Last year, 10,788 neglected, abused, sick, injured, vicious or unwanted animals were put to death in the Richmond County Animal Control Shelter's carbon monoxide chamber.
That's an average of 43 each workday.
The shelter is inundated by stray and unwanted animals. They come from neighborhoods where animal control officers pick them up running loose -- many of them starving and diseased -- from ditches and trash bins as well as from people who don't want them and drop them off. Most are the offspring of regular folks' unsterilized pets.
Almost all have to be killed because there is no room for them, said Jim Larmer, director of the Richmond County shelter. This grisly business cost Richmond County taxpayers $462,958 last year; Columbia County taxpayers paid $287,479. That cost could be reduced drastically, animal control officials say, if people would just spay or neuter pets.
Only 1,119 of the 13,913 dogs and cats dogs picked up by animal control officers or dropped off at the Richmond County shelter were placed for adoption last year, although 527 were returned to their owners. The rest were sold to medical schools for research purposes.
In Columbia County, an even smaller number -- 360 of 7,304 -- were adopted and 490 were returned to owners.
People leave their unwanted animals in dropoff cages at the entrance to the Richmond County shelter when it is closed.
People drop off entire litters of puppies and kittens, some of them too young to survive without their mothers.
Weekends are the worst. The shelter on Mack Lane off Tobacco Road opens Saturdays from 2-5 p.m., but the employees arrive at 8 a.m. to clean the pens and feed the animals. Some Saturdays, the dropoff sheds are filled when employees arrive.
"There might be 15 dogs," said Rosemary Reynolds, animal health technician. "We unload them, and we go back and there might be 15 again. And that will be off and on until around 1 o'clock, when we finally lock it up.
"We lock it up and then they'll just stand outside."
And they come from everywhere, she said.
"They're not always from Richmond County or Georgia. We get animals from Burke County, Wilkes County, South Carolina, Aiken County ..."
The animals reproduce so fast, animal control and humane societies are overwhelmed.
"One female dog in her life span, if she's never spayed and none of her puppies are spayed, will be responsible for 7,000 animals because most litters are heavily populated by females," Mr. Larmer said. "Cats are also prolific. Cats can get pregnant right after having a litter. We don't like to have to put them to sleep. But we do, unfortunately."
Cute little puppies stand the best chance of being adopted. Not so lucky are the older dogs, even though many are purebred.
Mrs. Reynolds pointed out a little cocker spaniel mix, 2 years old and neutered. The owner brought it to the shelter because she said she couldn't afford to keep it any longer, Mrs. Reynolds said.
"A lot of time when it's 2 years old, it's hard for us to place because people don't want a dog that's 2 years old," she said. "And then we get some in here that just refuse to eat or do anything. They don't want to eat. They're brokenhearted. And they just lay in the back of the pen for several days before they drink a little water.
"In some cases, I have called people and said, `The dog hasn't been adopted and won't eat or anything. Would you consider coming back and getting it?' And most of the time, the answer is no.
"Their feeling is the animal doesn't have any feelings," she sighed.
Area humane societies and Friends of Animals adoption programs use foster homes where they place unwanted pets while they try to find homes. But there aren't that many homes.
"The ratio is 60 animals -- that's cats and dogs -- for every live human birth," said Raynette Mayer, president of the Central Savannah River Area Humane Society. "So for us to take care of all the animals that are being born, each person would have to have 60 dogs and cats at any one time. So it's really a geometric problem."
When there's no room in the foster homes, people often take the unwanted animals to animal control, where they are destroyed, she said.
"Really, the only way we can ever hope to make a dent in the animal population problem is to be aggressive with spay-neutering," Ms. Mayer said.
"If everybody would take their pets in and have them spayed or neutered before they have that first litter, that would go a long way to having that problem solved."
Animal activist Ruth Tracy-Blackburn said many people criticize animal control shelters, but she thinks they are wonderful.
"They're taking animals off the streets so you and I don't have to run our cars off the road to miss the strays, so you and I aren't bit by rabid dogs and cats," said Ms. Blackburn, vice president of McDuffie County Friends of Animals. "If people would do the correct thing and have their animals spayed and neutered at six months, those animal control facilities would not even be necessary."