High Society

It's flush with money and has a grand new building, but the Humane Society of Missouri is doing little to prevent the growing euthanasia rate for unwanted animals

Throop concedes that the issue of pet overpopulation needs attention.

"We need to dig into it," he says. "I think we were embroiled in making the move across the street and this new facility. It took us a year to absorb and get used to it.

"Why is such a large organization just now deciding to get into it? Because I just now decided we ought to get into it. I don't mean to sound dictatorial about it, but I think we were just chugging along having a good time doing what we think we need to do."

Katherine McGowan, PR manager for 
the Humane Society of Missouri: "We 
like to think we're doing everything we 
can to make this a better world for 
animals. It doesn't happen overnight, 
and we can't do it alone."
Jay Fram
Katherine McGowan, PR manager for the Humane Society of Missouri: "We like to think we're doing everything we can to make this a better world for animals. It doesn't happen overnight, and we can't do it alone."
The St. Louis city pound's Rich Stevson says, "Basically we have outlived the building." But when the city asked to buy the Humane Society's old building, the proposal was rejected — in favor of a pet-memorial park.
Jay Fram
The St. Louis city pound's Rich Stevson says, "Basically we have outlived the building." But when the city asked to buy the Humane Society's old building, the proposal was rejected — in favor of a pet-memorial park.

The Humane Society's McGowan blames the pet-overpopulation problem on irresponsible pet owners, impulse buyers who don't understand what caring for a dog or cat entails and those who failed to get adequate training for their pets, leaving them frustrated and more likely to relinquish the animals at shelters.

"The most important reason is that people don't realize the tremendous responsibility they have when caring for an animal," she says. "We like to think we're doing everything we can to make this a better world for animals. It doesn't happen overnight, and we can't do it alone."

Ask someone familiar with animal-welfare organizations nationwide about dramatically reducing the pet-overpopulation problem and they're likely to point to San Francisco. That city's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) has reduced euthanasia to such levels that it is now a no-kill shelter. Nathan Winograd, director of the SPCA's community programs, says no adoptable cat or dog has been euthanized in six years -- and a "10-year-old dog with three legs is still an adoptable dog" -- and the number of deaths in treatable dogs and cats with medical problems has dropped 69 percent.

"We expect that within the next five years, no dogs or cats in San Francisco will die unless they are nonrehabilitatable, meaning there is no way to cure them," says Winograd.

He says San Francisco, which had one of the highest euthanasia rates in the nation two decades ago, reached the low levels with a variety of innovative programs: low-cost, high-volume spaying and neutering; an aggressive adoption program open seven days a week; a mobile outreach van that takes adoptable cats to all areas of the city; and an extensive dog-training and vet clinic with sliding-scale fees -- allowing the poorest pet owner to pay for services with things like blankets or tennis balls. It encourages landlords to allow pets in rental property by guaranteeing it will pay up to $5,000 to repair any damage caused by one of its adopted pets. It has a pact with the city's animal control to take any healthy dog or cat and guarantee its placement. Animals at its shelter are housed in "living room" settings.

Two key components to its "recipe," Winograd says, are the low-cost spaying and neutering and early spay/neuter for kittens and puppies at eight weeks of age. His agency has been doing early spay/neuter since 1979. "Our dogs and cats come out of here altered," he says. "You cannot be a shelter and not spay or neuter your animals and then complain the public is not spaying and neutering its animals. You lead by example. If they are too young to be altered, we keep them in a foster home until they are old enough."

The San Francisco SPCA actually pays people $5 for every cat they bring in for spay/neuter. It also pays $5 for every rottweiler or pit bull brought in for spay/neuter. It offers free spay and neuter for the pets of the homeless and the elderly. Spaying and neutering a dog for others costs $30.

"What we found is if you reduce the cost of a spay or neuter, if you cut it in half, you will double the number of people who spay or neuter their pets," says Winograd. The SPCA averaged 9,022 surgeries last year; 84 percent of them were free.

As a result, San Francisco has the lowest euthanasia rate of any major city in the nation. Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, a publication for animal-welfare organizations, compiles euthanasia statistics for cities across the country. San Francisco's rate is 3.4 pets per 1,000 population; the national average is 18.1, according to 1997 data, the most recent available. Denver is relatively low at 9.4, as are Seattle at 7.8 and San Diego at 8.0; Rutherford County, Tenn. is the worst at 84.8 per 1,000 population.

Clifton says there are reasons some cities are faring much better than others. "Places that have low-cost spay/neuter and have had it for a long time are uniformly doing better than other cities in their geographic area," he says.

St. Louis is average, at 17.8, although this rate is five times San Francisco's.

Unlike the San Francisco SPCA, the Humane Society of Missouri does not offer free spay/neuter to the poor (although it does offer free pets to the elderly), does not ensure that all animals leave its shelter "altered," does not have a program targeted at persuading landlords to allow pets, and does not have a pact with any animal-control agency to take their healthy dogs and cats and guarantee placement.

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