The crisis is averted—for now.
As the INDY reported in a blog post last week, on Thursday morning the Wake County Animal Center in East Raleigh posted a sign on its door announcing that "WE ARE FULL. If you are surrendering your pet, the risk of euthanasia is extremely high today."
On top of the normal flood of puppies and kittens the shelter expects in summer, animal services director Jennifer Federico explained, the biggest problem was that people were just giving up their animals—nearly 70 in the previous nine days—so many that the shelter had no more room. When there's no room, animals are put down.
After the INDY's blog post and subsequent stories by local television networks, the community rallied to the shelter's cause. Ninety animals were adopted over the weekend, Federico says.
But this isn't the first time the shelter has faced this sort of difficulty—and it probably won't be the last, either. In fact, the shelter has filled to capacity several times in recent years, most recently in October, when it took in more than 1,000 animals and its adoptions couldn't keep up.
In years past this has meant a too-high rate of euthanizations. In fiscal year 2010, for instance, the shelter put down 59 percent of its animals.
The county promised that things would get better, and they have. Last summer the shelter completed an expansion that provided more room for quarantined animals and animals with upper-respiratory infections. (In 2010, in what Federico calls the "Sassy incident," the shelter euthanized an 8-month-old puppy with a URI a few hours after it left the WRAL studios, where it had been pet of the day.) In fiscal year 2012, Federico says, the shelter euthanized more than 700 dogs with respiratory infections; in 2014, only one.
When Federico came onboard in 2012, she says, she inherited a culture in which animals were euthanized instead of treated for things like kennel cough. That culture has changed. In addition to treating animals for infections, the shelter also amputates broken limbs instead of putting the animal down. Meanwhile, new protocols to reduce cats' stress have led to less sickness, and thus fewer feline euthanizations.
The results are remarkable. In May, the shelter euthanized 246 animals, a 25 percent decrease from May 2014, while adoptions rose 23 percent to 549. In the last two years, says Federico, the shelter has lowered its euthanasia rate by 14 percent. Through May 31, according to county records, the shelter had taken in 10,406 animals in 2015, and had euthanized 3,143 of them, just over 30 percent.
That's actually below the national average. According to the ASPCA, 31 percent of dogs and 41 percent of cats that enter a shelter each year never leave.
If you don't count animals that were surrendered specifically to be euthanized or dogs that were euthanized for humane reasons, Federico adds, the shelter's euthanisia rate is more like 13 percent, close to the 10-percent threshold at which shelters can call themselves no-kill.
"I don't think [that threshold is] unattainable," she says. "There's a lot of little moving parts to the bigger picture."
The shelter is the second largest in the state, edged out only by Mecklenburg County's, and has an annual budget a little north of $3 million. It is the only place in the county that takes all surrendered pets—not just cats and dogs, but also rabbits, guinea pigs, horses and even rats. The SPCA of Wake County, while a no-kill shelter, limits its intake. The Wake County Animal Center doesn't have that luxury.
Federico says local governments could help out by initiating trap-and-release policies to rein in the feral-cat population, a big driver of euthanizations. But the single most important way to help the shelter stay below capacity, she says, is for pet owners to act responsibly: spaying and neutering their animals, keeping them contained, and actually taking care of and training them instead of surrendering them at the first sign of difficulty. If that happened, overcrowding wouldn't be a problem.
"We'd be out of business," Federico says. "But since that's not happening, the animals add up, and it's frustrating."