CHAPEL HILL — It's Wednesday morning, and the line is building outside the Pet Overpopulation Control North Carolina mobile clinic parked in front of the county animal shelter.
Pet owners wait, holding vouchers to sign up their animals for free or low-cost sterilization. Without the reduced price, most say they wouldn't bother.
"The vets, they want all of it upfront, [plus] it's hard to get your animal to a doctor," said Teresa Justus, who brought Biscuit, an 11-year-old poodle-mix and Aries Parthos, a 2-year-old German shepherd.
Helping pet owners like Justus to sterilize her pets is key to preventing them from reproducing and to reducing the number of dogs and cats killed in shelters throughout North Carolina, animal welfare advocates say. About 250,000 animals are killed annually, including nearly 20,000 in the Triangle area.
Targeted sterilization programs may not only lower the number of animals killed, but could eventually save counties millions of dollars every year. In 2009, Durham, Orange and Wake counties reported spending a total of $3.7 million on animal services, in some cases as much as $405 per animal.
"We need to make some changes; there are just too many animals being euthanized," said Lee Hunter, director of the state's Animal Welfare section and Spay/Neuter program. "The money's going to be expended somewhere ... [and] you can't adopt your way out of this."
When a dog or cat enters a shelter, its odds of coming out alive are less than half in most counties across the state. With limited space and resources, shelters must continually make room for new arrivals. Animals that are old or sick, or that have behavioral problems such as a dog named Bear who was recently euthanized at the Orange County shelter, are often the first to go.
Bear's brown eyes darted back and forth; his back legs shook wildly.
The dog needed a sedative, said Jess Allison, shelter manager at the Orange County Animal Shelter.
Veterinary technician Emily Bennett had the row of syringes ready. The first one went in, and Bear relaxed as Allison stroked him, cradling his head in her lap.
After checking one last time for a microchip, in case someone was looking for him, Bennett picked up the second syringe, drawing a bright blue liquid, pentobarbital sodium, from a small bottle. Red came up the syringe from the dog's vein and merged with the blue for a moment; then the lethal mix disappeared.
Bear's legs went still. He was less than 3 years old.
The scene is repeated across the Triangle almost every day. In 2009, the Wake County Animal Shelter killed 6,311 dogs and cats, or just over half of those brought in. Durham's shelter, run by the Animal Protection Society of Durham, killed 4,770, or nearly three-fourths of those brought in. (Statewide figures for 2010 were unavailable.)
Historically, counties have followed a "house, kill, or adopt" model to deal with unwanted animals.
Under targeted spaying and neutering, the state has begun focusing on the problem at the front end, allocating $250,000 for low-cost surgeries to supplement money that private groups also spend. The money, which was designated for the program for the first time last year, comes from within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, in which the program is housed.
Targeted programs connect low-income pet owners with veterinarians to have their pet sterilized at a fraction of the price, which can cost as much as $400 for a large female dog.
The SPCA of Wake County reaches out to pet owners in two Raleigh ZIP codes where the most strays are found. People on public assistance can also get their pets fixed for $5 at the SPCA's spay/neuter clinic, funded entirely by donations and nonprofits.
Groups like Animal Kind and Spay-Neuter Assistance Program of North Carolina work with counties to offer spay and neuter surgeries at a reduced rate, often around $20.
Demand for the service is high; at POP NC, Veterinarian Claudia Sheppard and two technicians will perform about 30 subsidized surgeries in a 12-plus hour day.
Mondy Lamb, marketing director for the SPCA, said spending money to sterilize animals that shelters hope to find homes for, the traditional model, isn't enough to solve pet overpopulation. Beth Livingstone, executive director of Raleigh-based Animal Kind, agreed.
"We have, as a culture, [have grown used to] thinking of euthanizing extra animals as a kind of necessary evil," Livingstone said. "Government is just very accustomed to spending the money reactively and can't imagine if they spend it proactively that it could really be enough, [but] you really can get out of this trap of endless spending and killing."
The statewide impact of targeted sterilization on shelter intake and euthanasia numbers is unclear because the programs have not been in place long enough, Hunter said.
Euthanasia at the Wake County Animal Shelter, which gets about 30 new animals a day, has risen slightly this year. In the first eight months of fiscal 2011, the shelter killed 4,411 dogs and cats, a 6 percent increase from the same period last fiscal year.
"We make a lot of hard decisions," said Mike Williams, director of Wake County Animal Care, Control and Adoption. "We're going to have to put some animals down today."
But as more animals get sterilized, Wake County overall has seen a significant drop in euthanasia. From 2009 to 2010 the number of animals killed in the county and SPCA-run shelters fell from 8,562 to 7,360, a 14 percent drop, according to the SPCA of Wake County.
Last year also marked the first time the SPCA sterilized more animals in the county than were killed. It sterilized 7,451 animals; about 100 more than were euthanized.
Euthanasia has also gone down in Durham and Orange counties.
The Durham shelter killed 821 fewer animals last year than in 2008, according to self-reported numbers. Orange County killed 328 fewer animals last year compared to 2009, an 18 percent drop.
Other factors may also be reducing local euthanasia numbers as private sanctuaries, animal rescue groups and pet foster families take animals from crowded shelters.
Still, targeted sterilization "has the ability to make a difference," said Bob Marotto, director of Animal Services in Orange County. "It is a question as a community and culture if we should be using death in that way when there are alternatives."
Lack of space
Each morning Bennett, the Orange County vet tech, gets a list of euthanasia appointments.
She likes to think that the animals are going to a better place. If a dog or cat can't be placed in a home, spending the rest of its life in a shelter is sometimes a worse fate, she says.
"This is very painless and quiet ... with everything I can do to calm them," she says.
"It's sad that this is his end," Allison, the shelter manager, says as she and Bennett lift Bear's body up and into a cadaver bag.
She opens the door to a walk-in freezer; the odor escapes before the contents take hold. "It's a pretty grisly sight, right?" Allison says. "It's downright awful."
Black and blue bags line the walls of the freezer, stacked on metal shelves, waiting to be taken to the landfill.
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