The Young-Williams Animal Center's Spay Shuttle has spayed or neutered 15,000 Knox County pets—without charge to the owners—since 2007. The number of happy reunions between lost pets and anxious owners has also been on the upswing since 2003, growing from 760 that year to 1,318 in 2008.
And yet, more than 17,000 dogs, cats, kittens, and puppies streamed through the center last year, an increase of around 450 over 2007—and 12,638 of them ended up being euthanized, even though most were healthy and adoptable.
Young-Williams executive director Tim Adams says it's difficult to pinpoint precisely which of several intertwined factors keep the number of animals taken into the center and/or euthanized steady or growing slightly even with the extensive Spay Shuttle efforts. "Loss of income, pets who haven't been spayed or neutered, animals that run at large or aren't microchipped—all that's feeding into why the numbers are where they are," he says. "It's not any one thing."
Young-Williams is the only accommodation for Knox County and city Animal Control captures and strays. Thirty percent of the animals coming in are owner surrenders, which is consistent with years past, but there are more animals being abandoned by financially strapped owners than in years past.
"Our job of picking up strays has increased about 5-7 percent in the span of the past 8-10 months," says Dave Head, director of Knox County Animal Control. "It just increases progressively as people get deeper into bad financial situations. People don't have the money, they're not being able to feed their dogs, so they're just leaving them in the house or trailer and departing, letting whoever owns the house—or us—worry about it."
But long-held attitudes towards animals and spaying and neutering probably lands more animals in the shelter than economic woes, says Adams. "Our main hurdle is there aren't enough people in our community spaying and neutering—and that's in all income ranges, across the board."
He recalls how Peter Marsh, nationally renowned for his animal-rights legislative campaigns, recently evaluated the Young-Williams program. "He told us that compared to New Hampshire, where he first started a neutering assistance program, our area was back in the 1970s," Adams says. "We fight a cultural mindset where lots of people think their dog won't be the same dog if they get it fixed, it won't hunt as well. They don't see that the dog will be healthier, and live longer, and be less likely to get certain cancers. They say they want to breed their animal, or they want their kids to see a litter born. But the reality is that 17,685 animals came through the center last year. We don't need to breed any more, we've got plenty."
The attitudes that promote cat overpopulation and abandonment are even more culturally ingrained, says Adams. "People consider cats more aloof, able to manage themselves. If they don't want a cat, they'll turn it loose thinking, ‘It'll be okay.'"
Many local pet owners have misguided reasons for surrendering their animals, too, says Adams. "One of the top reasons is ‘moving.' That one always amazes me, because every state I know of allows animals. Or they'll say, ‘We're having a baby.' The animals that we get in here—great, beautiful, gentle animals—because of that! But dogs deal with babies just fine, frankly, and so do cats."
Another factor in the heart-rending number of animals who are put to sleep by injection and then transported by city engineering truck to be buried at the landfill: lost pets whose owners don't—or don't know how to—follow up properly. "Only 10 percent of the strays here get reclaimed by their owners," says Adams. "You'd think a lot more would come to look for lost pets, but they don't. If you've lost a pet, you need to come here and look for it every other day. We're open seven days a week."
Once a pet's been gone overnight, take up a vigil at the center, says Adams. "The state hold time on a stray is three days, and if it has identification the state says we have to hold it five days," he says. "After that, we will assess to see if it's adoptable, or if it must be euthanized." Animals surrendered by their owners are eligible to be euthanized immediately.
Microchipping is also key. "It only takes a few minutes and costs $20 to have done here during ordinary hours," says Adams. "If we could get people to do all those things I'm talking about, we'd have to euthanize way less."