Paper: Charlotte Observer, The (NC)
Title: THEIR ODDS: SLIM TO NONE - ONCE AN ANIMAL LANDS IN A SHELTER,
GAS IS NEAR-CERTAIN IN SOME COUNTIES
Author: SHARON E. WHITE, Staff Writer
Date: June 29, 2003
If the dogs, cats, puppies and kittens in local government animal shelters are not cute, cuddly, well-behaved, healthy - and especially not vaccinated for rabies - their days are likely numbered.
But they have a slightly better chance of survival if they're picked up in Lincoln County than in Gaston or Cleveland counties. Nine out of 10 dogs and cats impounded at the Gaston Animal Control shelter last year -
7,591 - were destroyed . Only 108, or 1 percent, were adopted; most of the rest were reclaimed by owners.
Most animals are held three working days, the minimum required by the state. The county requires animals that don't have proof of rabies vaccination be destroyed, even if they're kittens or puppies.
Cleveland County, like Gaston, also euthanizes any animal without proof of recent rabies vaccination. The shelter euthanized 6,608 of 7,254 dogs and cats last year, and found new homes for fewer than 1 percent.
Animals are held for five days before being destroyed.
Lincoln County has a higher adoption rate: 18 percent, or 494 animals, in 2002. Nearly eight out of 10 dogs and cats were destroyed, a total of 2,115. Most animals are held five working days, but the shelter will
keep animals much longer if workers think someone will eventually adopt them.
Lincoln and Cleveland shelters also have formal relationships with private animal rescue groups that help find homes for dogs and cats - something Gaston's shelter doesn't.
In Gaston, it falls to Sue King, supervisor in charge of euthanizing at the animal shelter, and her small staff to handle the unpleasant duties of killing the animals.
Tough doesn't begin to describe the job.
"I'm emotionally drained," said King, who blocks out the job she's done for five years when she leaves the brown and tan brick and cinder-block building each day. "I don't talk about my job outside of here. My
parents don't know what I do. It's hard to socialize, and I feel isolated, frustrated and sometimes flat-out emotionally empty."
Except on holidays, animals are destroyed five days a week, 52 weeks a year.
King, a certified veterinarian technician, uses carbon monoxide gas and lethal injection to put down the animals. All but the youngest and sickest are gassed, a controversial practice that's nonetheless common in
the region. Sick animals often have respiratory problems, she said, and the gas doesn't work well on them.
She and her staff use a "catch pole" - a long-handle pole with a plastic-coated cable at the end - to remove animals from their cages. The cats, many of which lived in the wild, put up the fiercest fight. Their claws cling to the wire cages. The dogs bark and wail, almost as though they know what awaits them.
Once captured, the animals are placed in metal mesh baskets. A worker closes lids on the baskets, then wheels them into the stainless steel gas chamber. The cats and dogs are separated, but there are several of
each in a single cage, depending on their size.
While area shelters say they're following established national guidelines when placing several animals in a cage, it's a practice considered less than humane by some top animal-welfare and veterinary groups. They
point out that in the tight quarters, animals placed together in a single cage are likely to fight and be further stressed as they are headed to their deaths. The gas chamber cycle lasts about 20 minutes.
When the green light goes on, it takes about 30 seconds for the carbon monoxide to seep into the chamber, rendering the animals unconscious, King said. Death occurs within two to four minutes, King said. For
about a minute, the animals can be heard wailing and barking, bumping about inside the chamber. Then silence.
The dead animals are removed from the chamber and prepared to be sent to the county landfill. The workers head back to capture the next load. It's not unusual to kill more than 30 a day.
The details vary a bit shelter to shelter, but the process is nearly the same. Like Gaston, the Cleveland process takes about 20 minutes, in Lincoln about 45. The times vary by machine manufacturer, said Lincoln
Jurisdiction strictly local
There are no federal guidelines for animal control laws, so state and local governments come up with their own.
Animal rights activists and others say they know not all animals can be saved, but argue more could be adopted if the shelters would loosen their policies regarding recent rabies vaccines.
In Gaston and Cleveland counties, animals can't be adopted out unless there's proof they've been protected against rabies for at least a year. The tough rules are in response to rabies outbreaks in the late
1990s. That means strays can't be adopted.
Gaston County started requiring proof of rabies vaccinations in 1999, after 32 rabies cases were recorded, up from five in 1998. Among the rabid animals was a kitten, although most were wild animals. Cleveland
added the adoption vaccination rule in 1998.
The impact was immediate. Adoptions at the Gaston shelter fell from 520 in 1998 to 294 after the rule changed in 1999. The numbers continued to fall, to 200 in 2000, 148 in 2001 and 108 last year.
Officials in both counties think they have ample reasons for their no rabies vaccination-no adoption policy: protecting public health, and county liability if a former shelter animal comes down with rabies.
Reggie Horton, Gaston County animal control administrator, cited research that rabies can incubate for a year before an animal shows symptoms, although authorities say that's unusual.
"We took a strict look at the risk we were putting the county at with pet adoptions," Horton said. "What we are talking about is human and pet lives. With the dual responsibility of public safety and the care of
animals, you have to balance out those obligations."
The number of rabies cases has dropped significantly over the past two years - four last year and one so far this year in Gaston. But those numbers are deceiving because the state is testing fewer animals, he
Starting in June 2001, the state stopped testing wild animals for rabies if they bit or scratched vaccinated animals. That caused the reported cases to plummet, from 49 cases in 2000 to four in 2002, the first full
year of the new standards.
"We're seeing an artificially reduced number of rabies cases," Horton said. "In reality, rabies is here and here to stay."
In Cleveland, Chief Deputy Sam Lockridge III, coordinator of health services and administrator for the animal control department, said the county might consider changing its policy of no adoptions without valid
rabies shots. But first the county has to have zero rabies cases for six months, he said. It's had nine cases already this year.
Horton said Gaston is considering loosening its policy to require owners show their pets have been protected against rabies for at least six months. The impact would be minimal, though, based on a study by animal
control: Only 40 or 50 more animals could have been put up for adoption in the past three years under the looser rule, he said.
On the other hand, most of the animals put up for adoption are eventually placed, he said.
"In theory, we would like to save all the animals," said Horton. "But what percentage of risk are you willing to subject your community to?"
Lincoln less concerned
Lincoln County officials say they are less concerned about the rabies risk, given the relatively low numbers of dogs and cats that contract the disease.
Animals deemed adoptable are allowed to remain at the Lincoln shelter until they are adopted. Healthy, sociable animals are spayed or neutered when they come in so they're ready to be adopted. Some have stayed as long as two years before getting a new owner.
"Once we've spent the money to get these animals spayed and neutered,
it's going to stay there until it's adopted," said Deputy Chief Bill
Beam with the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the county's
A few days ago, 16 dogs sat on adoption row in Lincoln, compared with
three in the much-larger Gaston shelter. And animals up for adoption at
the Lincoln shelter are given names. There's Tara, a Jack Russell
terrier; Benji, a chow-collie mix; Lori, a basset hound.
The Lincoln shelter also has formal relationships with several animal rescue groups. Shelter personnel call groups to let them know about litters of puppies or kittens, or that a purebred dog has just come in.
Rescue groups pay a $5 administration fee to get the animals and agree to spay or neuter the animals and have them vaccinated.
Rescue groups spared 54 animals from death last year, according to the shelter. But the shelter still destroys a large number of animals.
"Most people don't realize how many," Beam said.
Lincoln spends $4.67 per person on animal control, compared with $4.13 in Gaston and $3.02 in Cleveland.
Rescue groups offer help
Animal rescue groups say they're ready to help place animals if the Gaston and Cleveland shelters loosen their strict rabies vaccination
"We refer now to the (Gaston) shelter as much as we can," said Ann Isenhour, president of the Animal League of Gaston County, which helps place animals in foster homes. "Whether they change their policy or not,
we're going to continue to refer people. It would make more dogs and cats available and give people a wider option."
Like the Lincoln shelter, the Cleveland shelter works with animal rescue organizations. Cleveland requires that the groups sign a waiver releasing the county from any responsibility for the animals, Lockridge said.
"If we have a certain breed of animal and a rescue group approaches us, we release the animal to them and they sign a waiver," Lockridge said. But he said Cleveland doesn't require the groups to pledge to spay and
new the animals, as Lincoln does.
While the groups can adopt animals in Gaston, shelter officials don't just release them to the groups. The groups must adopt them and pay the fees of up to $60. Nor, for example, does the Gaston shelter call the
Great Dane rescue group the way the Lincoln shelter does to let it know when one of the dogs is in custody.
"I always try to catch (animals) before people turn them in" to the shelter, said Teresa Lane, director of Loving Pet Adoption and Rescue in Bowling Green, S.C. Lane said she works with animals from several
counties, including Gaston, Lincoln and Cleveland.
"I have animals tested for feline leukemia and (feline) AIDS. I treat them for fleas and ticks and quarantine my animals for 10 days to make sure they have no illnesses before I adopt them out," she said. Her $80
dog adoption fee is comparable to the fees charged the shelters: Cleveland shelter is $83, Gaston $75 and Lincoln $60.
Isenhour of the Animal League of Gaston County said her group also tries to find homes for animals whose owners can no longer care for them.
The rescue groups agree with Horton, though, that the best solution boils down to responsible pet ownership, including spaying, neutering and vaccinating pets.
"I don't want to see any healthy animal, young or old, put to sleep, but people have to be more responsible," said Janet Northrop, co-owner of 4 Paws Animal Rescue in Denver. "I don't blame the county for the
overpopulation. They face the cleanup."
A Gaston County study last year looked at the pet population problem. "This is not a problem about deliberate breeding," said Robert Neunzig, a Bessemer City veterinarian who co-chaired the Animal Welfare Committee that conducted the study. "It is accidental breeding by people not paying attention to their pets, dogs specifically. And it's the wild cat population - feral cats that have been turned out. That's really where
the problem is."
What might also save more pets, said King, is for owners to get their animals licensed. Most of the animals that come to the shelter don't have tags.
"It's just like vehicle plates: There's only one in all 50 states and it's trackable," she said. "If (animals) don't have an I.D. tag, we can't get them home. If in a given day, if I had five animals with an I.D. tag, we would be doing real well."
Sharon E. White: (704) 868-7746; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are the journalists who worked on the Gaston part of this series:
Lead reporter: Sharon E. White
Reporters: Dave Baity, Bernie Petit
Project editor: Lisa Munn
Gaston editor: Julie Bird
Copy editor: Meinhart Lagies
Designer: Becky Moser
Photographer: Robert Lahser
Editors: Cynthia Montgomery, regional; Andria Krewson, design; Judy
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P.O. Box 32188
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STAFF PHOTOS BY ROBERT LAHSER. 1. If it's a stray, it's doomed.
Gaston County Animal Shelter kills all animals without proof of up-to-date
rabies vaccinations. This kitten was one of 10 brought in on one day
this month. It was destroyed. So were the three animals pictured at the
bottom of this page. 2. A collie mix, picked up in December, is still
available for adoption, thanks Lincoln's more-lenient regulations.; 3.
This female gray tabby cat waits at the Lincoln shelter for someone to
take a fancy to her.; 4. This carbon monoxide gas chamber is used at
the Gaston County Animal Shelter. In Gaston County, 90 percent of the
dogs and cats taken to the shelter are destroyed, most of them in this
chamber. Some are given lethal injections. 6. Who can resist the big,
trusting eyes of a basset hound? Take a look at her at the Lincoln
County Animal Shelter.; 7. Shelter attendant James "Hap" Heavner walks
dogs available for adoption as often as he can during the day. The sh!
elter euthanizes a smaller percentage of the animals brought in -
slightly fewer than 80 percent.; 8. Resisting: A dog is dragged into the
shelter. Its owner took it to the Gaston County Animal shelter, saying
he could no longer care for it. Because he had no current rabies
vaccination, it was destroyed three days later.
The following correction ran on July 2, 2003: An article in Sunday's
Gaston section incorrectly reported how much money Cleveland County
spends per resident on animal control. The county spends $3.16 per
Author: SHARON E. WHITE, Staff Writer