The idea that an animal shelter should not kill its canine and feline guests to avoid crowding is gathering momentum in Hillsborough County and could become policy.
Today, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan will take the first step toward what some animal welfare activists call a "no-kill" policy. If Hagan can get the necessary board support, county administrators will study how to dramatically reduce what animal advocates say is an unacceptable euthanasia rate at the animal shelter on Falkenburg Road.
Despite efforts by the county's Animal Services Department, about 65 percent of the 21,000 animals that enter the animal shelter each year don't come out alive. Animal Services has cut the number of dogs and cats euthanized at the shelter by 52 percent since 2005, but animal advocates say it's not enough.
"There are still 14,500 being euthanized," Hagan said. "I think we can do better."
County Administrator Mike Merrill and his deputies have made euthanasia reduction part of a leadership transition plan at Animal Services. However, news of the policy shift was greeted with skepticism from many animal advocates, including veterinarians who fear it will result in more stray animals.
"Even if you build more space, at the rate we're going there is no way you can build enough space to house all the animals," said veterinarian Bob Encinosa, owner of Boyette Animal Hospital.
And with the county facing yet another budget shortfall, Hagan's fellow commissioners might be wary of any plan that will involve increased spending.
"As an owner of cats and dogs, I have that concern in my heart for animals," Commissioner Al Higginbotham said. "But I'm concerned in these budget times if we can afford it if we increase the population."
The no-kill movement began in Berkley, Calif., in 2001, and is gaining acceptance in communities across the nation. Last year, Manatee County became the first Tampa Bay area county to adopt the policy.
The core philosophy of no-kill is that healthy, adoptable animals should never be killed because a shelter runs out of space. Groups such as the Humane Society and Save90 say a 90 percent live-release rate is a reachable goal, though they insist they are not stuck on a hard number. They point to other cities and counties that have achieved 90 percent survival rates just a year or so after adopting a no-kill policy.
"There is no reason for (the survival rate) to be that low," said Linda Hamilton, who founded the local group Save90 with her husband, Frank, and introduced Hagan to the group's philosophy. "There is a lot that can be done; it has been done."
Austin, Texas, reached the 90 percent save rate in February 2011, one year after the city council adopted the policy. Since then, the city has never dipped below that point, said Austin spokeswoman Patricia Fraga.
Adopting no-kill was not an easy decision for the city in central Texas, Fraga said. Consensus came only after years of discussions between the animal welfare community and city officials. The new policy coincided with construction of a new animal shelter. The city turned the old shelter over to Austin Pets Alive, a rescue group that helped with adoptions.
Like other cities that successfully have implemented no-kill, Austin amped up a public awareness campaign to increase adoptions and persuade more residents to foster animals until they could be adopted. The city council helped out by adding $600,000 to the Animal Services Department's $1 million budget.
Other steps the city took:
Connie Johnson, who is part of Merrill's transition team at Animal Services, said Hillsborough can increase the number of adoptions through a marketing program and behavioral work with dogs in the shelter.
"I'm telling you, we have some of the most fantastic animals," Johnson said. "We have to get people to understand that most animals come in there because of misfortune. They're not bad by any means."
But adoptions alone are not enough to significantly reduce the number of animals killed at the shelter. Johnson said one reason Animal Services was able to reduce the shelter's kill rate by more than half was through an aggressive trap, spay-neuter and release program for feral cats. Fewer impounded cats at the shelter mean fewer being killed.
The Hamiltons agree, saying the county needs to combine an aggressive outreach program for low-income pet owners with low- or no-cost spay and neuter options. Two nonprofit groups, the Animal Coalition of Tampa and the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, showed what is possible last year when veterinarians performed 23,000 surgeries.
"Both of them have a number of full-time vets," Frank Hamilton said. "Also, both reach out to low-income residents where the majority of intact animals are."
But skeptics doubt the county's ability to absorb tens of thousands of stray or unwanted dogs and cats each year without expanding the shelter or turning away animals. They worry that jumping feet first into a no-kill policy could jeopardize one of Animal Service's primary missions: protecting the public from diseases such as rabies.
"We don't worry about rabies because the county does a good job of keeping down the stray animal population," said Encinosa, the veterinarian.
Anne Castens, administrator of the nonprofit Animal Protection League, said the no-kill advocates are focusing so much on euthanasia, they're not thinking of the welfare of animals that are adopted.
As a former member of the county's Animal Advisory Committee, Castens helped develop an ordinance that allowed animal rescue groups to adopt dogs and cats from the shelter. But the county later dropped a requirement in the law requiring that the rescue groups be permitted and inspected, she said.
"There are ways to humanely reduce euthanasia," Castens said, "but it is not by getting them out the door with very little accountability for the life of that animal."