Stephanie Ready enters a cat room at the Durham County Animal Shelter and squats to take a good look at Alice.
Alice, an amber-eyed, black-and-yellow cat, blinks at her. She has lived in the shelter for six months. The normal price for adopting cats is $95. Alice has been reduced to $25.
They said she didnt have as much chance of getting adopted, Ready says. I just want someone that needs a good home and wants to be loved.
Once Ready leaves the room to sign paperwork, Susie Iferd, a volunteer who has worked at the shelter for six years, allows herself a sigh of relief.
Someones finally giving you a chance, Iferd whispers.
Alices adoption last month was the exception, not the rule. About 132,000 cats and 96,000 dogs were euthanized in North Carolina in 2011, according to data from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Thats 78 percent of the cats and 52 percent of the dogs that enter state animal shelters.
But many North Carolina shelters are working to change those grim figures by reaching out to volunteers, providing low-cost spay and neuter services and involving community stakeholders.
Every single person who works in the shelter environment is longing for the day when we dont have to euthanize another animal, says Inga Fricke, director of sheltering initiatives for the Humane Society of the United States. The only way were going to achieve an end to euthanasia is to stop the need for animals to come in.
A refuge from gassing
In rural Pittsboro, Siglinda Scarpa, a 72-year-old Italian-born pottery maker, is fed up.
She opened the Goathouse Refuge, a no-kill cat shelter, after learning how many animals are euthanized in North Carolina. She first tries to take cats from shelters that use carbon monoxide for euthanasia.
Theyre concentration camps, she says. Our hypocrisy calls them shelters.
Scarpa houses and cares for more than 260 cats, five goats, seven dogs and five turkeys on her 16-acre property. The money comes from donations and Scarpas pocket.
This month we did not pay all the bills for the medical care, she says. We feed them well and, thank God, we have some good donations of food, and we keep asking for donations.
Scarpa sits on a small wooden stool in her studio. At 72, she has the drive of a woman half her age. She speaks with great conviction and an Italian accent that waxes between strong and weak.
She surrendered her former pottery studio to the cats. They enjoy heated floors, chicken wire for climbing, cheery yellow and purple paint, and plenty of quilts to sleep on.
Scarpa does her pottery work in a shed with a small electric space heater. Most of her income goes toward maintaining the shelter.
Her animals are plucked from animal shelters just before theyre euthanized.
Even if I can take three cats, and they send me pictures of 15 cats, Im going to have to choose, she says. Its so painful. Sometimes I go to bed at night; I cant even eat because my stomach hurts. Its just horrible. Its the worst thing I have to do.
No-kill shelter costs
The Goathouse Refuge only works because it is a limited-admission shelter. Scarpa determines how many animals enter.
While no-kill shelters can choose how many animals they take in, county shelters are open-admission, meaning they must accept every animal that comes to them, says the Humane Societys Fricke. Thats very different.
If too many animals enter a no-kill shelter, the cost becomes unsustainable.
Scarpa can care for the average cat for around $50 a month, but the cats that need medical treatment are expensive to keep.
According to the organizations tax form, Goathouse Refuge spent $31,486 on veterinarians and medicine, $44,422 on food and medication, and $61,548 on operating supplies in 2010.
Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, an Asheville-based no-kill dog shelter, spends $20,000 to $25,000 a month on medical treatment.
We really pass on the animals that we think the traditional shelters can place, says Denise Bitz, founder and executive director. We take the ones that have medical issues or behavioral problems.
No-kill shelters are an option for some animals, but the yearly medical bills at Brother Wolf nearly exceed the total budget of most public shelters in North Carolina.
Because North Carolinas shelters can only hold so many animals, the conversation has shifted from caring for all the animals to permanently reducing the population.
Marianne Luft is assistant director of the Asheville-based Humane Alliance, an organization that aims to prevent animal overpopulation. Humane Alliance has sterilized 300,000 cats and dogs since it opened in 1994. The organization serves 23 North Carolina counties and sterilizes about 23,000 animals annually.
County shelters are obligated to take every animal that comes to them, Luft says. Theres not a lot they can do to control intake. Thats why spay/neuter is a critical part of ending the epidemic.
Humane Alliance hopes to have a multiplying effect by sharing information. More than 110 have opened across the country with training from the organization.
If we hit on some good solutions, we really shouldnt keep them to ourselves, Luft says.
One practice pioneered by the Alliance is a transportation system that allows pet owners without cars to get their animals proper care.
What were finding around the country is that we have a whole lot of spay/neuter capacity, but the people who need those services the most dont have access, Fricke says.
The transport system is an answer to the limited-access problem. Four of every five animals served arrive through the system.
Despite Humane Alliances success, Luft considers it only one part of a patchwork of animal welfare organizations.
We will never be able to save all of the animals in our community without the help of the other organizations, says Bitz, of Brother Wolf. I think the reason that Asheville has the numbers that we do is because we work together.
Stakeholders meet regularly to discuss services as a part of the Animal Coalition of Buncombe County.
The Buncombe County Animal Shelter euthanizes about 36 percent of the animals that come to it. The statewide rate for 2011 was 65 percent.
Governments step in
In Durham, Iferd, the longtime volunteer, smiles at Alice the cat for a moment.
It used to be that if an animal was here for six months or more, they would be put down, she says. Now its more like an investment.
Durhams shelter is a reflection of the vision of more than 200 volunteers.
The most important thing is to keep our animals sociable and friendly, says Stephanie Kirby, volunteer coordinator at the shelter. Our pets go out, get walked and are cuddled every day.
In Chapel Hill, the shelter reflects a renewed commitment by Orange County to reduce euthanasia rates. The county built a new facility in 2009, which combined the shelter and animal control under one roof.
The shelter is trying multiple strategies to draw more people in. Andi Morgan, communications specialist, updates the shelters Facebook page, places ads and photographs the animals. The facility is bright and immaculate.
Weve tried hard to make it a destination spot, Morgan says.
Orange County also implemented a spay-and-neuter program that aims to sterilize more than 600 animals per year. The procedures are free or low-cost for low-income households.
The program costs the county about $45,000 upfront but is expected to save money by reducing the number of animals the shelter must receive.
Euthanasia rates in the Triangle vary widely.
Orange County euthanized 40 percent of the 3,300 cats and dogs that entered the shelter in 2011. It spent $236 per animal, compared to Durham Countys $130 per animal. Durham euthanized 68 percent of the 6,050 cats and dogs it received that year.
Wake County euthanized roughly 50 percent of the 15,600 dogs and cats brought to its shelter in 2011. The county spent $103 per animal.
We always ask people to look beyond the numbers, Fricke says. A county facility could literally be holding their kennels together with dog collars. They do the best they can with the resources they have.
Increasingly, that means animals that were once considered nearly unadoptable are finding their way into homes. Just ask Alice.