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Oklahoma City Animal Shelter strives to continue improving live release rate

BY MICHAEL KIMBALL Published: March 25, 2012

The eyes at the Oklahoma City Animal Shelter say it all. Dogs and cats alike, they say, “Take me with you.”

Some dogs, bouncing and barking excitedly in their pens, replace the period with an exclamation point. Others sit quietly in the corner, timidly wagging their tail, and seem to use a question mark. Cats, typically more aloof, settle for the period, but appreciatively stretch their necks to receive a scratch on the head.

The eyes of people wandering the halls of the shelter searching for a pet to take home reveal their own messages. “I wish I could take all of you with me,” the gazes say to the hundreds of potential pets. Adopters take home animals that seem to be a perfect match for them, and hope those that weren't will prove to be for someone else.

But your eyes are shielded from the parts of the shelter you don't want to see. Closed doors hide the deaths caused by Oklahoma City's pet overpopulation problem. You wonder which ones as you walk the hallways. Adopters can't save them all, but they save a few, and only those working behind the doors see the rest.

It's an untidy and heartbreaking reality that's not ignored by those who work at the shelter and advocates from private groups working to help more animals leave alive. And the efforts are paying off.

More of Oklahoma City's homeless animals are finding families than ever before, but there remains a surplus of healthy and adoptable dogs and cats. But officials hope that one day, every spare animal in the city can find a local home.

“It's not a dream. It's a goal,” said Catherine English, manager of the city's Animal Welfare Division.

More lives saved

The animal shelter's most telling statistic is the live release rate. It includes animals that were lost but returned to their original owners and those adopted into new homes or transferred to rescue groups.

Ten years ago, only about one in four animals to enter the shelter left alive. Four years ago, it was about one in three. Now, it's better than one in two.

The joint goal of the Oklahoma City Animal Shelter and the Central OK Humane Society is for three out of every four animals at the shelter to be released alive. Under that scenario, the only animals to be euthanized at the shelter would be those with serious health or behavior problems that render them unadoptable, which currently represents about a quarter of the animals that find their way to the shelter.

The progress has been swift. But the city is not yet over the hump.

“We know from national trends that once you cross the 50 percent live release rate mark, things get harder,” said Christy Counts, president of the Central OK Humane Society. “The easy part is behind us.”

Public-private partnership

Officials credit a deep public-private partnership with the momentum enjoyed by the shelter. The shelter's first private partner came when Counts launched the local humane society. Funding from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) now flows to the shelter through Counts' group, and PetSmart Charities and other groups have also proved valuable partners, English said.

The city's commitment to the cause started soon after the mini-recession of 2001-02 with the live release rate hovering near 25 percent, Mayor Mick Cornett said. After the animal shelter's budget was cut along with that of other city departments, Cornett and other city officials were determined not to let it happen again.

“This is a situation where we said, ‘Look, we need help,'” Cornett said. “The budgetary demands on city government being what they are, we're never going to do better without help.”

Counts stepped in by eventually forming the local humane society. When the shelter started to make progress on the live release rate, the ASPCA noticed. Money from the ASPCA has helped Counts' annual budget swell to about $2 million, supplementing the animal shelter's budget of nearly $4 million.

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We need the public to foster animals, we need the public to spay and neuter their animals, we need them to volunteer, we need them to adopt (pets) instead of buy (from a store or breeder). Despite popular opinion, there are enough homes for these animals. If people would just choose to adopt instead of buy, there would be enough homes.”

Christy Counts,

president of the Central OK Humane Society


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