Fewer homeless pets are entering Johnston County’s animal shelter, and more are leaving through adoption.
That makes Ernie Wilkinson proud.
“What we have now is a product of 10 years of real hard, concentrated work,” said Wilkinson, director of Johnston County Animal Services.
Six years ago, more than 5,000 dogs entered the Johnston County Pet Adoption shelter over 12 months. For the most recent year, that number fell to 2,165. Crediting spay and neuter programs, Wilkinson noted that the shelter was seeing fewer litters of puppies and kittens.
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Still, the numbers could be better. Of the 2,165 dogs that entered the Pet Adoption Center this past year, the shelter euthanized slightly more than half, according to the Public Animal Shelter Report from the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
And in July, 582 animals entered the shelter, about a hundred more than in June. Most were feral cats unsuitable for adoption. In all, the shelter found homes for 168 animals in July.
The county’s feral cat population has exploded, Wilkinson said. Last June and July, some 700 cats entered the shelter during what he called “feral cat season.”
“It just about knocked me over,” he said.
At 90 percent, the euthanization rate for feral cats is high.
Complicating matters is a state law that effectively lowers the shelter’s capacity. A new law requires shelters to hold animals for 72 hours before placing them or putting them down.
That leaves little room for animals that come in during those 72 hours, Wilkinson said.
“The spirit and intent of this new law was done in the vein of humane treatment and to give the rightful owner an opportunity to reclaim their animals, but the shelters across North Carolina were already running at maximum capacity when the law was enacted,” Wilkinson said. “This created a totally different level of overcrowded conditions, which has forced many shelters into much larger euthanasia numbers due to limited space.”
A second, related law extends the hold period to feral cats.
The county’s shelter has room for 115 animals, but with hundreds of feral cats entering every month, the shelter struggles to make room.
“We’ll continue to monitor, and I’m sure there is a time we’ll need to expand,” said County Manager Rick Hester.
Wilkinson said the shelter’s seven employees often work 10-hour days. “The biggest thing we fight is compassion fatigue,” he said. “We fight it every day. Last year, we fought it about 3,000 times. It’s tough.”
The shelter is undergoing renovations, including turning the former gas chamber into space for cats. Wilkinson turned the gas chamber equipment into a work of art, designed to look like the tree of life.
Because the shelter has turned to more-humane lethal injection, its annual expenses have climbed from $460,000 to about $700,000. Wilkinson said county commissioners have supported the shelter financially.
The burden on animal shelters would be a lot lighter if more owners would spay and neuter their pets, Wilkinson said. “My pipe dream is ... a low-cost spay and neuter clinic ... that everyone can access,” he said. “If we had good spay and neuter practices across the state, we could make a huge impact on these numbers.”