The Rutherford County animal shelter in North Carolina is reeling from the backlash from outraged animal lovers after a photo of its after-hours drop box was posted to Facebook.

Commenters accused the shelter of dropping dogs and cats through holes and dumping them on top of each other.

The shelter was quick to explain that the drop box is really a "drop building" with three kennels that have self-locking doors to prevent more than one animal from being left inside. The only way that more than one animal could wind up in the kennel is if a person surrenders multiple animals or someone else shows up at the same time.

The Rutherford shelter says that without the after-hours drop box, people would abandon their pets outside, chain them to gates or toss them over the barbed-wire fence.

But are drop boxes really better for animals?

Dr. Emily Weiss, an Association of Shelter Veterinarians member, doesn’t think so.

"Small shelters often have small budgets and they can’t provide staff overnight so this was seen as an option to help animals found at night, but drop boxes generally aren’t the best solution," she said.

The downside to drop boxes

There are no regulations or enforceable standards for drop boxes, so they operate differently depending on the shelter. Most are only open at night when the shelter is closed, but some accept animals throughout the day.

Some kennels lock so that multiple animals can’t be placed in the same cage, but others allow cats and dogs to be left in cages together.

Until 2010, the Humane Society of Elkhart County in Indiana had nine after-hours drop boxes, which supplied almost half the animals that the shelter took in.

Shelter workers said the boxes often contained animals in need of urgent medical care. Abused animals were common, as were family pets that were left to avoid paying the $20 intake fee.

Multiple species were left in the same box, resulting in fights, and the drop boxes became a breeding ground for disease like canine parvovirus and feline leukemia.

Around the same time, the Palm Beach County animal shelter reported that its night-drop off had become a target for "pet-nappers" looking for kittens and puppies to use as bait in dogfights.

"These boxes aren’t humane in many cases, and it’s a tremendous safety issue," Weiss said. "They're telling the public, 'You don't have to take care of your animals.'"

She says even drop boxes with safeguards like locking kennels and security cameras have drawbacks. While most have forms for people relinquishing animals, the paperwork is rarely filled out.

"When animals placed in overnight drops are processed into the shelter, they come with little or no information, increasing the time and resources needed to process the animals effectively," Weiss wrote in a blog post.

What are the alternatives?

While drop boxes can seem cruel, shelters that utilize them are doing so for the animals' well-being.

"The horror stories of what happened when the boxes were closed was worse," PAWS of Rutherford County posted on its Facebook page in reference to the local drop boxes.

Workers at the Elkhart shelter were concerned about what would happen if it closed its after-hours boxes. But in 2010, shelter Executive Director Anne Reel decided to do so, citing incidents that included a suffocated kitten and an abandoned group of starved cats and dogs.

"It's like a magnet that attracts people to do what is not right," she told The Elkhart Truth. “It’s inhumane."

As of August 2013, the shelter says it rarely euthanizes animals because of lack of space, which it partially attributes to closing the boxes.

The Association of Shelter Veterinarians suggests alternatives to drop boxes that include drop-off arrangements with a police department or an emergency veterinary clinic. Weiss says that even offering a 24-hour phone line or low-cost veterinary care can also help keep more pets in homes.

The Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is currently working with a shelter that has eliminated after-hours drop boxes. Instead, a staff person is on site to take the animal and conduct a survey.

"People are often trying to do the right thing, but the idea is misplaced," said Alison Jimenez, the ASPCA’s director of media communications. "We want to know what motivated someone to take an animal to the drop box and what they would've done if there weren’t a drop box."

The organization hopes that conducting research will provide the data it needs to change perspectives on drop boxes.

Weiss says eliminating drop boxes will require people to change the way they think about animals.

"A philosophical shift needs to happens if we’re going to keep more animals alive. They need to be seen as community animals if we're going to work toward together to find a solution to help them."

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