If we love our dogs and cats, we can do better showing it

From the Las Vegas Sun

Monday, Nov. 9, 2015

Visitors from another planet would be confused by our contrary attitudes about animals.

We cringe and wince in movie theaters when animals appear to be hurt or killed and breathe a sigh of relief at the advisory that says no animals were injured in the making of the film. We sit in front of our computers, smiling at videos of adorable and mischievous puppies and kittens. And we are warmed by the sight of service dogs guiding the blind and therapy dogs comforting the lonely and hurting.

But confusion enters the picture when we allow animals to run freely outside without licenses and vaccinations, when backyard breeders produce more puppies than can be sold, when rabbits are bought at Easter time and then let go when the novelty wears off, and when pets are abandoned by owners who move.

There were so many unwanted dogs and cats in Clark County 10 years ago that the region’s largest animal shelter — the Lied Animal Shelter, under contract with the county, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas — was taking in 150 animals a day, or more than 51,000 a year. It was the largest single-site animal shelter in the country by volume of animals.

The shelter thought it was doing the right thing by keeping as many animals as it could, but the strategy backfired. In the crowded kennels, viruses quickly spread. Operators had no other option but to euthanize more than 1,000 sickly animals — more than half the shelter population. The community howled in protest, and a team of experts from the U.S. Humane Society, who were invited by shelter officials to make an assessment, issued a 270-page report, alternately critical and empathetic, on the bad shelter conditions.

In the years since, the shelter’s operator, the Animal Foundation, has tried different tactics to reduce the number of animals coming in and to increase the number of animals adopted out. The effort was buoyed by recommendations from experts in the animal shelter medicine program at the University of California at Davis and the organization Humane Network.

This year, the foundation’s board of directors made an oath to become a no-kill shelter within five years, meaning it hopes to save all healthy and treatable animals who enter its care. Based on animal shelter data nationwide, that means about 90 percent of all the animals brought into the Lied Shelter would leave alive to new homes.

The Animal Foundation’s efforts have paid off. The number of animals being brought into the shelter has dropped 25 percent, in part because fewer animals are being abandoned by their owners than during the height of the foreclosure crisis and because feral “community cats” that have adapted to suburban habitats are being brought to the shelter, vaccinated, spayed or neutered and returned to their neighborhoods, no longer producing litters.

There also has been a 26 percent increase in adoptions, thanks to various promotions, including deeply discounted adoption fees. The health and stress levels of felines were improved, too, by creating double-wide cat kennels with food placed on one side and a litter box on the other.

Bottom line: Euthanasia of dogs, cats and other animals has dropped 52 percent over the past five years and continues to trend downward. Compared with September 2014, the number of animals adopted this September increased from 64 percent to 69 percent and the euthanasia rate dropped from 35 percent to 30 percent.

Kudos to the Animal Foundation for seeking advice from other organizations and for its renewed commitment to aggressively find more homes for animals. But this is a partnership, and the entire community has a role in achieving this goal. The more responsible we are as pet owners, the less hypocritical we’ll appear to visitors from another planet — and to ourselves when we look in the mirror.