Facing limited shelter capacity and pressure not to turn away an animal in need, the city of Augusta often finds itself burdened with the lose-lose choice of euthanizing healthy pets to combat what appears to be a serious problem with strays.
Statistics released Monday show that between 65 percent and 70 percent of the animals admitted into Augusta’s Rescue Shelter each year are put down.
Although the number accounts for not only cats and dogs but also undomesticated animals, such as raccoons, deer and opossums, the shelter’s euthanization rate is well above the national average, which one study shows stands near 50 percent.
The problem is expected to continue in Richmond County, Augusta Animal Services officials said Monday as they braced for “breeding season” – April to June – when the city’s shelter is overwhelmed with litters of kittens and puppies.
“I would love not to have to euthanize any animals,” said Sharon Broady, Augusta Animal Services director. “It’s emotionally taxing on staff.”
Records kept at the city’s shelter off Tobacco Road show 6,760 of the 9,650 animals admitted at the facility last year were euthanized – a total that Broady said has remained constant for much of the recent past.
For comparison, she cited 2011’s numbers, which were much the same: of the 9,875 admitted, 66 percent, or 6,590, were euthanized.
The practice of euthanasia to end the lives of healthy adoptable animals has long been controversial in the U.S. and is conducted in many parts of the country because open-admission shelters typically choose not to turn animals away.
According to statistics from the Asilomar Accords, a group of activists who track animal shelter care and euthanasia numbers, U.S. shelters that they track put to sleep about 41,200 of the 85,200 they receive each year.
There is no centralized database for shelters in Georgia, said Mary Yearta, the press secretary for the state Department of Agriculture.
Asilomar Accords posts annual statistics for about 150 different U.S. shelters on its Web site. Only one in Georgia volunteers its data – the Columbus-Muscogee County Humane Society. According to its latest available reports, euthanasia doubled from 31 to 63 animals in 2007, while the intake of strays increased by only 9 percent, to 736 dogs and cats.
Bucking the trend, Athens-Clarke County in the past year cut in half the number of cats and dogs it euthanized, going from 252 of the 1,910 cats and dogs that were adoptable last year to only 77 of the 1,200 taken in this year.
At the root of the problem, said Ed Jefferson, an animal control officer in Augusta for the past 20 years, is irresponsible breeding – pet owners failing to get their animals spayed or neutered, leading to unwanted offspring.
Other factors, Jefferson said, are low adoption rates and the “disposable pet” ethos of today’s society. Owners are quick to relinquish their pets for any number of reasons.
“Owners need to vaccinate, microchip, spay or neuter their pets and keep them contained,” he said. “Feeding stray animals causes a lot of problems for our society, chiefly cats and dogs multiplying and overrunning our shelter.”
Broady said Augusta Animal Service, by law, must hold an admitted animal five days to give its owner a fair opportunity to reclaim the pet. After the clearance period passes, the department can adopt, euthanize or transfer the animal to a rescue group.
“We try to find each animal a home as quick as we can, focusing primarily on the ones we have had the longest, but sometimes it can take six months to a year,” Broady said.
The director said 268 animals are at its facility at 4124 Mack Lane. Adoption fees are $65 for cats, $75 for male dogs and $85 for females. Senior citizens and members of the military pay only $50.
“We have the best prices in town,” Jefferson said. “All animals are already spayed, neutered, tested, microchipped and vaccinated. All they need is a home.”