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Adoption crisis

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When Durham County animal control officers seized 11 pit bulls during a dog-fighting raid on Dec. 30, those dogs began a journey that will likely end in a death sentence when they are no longer needed for evidence. Because humans have exploited them for bloody sport, their chances of becoming beloved companion animals are slim, says Mike Turner, who oversees the county's animal control department.

The good news is that the last months of their sad lives will be warm and safe, with plenty of food and medical attention. And no more fighting, ever.

The bad news is that hundreds of other adoptable dogs also will die while their case proceeds through the court.

The Durham County Animal Protection Society shelter on East Club Boulevard has 58 indoor-outdoor dog runs. The pit bulls take up 11, which translates roughly into the shelter having to euthanize 20 percent more dogs as long as they are there.

"We were already overcrowded. We've been more crowded than I can ever remember this winter," said Susan Teer, the interim manager who has weathered a decade at the shelter but never a crisis like this one. "We're just not able to hold adoptable animals for as long."

Teer has sought advice from both the Humane Society of the United States and the Orange County APS, which experienced a similar problem in 1998, when 45 pit bulls were seized in a dog-fighting raid there.

To absorb some of the influx, the Durham shelter doubled up many of its runs, closing the divider between inside and outside, and putting a dog in each half. The staff installed wind shields and doghouses to protect the outside dogs from cold. Teer and her colleagues, including new shelter veterinarian Deb Courtney, have partnered with local animal rescue groups to place dogs they deem adoptable into private foster programs.

Adding to the space problem, late January brought an abundance of homeless puppies. Animal control officers trapped four stray female dogs and their four litters--19 puppies total--which came in on top of a half-dozen other litters dumped at the shelter by various owners. Almost all of those puppies are dead now, victims of the space shortage and an outbreak of Parvovirus, a deadly and highly contagious disease.

Pet overpopulation is not a new problem, or one that's unique to Durham. Of the 50,000 kittens and puppies born every day in the United States, only one in nine will find a permanent home, according to AnimalKind, a Triangle-wide nonprofit working to shrink the number of adoptable animals killed in shelters. And in just six years, one female dog and her offspring can be the source of 67,000 puppies. Public education and low-cost spay-neuter programs have proven an effective antidote to high euthanasia rates, but it will be decades before they catch up to the problem. In the meantime, nearly 6 million dogs and cats are killed in U.S. shelters each year, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

By law, the Durham shelter must hold every stray dog for five business days in case an owner is looking for it. "Surrenders"--dogs whose owners personally bring them in--don't have even that grace period. How many days (and chances) an APS dog actually gets to meet a new adoptive family before being euthanized depends largely on how crowded the shelter happens to be that week.

This week, and next week, and every week after that until the dog-fighting case goes to court, more dogs will miss their chance every day.

"It's going to be a long spring, summer and fall," Teer says.

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