Homes Over Death

Activists both local and national try to nudge Pima County Animal Care in a no-kill direction

Jay Dee Sheets owned his dog, Jaeger, for 11 years. Then one day, Jaeger turned up missing.

After scouring the neighborhood, Sheets discovered his pet on a Web page run by the county's Pima Animal Care Center. But when he called, a staffer told him there was no such dog at the shelter.

"I told them that I was looking at him, right there on the Internet," Sheets says.

By the time he reached the PACC, Jaeger was dead. "A woman came up and told me that my dog was no longer in pain," Sheets says. "I told her that he hadn't been in pain to start with."

The dog had been euthanized despite the fact that he carried an identification microchip, and even though his owner had already called several times.

It was a tragic accident, to be sure, but it wasn't an isolated incident. The PACC had mistakenly killed another five pets in the year before Jaeger died—and had supposedly instituted safeguards to keep that from happening again. Obviously, those reforms aren't quite working. But to some, these stumbles are simply symptomatic of a shelter culture where euthanization has become de rigueur.

Last year, PACC took in more than 21,000 animals. Of that, more than 13,000 were euthanized—a 2 percent drop from the year before, and 8 percent below the number euthanized four years ago. But to Nikia Fico, of the group Citizens for a No-Kill Tucson, that's still 13,000 too many.

She says that far too many animals are slipping through the cracks because of miscommunication and PACC officials' intransigence. For instance, the shelter might contact a rescue group about a pet. But those groups are run by volunteers who can't always visit PACC at a moment's notice. "And a lot of times," she says, "animals aren't being held for them."

Other times, folks will want to adopt an animal, but are not allowed to adopt until the routine quarantine period has passed. "But rather than being notified when that holding period is over, the animal is being killed," Fico says.

Another goal is reducing the number of animals identified by shelter staff as vicious—which amounts to a death sentence. Only veterinarians are qualified to make that call, she says. "We want a legal standard of what it means to be vicious, and it has to be decided by a court of law. If not, then (PACC) needs to try to place that animal" with a home or rescue group.

Fico says these reforms don't have to break the bank. "We know that budgets are tight. We aren't asking them to implement programs that are going to cost a lot of money. We're asking them to work with what's already there, and that's not happening a lot of the time."

But PACC spokeswoman Jayne Cundy says the shelter does its best to keep euthanizations at a minimum, and that involves close cooperation with rescue groups. But she says the shelter can't hold animals forever—not even those desired by the rescue groups. Once a group is called, they have 24 hours to pick up the animal. "We try to extend that as much as we can," she says. "But it's July, and we're starting to get really busy. So we can't extend (the time) as much as during the quiet period."

Cundy says the PACC also preaches the spaying and neutering of pets, and now provides that service in-house. "We advocate that because, until people stop breeding their animals and passing the puppies on, we're only touching the tip of the iceberg."

But Nathan Winograd says shelters such as PACC spend too much time blaming the public—and too little time analyzing their own failures. Winograd is a nationally known advocate for no-kill programs, such as the one he helped establish at San Francisco's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He's also author of Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.

In Redemption, Winograd dismisses the notion that there aren't enough homes for all pets in this country. Instead, he argues that poor shelter management leads to roughly 5 million companion animals being euthanized each year.

To critics who call the no-kill concept unworkable, Winograd points to Washoe County, Nev., which includes the city of Reno. He says Washoe's shelter takes in nearly 40,000 animals, yet is able to save 90 percent of its dogs and 86 percent of the cats. "Given that (Washoe) is taking in nearly twice the number of animals per capita as Pima County, there's really no reason that Pima County can't be doing better than it is." (Pima County currently saves about 40 percent of the animals it receives.)

When he brought that message to Tucson last year, he says the PACC gave him "a whole host of excuses as to why it couldn't be done. Then, when I started going through the different programs that help (alleviate) the perceived 'need to kill,' they were either not being done, or only being done on a token level."

Those steps include creating an extensive foster-care program for animals awaiting adoption, and developing better relationships with rescue groups.

"I'm not talking about doing that on a token level," Winograd says. "I'm talking about putting in a program so that it replaces the killing of those animals entirely. You can do those kinds of things by tapping into the compassion of the community. But it seemed to me, when I was talking to rescue groups in Pima County, that it wasn't a partnership" with the PACC. "It was an adversarial relationship, which is incredibly unfortunate."

In his book, Winograd argues that statistics from a number of sources reveal that there are more than enough homes in this country to accommodate every shelter animal. The problem is that shelters aren't doing a good enough job of finding those homes.

While officials at the PACC say their efforts are hobbled by funding shortfalls, Winograd calls that a red herring. "A lot of these programs are incredibly cost-effective," he says. "I would argue that they are even more cost-effective than killing animals, because every time you kill an animal, that costs money."

However, adoption brings in money, he says. "Or transferring an animal to a rescue group might not bring in revenue, but it transfers the cost of caring for that animal from taxpayers to private philanthropy, and it saves money from the need to kill and dispose of the animal's body."