The 1-year-old Labrador retriever mix didn’t even have a name when it arrived at Maricopa County Animal Care and Control on Nov. 27, but just five days later the dog would be dead. Why? Because it was scared.
This is just one of the reasons roughly 50,000 animals are euthanized in Maricopa County every year, according to county animal statistics. Because of animal overpopulation, and a lack of homes, shelter space and resources, euthanasia is an all too common solution to a widespread problem.
“It is tragic and we are in an extreme crisis with animal overpopulation,” said Bari Mears of Phoenix Animal Care Coalition, a group that works to unite animal welfare organizations in Maricopa County. “There are simply not enough homes for the animals being bred.”
The Arizona Humane Society and Maricopa County Animal Care and Control, or MCACC, offer the main open-intake facilities, or facilities that take any animal that is presented to them, in the county. Between July of 2008 and June of 2009, MCACC euthanized 28,992 animals, said Aprille Hollis, public information officer for MCACC. In addition, the Arizona Humane Society euthanized a total of 22,396 animals in 2008, according to statistics found on the Arizona Humane Society’s Web site.
The live release rate, or the number of animals that are either adopted or transferred to another shelter, is 49 percent for the Arizona Humane Society, according to communication manager Kimberly Searles. The live release rate at MCACC is about 55 percent, Hollis said.
“They want it to be different, but they’re limited in physical space,” said Heather Allen, founder of HALO Animal Rescue, an organization that provides temporary shelter for animals until they can be adopted, 90 percent of which are rescued from MCACC. “I mean, they are physically out of cage space, so now what?”
The animals that enter the facilities at MCACC and the Arizona Humane Society are categorized by guidelines used by Maddie’s Fund, a foundation that funds projects throughout the nation to support the no-kill animal movement. The partners participating in Maddie’s Projects in Maricopa County include Almost Home Arizona Boxer Rescue, Arizona Animal Rescue and Sanctuary, Arizona Animal Welfare League and SPCA, Finding Fido, Arizona Humane Society, Foothills Animal Rescue, HALO Animal Rescue, Home ‘Fur’ Good, MCACC and Sun Valley Animal Shelter, according to CommonPaws.org, which provides community outreach for Maddie’s Projects in Maricopa County.
The categories used to sort each animal were designed by the Asilomar Accords, a collection of principles, formulas and definitions created when a group of animal welfare leaders met in 2004 to establish a unified system for consistent reporting on goals to end the euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals across the nation, according to Asilomaraccords.org. The Asilomar Accords designate four definitions to animals that enter shelters, which include “healthy,” “treatable-rehabilitatable,” “treatable-manageable” and “unhealthy and untreatable.”
According to the Asilomar Accords Web site, healthy animals include dogs and cats that are at least 8 weeks old, have no behavioral or temperamental problems, and have no sign of disease, injury or of a congenital or hereditary condition that could affect the animal’s health. Treatable-rehabilitatable animals include dogs and cats that could become “healthy” with treatment and care. Treatable-manageable animals include dogs and cats that are not likely to become “healthy,” no matter the care provided, but that could carry on a “satisfactory quality” of life. Unhealthy and untreatable animals include dogs and cats with health, behavioral or temperamental problems that pose a risk and likely won’t be adopted.
Animals that do not qualify as healthy or adoptable likely end up on MCACC’s euthanasia list, which is then given to the organization’s rescue partners, such as HALO, which have a chance to save them, Hollis said. Rather than printing a euthanasia list, the Arizona Humane Society works with foster volunteers who help care for animals with conditions like upper respiratory infections, and they also have an alternative placement department that works with other rescue groups, Searles said.
The Arizona Humane Society and MCACC haven’t technically euthanized an animal that was listed as “healthy” since October of 2005, Allen said. However, few realize that animals that arrive healthy don’t usually stay healthy, or that animals that are fearful or food aggressive, that have ear mites, fleas or ticks, or that have easily treatable diseases, like upper respiratory infections, do not qualify as healthy, Allen said.
“Healthy is such a narrow definition,” Allen said.
Walking through the halls of MCACC, it’s easy to see how any animal living in such conditions could show signs of behavior that would make them unqualified for the “healthy” category. Cats are stacked in crowded metal cages. In one corner, their food dish, in another, their litter box, and lastly, a single blanket to protect them from the cold metal cage floor. Dogs lined side-by-side in long halls of noisy, concrete pens, often filled full with two to three dogs per pen, have no room to run or play.
By being thrust into a noisy, unfamiliar environment filled with strange people and things, and living only inches away from other animals that may be sick, many animals become afraid or susceptible to illness.
“These animals that go in as healthy are not healthy shortly thereafter because of just the volume of animals that are coming in and the stress, and cats and dogs are very susceptible to illness when they’re stressed,” Allen said. “So what might have been a healthy animal isn’t a healthy animal ... and then becomes a ‘treatable’ and then it can be killed and not count against that ‘healthy’ death number.”
Euthanasia also is usually cheaper than housing an animal, costing $25 per animal, compared with daily $31 to board the animal at MCACC, Hollis said.
“The euthanasia solution is cheap,” Allen added. “But, obviously, that’s not what any of us want.”
Although the number of animals being euthanized in Maricopa County is still staggering, Hollis said that MCACC is taking greater steps to save the lives of animals with help from their rescue partners, and by increasing treatment and foster care. Because of this, euthanasia rates at MCACC are actually down about 7 percent from 31,055 between July of 2007 and June of 2008, Hollis said.
In addition, the Arizona Humane Society’s euthanasia numbers are down about 15 percent from 26,249 in 2007, according to the Asilomar Accords found on the Arizona Humane Society’s Web site. In addition, the Arizona Humane Society’s live release rate for this fiscal year, which began Nov. 1 of 2008 and ended Oct. 31 of 2009, is up about 5 percent from the same time last year, Searles said.
“It really is a team effort of our entire staff,” Searles said, “working with our foster volunteers and other rescue groups, as well as simple things such as using better photography of the animals available for adoption.”
Other organizations, including the Animal Defense League of Arizona, or ADLA, an animal protection organization, are working to lower the number of animals that have to be euthanized by advocating through its Spay/Neuter Hotline.
In Maricopa County, the Spay/Neuter Hotline’s Trap-Neuter-Return, or TNR, Program sterilized 6,411 cats and prevented the birth of 2,388 cats between March 9 and Oct. 31, president of ADLA Stephanie Nichols-Young said. ADLA is also taking steps through its Legislative Program and the Alliance for Companion Animals to expand efforts to end euthanasia of homeless dogs and cats, Nichols-Young said.
Julie Schisler, a cat management team member for The Foundation for Homeless Cats, an organization in Maricopa County that specializes in the sterilization of free-roaming cats, advocates that such programs are useful because they manage cat populations in a non-lethal way and reduce the vacuum effect created when remaining cats continue to breed and take over locations where other cats have been removed and euthanized, Schisler said.
The TNR method is also cost effective with a price of about $20 per sterilization, Schisler noted.
In addition to spaying and neutering, Allen said people should view adopting a pet as a life-long commitment and should adopt from shelters instead of buying from pet stores often supplied by puppy mills.
“People need to be made more aware and educated on the responsibilities of having a pet,” said Karen Scherer, founder of Mingus Manor Animal Sanctuary, a sanctuary for senior and special needs animals. “They need to understand the expenses involved, make better choices on the breeds they choose and make sure they are choosing a pet that is a good fit for their family’s circumstances.”
The issue of animal euthanasia in Maricopa County is a big problem that cannot be fixed without help from everyone in the community, Allen said.
“This is a community problem that’s going to take a community effort to change,” Allen said. “There are two solutions when we hear things like this: we either turn away because it’s too painful, or we become empowered and start to help.”
Cassidy Olson is interning this semester for AFN. She is a sophomore at ASU.