Many dogs and cats live the good life in the United States. But the prospects aren’t as good for the estimated 6.5 million animals that enter shelters each year. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that about 1.5 million pets pets that enter shelters annually are euthanized. Fortunately, the tide is changing.
One community that has made a dent in euthanasia rates in the last few years is Austin, which dropped from 45 percent in 2008 to 5 percent in 2012.
“It’s far cheaper to kill animals,” said Dr. Ellen Jefferson, executive director of Austin Pets Alive, a nonprofit rescue organization focused on eliminating the need to kill animals by providing resources and boosting awareness. “The real motivation [for reducing the euthanasia rate] needs to come from just trying to make the city better.”
Take a walk along the scenic trail near Lady Bird Lake in Austin and you may notice dogs decked out in “Adopt Me” vests as they accompany volunteers from the RuffTail Runners Meetup group. At the nearby Austin Pets Alive facility, volunteers nurse kittens as part of the bottle-baby program, and trainers assess dogs in playgroup sessions, devising plans to address behavior issues. Once a dog is adopted, follow-up training helps reinforce good habits. (Here are two Austin .)
Since 2008, Austin Pets Alive has helped more than 22,000 pets initially deemed unadoptable. The organization has expanded its education and outreach efforts beyond the city limits. Each year Austin Pets Alive hosts a conference designed to help pet lovers create action plans for their own cities.
Want to know how to help shelter pets in your community? Here are six things you can do today.
1. Learn more about shelter pets in your community
More than 5,000 shelters exist across the country, according to the ASPCA. Yet there is no national oversight for these facilities. In 2004, animal welfare organizations such as Maddie’s Fund joined forces to establish shelter guidelines and reporting practices as part of the Asimolar Accords, named after the retreat where the organizations met. The website reports statistics from participating shelters and provides resources to track information at facilities in your community.
“Go to your shelter and see what their policies are for adoption; make sure there are no barriers to fostering and adopting,” said Austin resident Meghan Turner, co-founder of a rescue organization called Love-a-Bull, which focuses on helping American staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers and pit bull mixes — dogs that typically have a difficult time finding forever homes. “Try to increase focus on animals that have long stays at the shelter. [Focus on] animals that get overlooked because they are not as cute and fluffy, and dogs that are older and have health issues.”
2. Embrace programs that have worked in other cities
In 2007, shelters in Reno, Nev., streamlined the adoption process, created weekend hours, conducted off-site adoption fairs and created a help desk to field calls from owners who needed training tips, pet food, spay/neuter services or moral support. Within the first week, the Nevada Humane Society help desk handled 300 requests and now manages a steady stream of emails. Reno also became more aggressive about marketing adoptable pets to provide added exposure. Within the first year of implementing these changes, shelter officials reported a 52 percent decrease in euthanized pets. Those results intrigued Austin attorney Ryan Clinton, who had created an organization called FixAustin.org in 2005 with the goal of saving 90 percent of all impounded animals, implementing programs that had been successful in other cities and securing new leadership at the local shelter.
“If Reno, Nevada, can do it, we knew that we could do it,” said Clinton. “That was another point of inspiration for us.”
3. Enlist other pet lovers to help
The year Clinton founded FixAustin.org, more than 14,000 cats and dogs were euthanized in the city. There was no network of foster homes and no off-site adoptions to help adoptable pets find homes. Those slim odds spurred Clinton and others to be advocates for pets. FixAustin.org bought ads in the local newspaper and produced information guides that highlighted elected officials’ stance on animal welfare. Volunteers also attended city council meetings and ignited a huge network of animal lovers to take action.
“It takes people far beyond those in animal welfare,” he said. “Make them care about the issue and help them understand why they would want the community to be no-kill.”
Eventually, Fix Austin’s grassroots efforts gained support from city council members, who passed a resolution to reduce the number of healthy and adoptable pets euthanized each year. That resolution served as a catalyst for various Austin animal advocates to join forces.
4. Promote the value of a pet-friendly community
As Austin residents embraced the idea of a pet-friendly city, politicians and local businesses soon followed. RuffTail volunteers are eligible for discounts at certain stores, and the Austin Subaru franchise hosts a number of events benefiting Austin Pets Alive.
“It takes a lot of people to just keep being committed to the cause, because there’s plenty of people out there looking for companion animals,” said Timothy Shook, director of marketing and Internet sales at Austin Subaru. “I came to Austin as a college student in 2001, and I didn’t learn about our city’s problem until 2010, so I think it’s just an awareness issue. I think a lot of times it starts with the kids. If you can do events that get kids involved — and get them to get their parents involved — a lot of times it can be a good thing.”
5. Work the web for pets
Love-a-Bull began as a 2003 Meetup group to connect with Austin pit bull lovers. The organization still hosts regular Meetup events, such as monthly fun walks, obedience classes and therapy dog training sessions. Volunteers also rely on a Texas-sized social media presence — with more than 545,000 Facebook fans and steady stream of Twitter updates — to spread the word about adoptable pets, fund-raising events and rescue success stories. Turner recommends that pet lovers help shelters extend their promotion efforts through social media. Make sure your social network knows about pets available at the local shelter.
“It’s really not something one entity can do alone,” said Turner, who has a rescued pit bull named May. “From a financial standpoint, getting [animals] in and out of the shelter is good for the city.”
Every adopted dog or cat helps lower the city’s euthanasia rate. Consider serving as a foster home for pets, stuffing envelopes at a local shelter, or simply following an organization on Facebook and sharing information on a regular basis. Maddie’s Fund offers an “8-Step Program for Saving Lives” that’s filled with tips such as supporting veterinarians who offer low-cost spay/neuter services. The No Kill Advocacy Center also provides webinars highlighting successful programs.
“You don’t need a five-year plan,” Clinton said. “Start now and get there as fast as you can.”
Editor's note: This file has been updated since it was originally published in March 2013.