MANATEE — Every Thursday, staff members from the Humane Society of Manatee County drop by the county pound to select dogs and cats to put up for adoption.
They conduct behavior tests and rudimentary health exams to make sure the animals are safe to offer a family looking for a pet.
That’s the easy part.
The hard part is leaving other animals behind to face an uncertain future, especially considering 61 percent of the dogs or cats that entered Manatee County Animal Services, also known as the pound, in 2008 were euthanized.
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“They go in knowing how many vacancies we have and what we can take,” Humane Society Executive Director Denise Deisler said. “For our staff, that’s the hardest job.
“They’ve got tough decisions to make. But we focus on the positive: If we weren’t there, they wouldn’t be getting out.”
As the animal services department works with area shelters and rescue groups to end the killing of any adoptable pet within five years, a look inside the shelter system reveals the difficulties they face.
The key, shelter leaders say, is to keep hammering home the point that all pets must by spayed and neutered to avoid the overcrowding that leads to euthanasia.
“Right now, in this economy, everybody’s full up,” Honor Sanctuary board president Cindy Morton said. “It’s really sad.”
“It’s very upsetting,” animal services Director Kris Weiskopf said of the county’s pet euthanasia rate, which was 47 percent across all shelters in 2008. “We can’t do it alone. We can’t do it without the community out there helping us.”
According to a Humane Society assessment released last month, 6,727, or 74 percent, of the 9,117 dogs and cats that entered the shelter system in 2008 started at Manatee County Animal Services as a result of an impoundment, a nuisance or abuse complaint, or an unwilling owner. About three-quarters of those animals were either stray, feral or living at large.
Once a cat or dog reaches animal services, it must be held for seven days if it does not have identification, 10 days if it has ID. Following the holding period, the animal services department either places healthy animals into its adoption process, offers them to other shelters or euthanizes them if there is no alternative.
The animal services shelter has room for about 40 dogs and 35 cats at a time. According to the Humane Society assessment figures, animal services accepted an average of more than 500 animals per month in 2008.
Weiskopf said his agency is the victim of an unfair public perception as a death trap because of its legal intake requirements. Animal services euthanized 46 percent of the 3,220 dogs it took in last year and 75 percent of the 2,625 cats.
“We can’t turn anything away,” Weiskopf said. “If we get a call, we go and pick up the animal. We can’t say no.
“The community wants us to keep them all. If they have a solution, I’m all for it. But it’s not feasible.”
The county’s other shelters can be more discerning, choosing from animal services only the cats or dogs they deem adoptable based on health, temperament and the capacity of the shelter.
The Humane Society has room for between 20 and 25 dogs and 35 to 55 cats at its 14th Street West facility. Between 60 to 75 animals are adopted from the Humane Society every month, Deisler said.
It checks each dog for heartworms and each cat for leukemia and feline AIDS before agreeing to accept an animal from animal services.
But the Humane Society and the other shelters — Bishop SPCA and Honor Sanctuary — also receive pets directly from owners who are unable or unwilling to keep them.
The Humane Society has a program called Pet Safety Net that offers help to pet owners facing financial problems or behavioral challenges.
“We work very hard with owners to determine the real issue they’re dealing with,” Deisler said. “Our main goal is prevention. If we want animals to quit dying in shelters, we need animals to quit going to shelters.”
Bishop SPCA can house about 70 dogs and 120 cats at its 21st Avenue West location. It also receives dogs and cats from the animal services department upon request. The Humane Society and Bishop say they will not euthanize an adoptable dog or cat. They only euthanize for temperament and medical problems, they said.
Bishop kennel manager Gail Judah said a cat named Spot the Cow has lived at her shelter for about two years and will be welcome there as long as it lives.
Judah said she has seen an increase in owners who give up their pets because of lifestyle changes. “Right now, it’s a lot of moving,” she said. “It could be their foreclosure or their landlord’s foreclosure. This past year, it’s gotten a lot worse.”
Honor Sanctuary, a foster program in which pets stay in volunteers’ homes until they are adopted, is close to offering yet another resource for shelter animals with its Lakewood Ranch dog sanctuary, slated to open next week. Dogs will be taken to Honor Sanctuary’s adoption facility, Nate’s Place on Cooper Creek Boulevard, each day, then returned to the dog sanctuary at night.
Honor Sanctuary took possession of the land Sunday and already has taken in five dogs that faced euthanasia at another county’s animal services department.
Morton said the dog sanctuary is in need of more volunteers, dog crates, collars and leashes, dog food and an oversized washer and dryer.