As a growing number of animal shelters nationwide embrace a "no kill" philosophy, municipalities are looking to see how that movement toward limiting euthanasia can co-exist with their need to control stray and aggressive animals.
Advocates say it can be done — and has been done in at least 30 communities — but it takes money and cooperation.
"In the last four or five years, the movement has really taken off," says Nathan Winograd, director of the No Kill Advocacy Center in Oakland.
But the trend can present a tough choice for municipal officials facing higher costs in a time of tight budgets.
The Lynchburg, Va., Humane Society adopted a no-kill policy in 2010 and is asking the city to more than triple its animal-control subsidy to $396,000 by 2015. City Councilman Hunsdon Cary says the policy change is admirable, but the city isn't obligated to pay for it, especially in light of an $8 million budget deficit this year.
"I value pets, but golly-day, the people who respond to fires and the police who are on the street every day, they're important, too," Cary says.
Allegany County, Md., became a no-kill community a year ago without increasing government spending by relying heavily on volunteers and donations, says County Commissioner Bill Valentine. A new shelter will be funded entirely by donations, he says.
Austin no longer euthanizes healthy and treatable animals to make room in its shelters and reached "no-kill" status a year ago, defined by advocates as euthanizing fewer than 10% of the animals that come into shelters and only those with untreatable illnesses, injuries or behavior problems.
"It was definitely, absolutely, unequivocally a community effort," says Abigail Smith, chief animal services officer for Austin.
To do it, Austin has increased its animal-control budget by about $2 million over three years to add officers, veterinarians, medical care and a larger shelter, Smith says. It also works with more than 90 rescue organizations, which received about $1 million in grants from national animal-advocacy groups for spay/neuter programs, shelter care, behavior training, advice for new pet owners and other services.
Austin officials considered the money "a bargain" because the effort relies on community support, says Councilwoman Laura Morrison. The city hopes to see long-term financial savings through low-cost sterilization services, more pet adoptions and fewer animals coming through the city shelter, she says.
The Humane Society of Greater Kansas City in Kansas spends about $17,000 a month to care for and find homes for animals from the city's shelter, an effort that has helped cut the city's euthanasia rate from 71% in 2007 to less than 1% now, says Charles Vreeland, the society's president.
In Wilmington, Del., city officials are looking for a new animal-control contractor to replace the Delaware SPCA, which did the job for 120 years but recently said the work was incompatible with its core mission of protecting animals.
The Delaware SPCA became a no-kill shelter a few years ago and said it could not afford to care for the animals — especially hard-to-place pit bulls — that it took in from the city.
The group says it spent about $350,000 on animal control but got only $250,000 from the city.
Wilmington officials are now seeking another group interested in running the program, but increasing the cost of the contract would be difficult because of a tight city budget, says John Rago, the city's director of communications and policy development.
"Beyond that, a municipal animal-control program is certainly an option," Rago says. "If the city were to be forced into the animal-shelter business, our goal would be 'no kill' also."
Many animal-welfare groups also are dropping their municipal contracts and the stigma that can come with them, says Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.
About 4 million shelter animals are euthanized nationwide annually, a rate of about 50%, Winograd says. Most of them are healthy or treatable and could find homes with more promotion of adoption and support for pet owners, he says.
Pacelle says he expects the national euthanasia rate to be cut in half within the next five years because of the growing "no kill" movement among animal advocates.
"It's a much more invigorated community than you saw three or four decades ago," Pacelle says.