FORT WAYNE – Fort Wayne last year euthanized an average of seven dogs a day – every day – including weekends and holidays. Nearly 18 cats a day met the same fate in 2011.
In the past five years, nearly 50,000 of Americas two favorite pets have been put down in the Summit City – a rate higher than many other comparable communities.
In fact, the citys per capita pet death rate was one of the highest in the nation and the highest in the Midwest, according to a national – albeit limited – database of pet shelters.
Local pet officials said the statistics hide recent progress made on the issue, but they all agreed the problem will never be solved until a community effort is made to control unwanted puppies and kittens from ever being born.
The government alone cant solve the euthanasia rate in Fort Wayne, said Belinda Lewis, director of Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control.
The city reported euthanizing 6,471 cats last year and 2,687 dogs, not including animals brought in by their owner specifically to be put down. The city has averaged between 9,000 and 10,000 animals euthanized a year since 2007, according to statistics published on its website.
Chicago, by comparison, euthanized 18,689 animals in 2009 despite having a population more than 10 times that of Fort Wayne, according to statistics provided by Maddies Fund. According to its website, the organization wants to create a no-kill nation where all healthy and treatable shelter dogs and cats are guaranteed a loving home.
It provides a searchable database of shelters, although the statistics submitted are voluntary and typically based on a shelter receiving a grant. The organization said its database represents only about 4 percent of all physical shelters and all foster-based animal welfare organizations in the country.
In 2009, the most recent data available, Fort Wayne did not fare well among nine Midwestern communities in the database that represent 37 shelters. The city had the most pets euthanized per capita – 29 per 1,000 people – and the lowest live-release rate of 31 percent.
The citys statistics also include the Allen County Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, though the citys animal shelter handled the vast majority of pet activity.
In comparison, Montgomery County, Ohio, which includes Dayton, took more animals into its six shelters, yet euthanized fewer pets than Allen County. Its per-capita rate was 15 pet deaths per 1,000 people, and its live-release rate was 51 percent. The live-release rate equals the percentage of pets a shelter receives that are released alive, either newly adopted or returned to a previous owner.
The statistics can be harrowing to any pet lover. Lewis admitted she was hesitant to discuss them for fear people might be afraid to use her department.
But she said the statistics do not reflect recent efforts to reduce euthanasia and are further skewed by the different roles of different shelters.
One of the problems Fort Wayne faces is a lack of active non-profits working to rescue dogs and cats, Lewis said. Typically, government organizations like Fort Waynes Animal Care & Control have a higher euthanasia rate than private shelters.
This is especially true because Animal Care & Control must accept every animal dropped at its door, while other organizations can refuse animals they dont believe to be adoptable because of appearance or attitude.
Lewis said her first goal is placing every healthy and adoptable animal into a new home. Animals at the shelter are placed into four categories: from healthy to unhealthy-untreatable.
The city last year euthanized only 12 healthy dogs, which Lewis considered a success. The vast majority of the dogs euthanized were listed as treatable-manageable or unhealthy-untreatable – the two lowest categories.
Public safety is the departments top priority, Lewis said, and even though the department can be criticized for euthanizing aggressive dogs, its important to prevent attacks.
We still have to place human safety above animal placements, she said.
The problem is even greater with cats in Fort Wayne. The city euthanized 2,158 cats listed as healthy last year. Lewis said that problem plagues more than Fort Wayne and will likely take a cultural shift to change.
Weve got so many older cats that people simply dont want, she said. Unfortunately in our society, cats are still seen as disposable.
Despite all the pets euthanized locally, people shouldnt be under the perception that the city or Lewis doesnt care about the animals, said Sofia Rodriguez, executive director of the Allen County SPCA.
She said the city department has a critical role to play in enforcing city animal laws. While it might be easy for some to dub the city as running a kill shelter, she said that wouldnt be appropriate because of the efforts Lewis makes in trying to move healthy animals to places they can be adopted.
She is extremely conscientious of the joy and love that animals bring, Rodriguez said of Lewis.
A slow realization
Madeleine Laird was interested in helping local dogs and cats enough that she volunteered at Animal Care & Control.
Working there she saw the toll the regular euthanasia took on the citys employees: Staff had to be rotated on and off duty to avoid emotional fatigue and were offered counseling to cope with the work.
Having to euthanize one pet is heartbreaking, especially for people who love animals enough to dedicate their lives to them, she said.
To do it 50 times in a day, its horrifying, Laird said. They do it because they believe they are doing everything they can to fix it.
Laird was spurred by what she experienced to start her own rescue shelter. She said Lewis told her what was really needed was a shelter that could spay and neuter animals quickly and cheaply.
But Laird admitted, I was pretty fixated on trying to save (the pets) that are here.
After two years of raising money and spending it all – including some of her own – Lairds group was able to save 150 dogs and 250 cats. When put in the perspective of the thousands of animals abandoned each year and euthanized, she realized her efforts were making no real progress.
Lewis said the problem of overpopulation is too great for any shelter to handle.
Were absolutely doing the best we can. We simply dont have enough homes for the volume of unwanted animals, she said.
With the new realization that Lewis was right from the start, Laird started H.O.P.E. for Animals in Fort Wayne, an organization dedicated to providing low-cost and high-volume spay and neuter services for the community.
The task to make a difference was immense. It was estimated the facility would need to spay or neuter 8,000 animals every year on top of what northeast Indiana veterinarians were already doing to put a dent in the number of pets euthanized.
Since starting in June 2010, H.O.P.E. for Animals has completed more than 12,000 procedures, which generally each save 2.5 births from occurring. Her one full-time veterinarian dedicated to surgeries is maxed out, performing 34 spay or neuter surgeries a day on average, topping out at 55.
Laird recently hired another veterinarian who will split time between surgery and animal wellness until the vet can meet the pace necessary to do them all day.
Rodriguez, Lewis and Laird meet monthly to discuss wide-ranging topics on animal health in the community.
Pet overpopulation is not a problem unique to Fort Wayne or even the Midwest.
Heather Bialy, director of shelter services of the Humane Society of the United States, said between 6 million and 8 million pets enter shelters every year in the U.S.
About half of them are euthanized.
The only way to address the problem is on a local level with organizations providing alternatives for alive animals and options to keep unwanted animal pregnancies from happening.
It takes an entire community to reduce the amount of animals being euthanized, she said.
Cost is a factor in keeping some owners from fixing their animals, Bialy said, which is why Laird started her facility.
H.O.P.E. charges $30 for free-roaming cats and up to $65 for female dogs for the surgeries. Those costs can be subsidized for people who cant afford them, she said.
Factors other than cost can also stop people from altering their pets. Some owners simply think their animals will never have an opportunity to procreate, while others think having a litter of puppies or kittens is a magical experience integral to their pets life, Laird said.
The problem with this thinking, she said, is that it puts a higher priority on keeping an owners pet intact over sparing other animals from being euthanized.
Not everybody really cares about the other animals in the world, she said. For every new puppy that is going to be adopted, another animal is going to be euthanized.
Getting the pet population under control wont simply help stop euthanasia from occurring, Laird said. She said there are several reasons to help address the problem even for people who dont care how many cats or dogs are put down each year.
Public safety is one of those reasons. She says the areas of the city that donate the most animals to shelters each year are also the areas with the highest number of reported dog bites. With too many dogs, she said, there is a higher likelihood that not all are being treated well and more prone to aggression.
Unaltered dogs are also more aggressive, she said. And feral cats can spread disease.
People uninterested in the safety of animals or people can at least be swayed by their wallets, Laird said.
Guess whos paying for all that euthanasia? she asked. Tax dollars are being used when it is so much cheaper to spay-neuter.
The citys animal control has a 2012 budget of $2.6 million.
Fort Wayne has adopted laws intended to help curb the pet population and encourage people to spay and neuter their animals. For example, an annual registration for a pet that was spayed or neutered is $5. For an unaltered pet it is $100.
In addition, the city has rules about how many animals a person can own, and only one of them is allowed to be intact.
Rodriguez, with the local SPCA, said allowing a trap-neuter-release program could also help the euthanasia problem.
Current city ordinance prohibits any animal captured by the city from being released without a new owner. A trap-neuter-release program would allow the trapping of homeless cats, fixing them and releasing them back to the streets.
Although some might deem this cruel to the animal, she said it is much better than the cat having multiple litters and those kittens facing death in the wild or capture and euthanasia.
Of course, she admitted the city doesnt have the money for such a program, so even if the law was changed it would require a new group to step up and do the work.
Bialy said there has been a lot of progress made on the issue nationally, noting that in the 1970s there were between 12 million and 20 million dogs and cats euthanized each year.
Lewis, with the city, said she has seen some progress but it is mostly along the coasts, where spay-neuter laws are mandatory.
She said people should support groups like H.O.P.E. even if they arent – as Laird described – the warm fuzzy place making kittens and puppies available for adoption.
We cant adopt our way out of this problem, Lewis said. We have to prevent unwanted animals from becoming unwanted in the first place, attack the problem before the unwanted ones are born.