Monday, Sept. 28, 2009 | The euthanasia room at the San Diego County Animal Shelter is similar to any other medical workstation, except that it’s scattered with empty cages.

The cages symbolize the passing of about 6,200 animals last year that were abandoned, lost or wild. They came from all over the county with varying degrees of behavior or health problems. Some were put down because of these problems, but some simply failed to attract a suitable owner.

The county animal shelter has a policy of euthanizing “no adoptable or treatable animal.” To the shelter, “adoptable” is a technical term for healthy and friendly. Animals that fall outside that definition, although also available for adoption, may be euthanized if the shelter is short on space or if keeping the animal alive would be inhumane.

Of the animals euthanized by the shelter last year, about one in six suffered from lifelong conditions the shelter calls “manageable.” A domestic cat with respiratory problems or a pit bull with a distaste for other dogs could both provide human companionship, for example, but their manageable conditions would take more attention than the average adoptable pet.

“It’s not the category that changes (an animal’s) adoptability; it’s how he presents himself to the public,” said Dawn Danielson, director the county Department of Animal Services. “A dog’s temperament is hard-wired. An owner can train or manage behavior but the dog’s core personality will not be changed.”

In determining an animal’s category (and their proximity to the euthanasia room), behavior is the biggest gray area. Veterinarians can assess healthiness with tests and procedures, but an animal’s behavior can change drastically with its environment. Some household dogs or cats behave poorly in the shelter, and that hurts their chances of adoption.

“It’s not an exact science,” said Lt. Dan DeSousa of the County Animal Shelter. “We’re fine tuning what we call a behavior-safety issue and what we call a behavior-management issue.”

An animal with behavior-safety problems faces the highest risk of euthanasia because it’s viewed as a risk to public safety. An animal with behavior-management problems has socialization issues, and it would have to be limited to certain situations. A dog afraid of crowds would have to be more restricted or eased into larger group environments.

That type of understanding can take a special owner or somebody familiar with animal behavior.

“An ‘adoptable’ animal is something that anyone can take home,” said DeSousa. “For those that we consider to be behavior manageable … it comes down to can somebody manage that?”

In recent years, the shelter has euthanized fewer animals with safety issues but more with manageable problems. DeSousa said that might be a reflection of a trend to categorize more animals as manageable, giving greater attention to the idea that aggression can be managed. Danielson said that the bad economy may be making people less willing to take on manageable animals.

A number of animal rescue groups have stepped in and taken aggressive or medically ill animals to foster homes or more attentive environments than the county shelter. Those groups are also facing economic pressures with fewer donations, Danielson said. Some of the groups have volunteers who specialize in dealing with a particular breed or certain medical procedures to help an animal become more adoptable.

“I think it’s good to let people know that animals put down aren’t necessarily aggressive or suffering, but just not able to recover from whatever they have in a kennel setting at a shelter with limited funding,” said Micaela Myers, spokeswoman for Pit Bull Rescue of San Diego.

Of the 1,100 animals euthanized last year with manageable conditions, the pit bull was its most frequent canine victim. The county shelter killed 373 pit bulls, 407 domestic cats and 369 other animals. The totals do not include animals euthanized at an owner’s request.

Among all domestic animals, cats are one of the biggest challenges for the county animal shelter. Feral cats account for the largest number of euthanized animals each year and few owners reclaim their pets. About 38 percent of lost dogs are reclaimed by the owners but only about 3 percent of cats, DeSousa said.

County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price has been more vocal on animal euthanasia than most of her colleagues on the board. She said killing animals with a manageable condition could conflict with the shelter’s policy of not killing adoptable animals.

“Overall, it would,” Slater-Price said. “Right now what we’re facing is a tough situation. We have more animals coming and fewer people willing to adopt them. … We do everything we can.”

No animal advocate likes the idea of killing animals, but Slater-Price and the shelter recognize euthanasia as a reality that comes with being a county animal shelter. It’s required to accept all animals and try to arrange an adoption before space becomes a problem.

Although 6,200 euthanized animals might sound large, DeSousa said space has not become a problem and the number of procedures has fallen dramatically in the last decade. The shelter killed 8,200 animals in 2005 and about 35,000 in 1999. San Diego’s euthanasia reduction program earned accommodation from the National Association of Counties and Danielson said the shelter has one of the highest save rates in the country.

The county started to reduce euthanasia procedures in the late 1990s when shelters across California came under increased scrutiny for animal treatment. Slater-Price helped lead the charge to create a “no kill” facility by 2005 but accomplished the goal in 2003. Despite its direct meaning, a “no kill” policy still allows for animals with behavior or medical problems to be euthanized.

Most animal shelters stopped using the term “no kill” after officials realized the obvious confusion, and San Diego followed suit. Today, the term is described by some animal rights advocates as a “rallying cry, a slogan that defines a movement.”

Slater-Price said she wishes the county would have a strict “no kill” policy, but she realizes that wouldn’t be feasible. The county is required to kill some animals by law and it deals with a large feral cat population annually.

“My goal still remains that an adoptable animal is not killed but to do that, we need the help of the public,” Slater-Price said. “People need to get their pets spayed or neutered. We actually see tangible results from that.”

Correction: The original version of this story was briefly missing the word “not” in the final quote. We regret the error.

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