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
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.
“The public-private partnership gives the most leverage to everybody's assets,” said national ASPCA President Ed Sayres. “You're really not looking at individual assets anymore, but animals.”
Donations and grant money funded new positions at the shelter. The humane society built a quarantine facility on the site, where adoptable dogs can be screened for health issues and shipped to states that need more pets. Community outreach programs grew. The city committed to not reducing its budget despite the inflow of private dollars. Veterinarians stepped up by providing low-cost spay and neuter surgeries. Creative programs like one that scoops up stray cats before sterilizing them and returning them to neighborhoods helps reduce the number of animals that come through the door.
More aggressive and targeted efforts could get the city from a live release rate of nearly 60 percent projected for this year to the 75 percent hoped for by the end of 2013, Counts and English said.
ZIP codes in Oklahoma City from which the lar
But local animal experts are clear about what they need most to control Oklahoma City's pet population: you. The public holds the key to not only reducing the live release rate, but reducing the overall number of incoming animals more quickly.
“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),” Counts said. “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.”
It's working so far. The shelter's cat rooms were uncharacteristically sparsely populated in recent weeks. Though that's partly because of the success of various efforts by the city and humane society, it's also because spring and summer is the busiest intake season at the shelter, so more cats are coming.
Earlier this month, Jon Gary, the shelter's unit operations manager, sat in an adoption room scratching behind the ears of a cat curled up on a blanket covering a wicker love seat. Gary said the progress in the live release rate has made it easier to come to work over the years. More progress would make it easier still.
“I've been here a little over 12 years, and in that time period, the changes have been dramatic,” Gary said as the cat soaked up the attention. “I'm still here today because of the way it was 12 years ago. I wanted to change that. I wanted to make a difference. To finally see that happen here in Oklahoma City is tremendous, and it wouldn't happen without the community effort.”
How to help
The animal shelter, at SE 29 and Bryant Avenue, is open for adoptions from noon to 5:45 p.m. every day except holidays. Every pet adopted from the shelter is current on vaccinations, spayed or neutered, tested for diseases and treated for worms.
For more information or to ask about volunteering and donating money or supplies, call the shelter at 297-3100, visit okc.gov/
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.”