berkeley, Calif.

Lucas County, with its historically high kill-rate, surely has a way to go to reach "no-kill." Yet so did other communities, large and small, that have made significant progress in decreasing euthanasia and increasing adoptions while continuing to perform mandated animal-control duties.

A large-scale example is San Francisco, which in 1994 mostly ended the killing of healthy dogs and cats and whose San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals continues to operate a "no-kill" shelter with annual kill rates for dogs in the low single digits.

Smaller-scale models include Shelby County, Kentucky, which has been a "no-kill" or nearly "no-kill" community in recent years, and Tompkins County, New York.

Mr. Winograd, who once directed the Tompkins County SPCA, described in his book how the shelter went from routinely killing animals once cages got full to not killing any healthy or adoptable ones by the early 2000s.

"While I would like to see many 'no-kill' shelters out there, our goal is to create 'no-kill' communities, which means no shelter is killing healthy or treatable animals," Mr. Winograd said.

Common best practices that help shelters and communities achieve "no-kill" results include:

•Vigorous and widespread spay/neuter programs that are accessible to all income groups. Sterilized pets help to reduce the homeless pet population.

•A friendly and inviting front-desk environment together with an attractive adoption area to encourage the public to visit shelters rather than breeders or pet shops.

•Frequent transfer of dogs to foster homes or rescue groups, especially those dogs proving hard to adopt.

Two well-regarded Chicago animal shelters demonstrate the results of these practices. While both nonprofit organizations have different missions and funding sources than Lucas County's government-run program, their operations can nonetheless serve as models for what's possible in dog care.

The newer of the two is PAWS Chicago, founded in 1997 by banking executive Paula Fasseas, who with her husband, Peter Fasseas, runs the multibranch Metropolitan Bank Group.

Mrs. Fasseas' inspiration for PAWS (Pets Are Worth Saving) came after learning that a reported 40,000 dogs and cats were killed each year in Chicago shelters in the mid-1990s. Today, the nonprofit operates a busy spay/ neuter clinic in conjunction with its spiffy new Adoption and Humane Center in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

The adoption facility is considered one of a kind in the Midwest, with dogs and cats boarded in spacious window-filled and sound-dampened "suites" rather than the typical cages and kennels. Numerous donors have bought naming rights to the suites, including Oprah Winfrey, whose colorful "Sophie's Room" pays remembrance to her cocker spaniel that died two years ago.

Visitors arrive to a bright and airy lobby that feels more like a coffee house than an entrance to a pet shelter. Greeting guests at the door are smiling desk staff and an overhead soundtrack of classical music that's piped throughout the building to encourage calm among the dogs and cats.

All the animals get a name.

"We name every single one," said Sarah Ahlberg, communications manager. "We treat them as special beings because they are very important to us."

Most of the animals - or 78 percent of canines and 61 percent of felines - at PAWS came from the city's Animal Care and Control Department. According to PAWS, since its founding the number of homeless pets killed in the city has dropped by more than half, from 42,561 in 1997 to 19,288 in 2008.

Records from the city's animal control department - which does about a third of the animal euthanasia in the city - also show its numbers have decreased dramatically in recent years, from 18,058 in 2003 to 11,486 animals killed last year.

PAWS also takes in older animals and those in less-than-perfect health, including cats with the feline version of HIV and a partially paralyzed "pit bull" named Red who gets around on a cart.

Mrs. Fasseas said the shelter only euthanizes animals that are in lasting pain or suffering from serious conditions such as cancer.

"No-kill doesn't mean 'zero-kill' - it means you're not managing by killing," Mrs. Fasseas said in an interview. "You make that decision based on what's best for the animal, not what's best for the shelter."

Across town on Grand Avenue is The Anti-Cruelty Society, an open-door shelter founded in 1899 that offers a variety of services and programs: adoption, boarding, a charity veterinary clinic, owner and youth education, dog training, and a cruelty investigation unit.

The society opened Chicago's first low or no-cost spay/neuter clinic 15 years ago. The clinic performs more than 10,000 surgeries a year with costs as low as $10 for owned cats and $40 for male dogs. Spaying or neutering "pit bulls" is free.

"There's no excuse for anyone in this city not to get their animal sterilized," said Dr. Robyn Barbiers, the group's president.

While the adoption area is not as posh as at PAWS - pets don't recline on wicker furniture and do live in cages - the facility is clean, well ventilated, and filled with lots of natural light.

About two years ago, the society started a "bully breeds program" to regulate the adoption of mostly "pit bull" or Rottweiler dogs. Staff members give extra training to the dogs and conduct home visits of those looking to adopt them.

All dogs - bullies or otherwise - are spayed or neutered, fitted with microchip identification, and given a collar and cardboard carrier by the time they leave the shelter.

And unlike PAWS, the society accepts every animal brought in - from puppies to the sick and aged. It receives a lower percentage of animals - 12 percent of all dogs last year - from the city's animal care and control department than PAWS because it also takes in dogs from the Illinois Citizens Animal Welfare League and other sources.

The society also performs free owner-requested euthanasia, a service that Dr. Barbiers said is important. "I euthanized my own pet last week," said Dr. Barbiers, whose 8-year-old cat had inoperable intestinal cancer. "It's a hard decision, but it's a lot better than letting that animal suffer."

The varying experiences of PAWS and Chicago's Anti-Cruelty Society in euthanasia show the challenges inherent in pursuing "no-kill" goals at a dog pound, such as Lucas County's, that accepts any and all dogs.

Nationwide, some communities and shelters that once set out to become "no-kill" later revised those goals after nearly being overrun with animals. That's what happened in Washington state at the Humane Society for Tacoma & Pierce County, the chief sheltering facility for its local government, which learned that effective spay-neuter programs are "90 percent" of the key to lowering euthanasia.

"If you don't have any control over the numbers coming through your door, there is no way you can just say, 'We're going to not kill animals,' because where are you going to put them?" said Marguerite Richmond, a spokesman for the society, which pays $10 to "pit bull" owners who bring their dog in for sterilization.

The largest spay/neuter program in northwest Ohio, the nonprofit Humane Ohio, sterilized 3,353 dogs last year, while Mr. Skeldon killed 1,951 dogs last year at the Lucas County dog pound.

Staff writer Claudia Boyd-Barrett contributed to this report.

Contact JC Reindl at:

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