CHARLOTTESVILLE RECOGNIZES THE NEED FOR EDUCATION IN
Mon, Jun. 30, 2003
City neglects best solution
Euthanasia - and costs - drop where government backs
SCOTT DODD & MICHELLE CROUCH
As cities across the country reduce the number of
unwanted pets they kill, the euthanasia room at the
Charlotte-Mecklenburg animal shelter is getting busier.
In a single day recently, it was the last resting place
for a litter of gray kittens, a friendly black Labrador
and more than 50 other dogs and cats -- all killed with
a shot of muscle relaxant that stopped their hearts.
The Observer found that while the city spends more than
$4 million a year to catch, house and kill animals, it
done little to address the cause of the problem: the
exploding population of unwanted pets.
Charlotte puts no public money toward spaying and
neutering and has done less than many cities to increase
or public awareness of sterilization
ABOVE: Young Shepherd mix awaits the same fate as 25,000
others on this day alone in the U.S.
"It's atrocious," said Ron Simons, a former Charlotte
Animal Control supervisor who heads a local group
pushing for more spaying and neutering. "Every day,
we're killing healthy, adoptable animals. I'm tired of
putting down this many animals when there's a solution."
A report to Charlotte City Council late last year
recommended changes. It called the current system --
which kills seven of every 10 animals at the shelter,
more than 14,000 last year -- "an unconscionable waste
of life and a needless drain on public money."
The Observer found:
• The city kills 19 animals a year for every 1,000
Mecklenburg County residents, one of the higher rates
among cities its
size in the country. The national average is 16,
according to an annual survey, and cities such as
Phoenix and Portland
have lowered their rates to eight by changing their
• Seven months after the city report that recommended
changes, the most effective reforms have yet to be
Animal control officials say they need more time to
develop a plan, and formed a committee this month, after
with Observer reporters.
image006.jpg (74850 bytes)
• The city hasn't invested public money to increase
animal sterilizations or target low-income communities
that experts say need spay-neuter services most. For two
decades, officials have left sterilization to the Humane
Society of Charlotte.
• Officials have provided little oversight of the Humane
Society, which operates under a city contract. No one
noticed the group hadn't submitted a budget, as
required, to the city for three years. City officials
couldn't agree on who was responsible for monitoring the
Humane Society's work.
• The city only recently began considering strategies to
help increase awareness of the growing animal population
and promote adoption at the city shelter, where adoption
rates remain below the national average, according to
the city report. Officials say Charlotte's Animal
Control Bureau is trying to change its approach, but
reform will take time and resources.
"I don't think it's a good idea for us to go in and pump
a lot of money into spaying and neutering as many
animals as we can willy-nilly," said
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Darrel Stephens, who
said a detailed plan is needed first. His department
includes Animal Control, which serves the entire county.
The city has other priorities, too, he added, and
shouldn't bear the full blame for the problem, which is
created by irresponsible pet owners. Animal Control
officers see the results often, such as the call last
month from an elderly woman in a poor north Charlotte
neighborhood. She wanted them to take her dog away. When
Officer Shannon Corkwell arrived, the woman said she
simply couldn't care for the black Labrador mix named
Jasmine. The woman led Corkwell to the back yard, where
the dog was tied to a 2-foot metal chain. Instead of a
collar, a coat hanger twisted around her neck.
"You know we'll probably put her to
sleep don't you?" Corkwell asked as she petted the dog,
which licked her face. "Yes, that's OK," the woman said.
"When I got her, she was such a little thing, and she
curled up on the couch with me. But I can't take care of
a big dog like this. I'm 79." Jasmine was killed that
night. Her owner didn't plan to grieve. "I'm going to
try to get me another little one before too long." A
better way of managing
For years, Charlotte's Animal Control officers did
little more than catch and kill strays. Then several
workers went to an Arizona conference in fall 2000,
where they learned the latest ideas used in other cities
to curb animal death rates. They wanted to bring those
strategies here.The result: The Community Animal
Management Program, developed with several animal
welfare groups and volunteers from Leadership Charlotte.
The plan has five major steps:
• Increase sterilizations and public education,
especially in low-income areas.
• Increase the number of animals adopted from the
• Embed microchips in animals who leave the shelter so,
if they're picked up as strays, the owners can be
• Trap and neuter feral cats.
• Help pet owners train their adopted animals so they
don't develop behavioral problems and get returned to
So far, Animal Control has made strides on two steps,
adoptions and microchipping. It now places updated
pictures of animals offered for adoption on the Internet
and recruits volunteers who take animals to Wal-Mart on
weekends to shop for new owners. It's also spending
$47,000 this year to embed microchips in animals from
the shelter, paid through higher fees from the new
But adoptions and micro chipping aren't expected to have
a major impact. "It is only through spaying and
neutering," the plan says, "that shelter admissions will
be reduced." Officials initially said they had no
immediate plans to spend public money on sterilization
programs. As recently as last month, Capt. Tammy
Williams, who heads Animal Control, said the city is
"not in the business of spaying and neutering, and we
don't want to be in that business anytime in the near
future." Williams now says the city will take a
different approach. The city learned this month it has
won a $25,000 grant that it will spend to help
low-income people get their pets neutered. To fulfill
the full city strategy, though, will require additional
planning, Williams said. A funding request to the City
Council could take a year or more.
"You don't just walk across the street and ask for half
a million or even $50 without a strategic plan to
validate it," she said. Even so, supporters say one of
the most compelling arguments for more spaying and
neutering is that it could save city money. In New
Hampshire, a statewide program cut the cost of neutering
pets to $10 for poor residents. The state saved $3 in
animal control costs for every $1 spent on the program.
And it saved animals' lives. Over an eight-year period
between 1993 and 2001, the state recorded a nearly 75
percent drop in the number of dogs and cats killed.
"The folks in Charlotte don't have to invent anything,"
said Peter Marsh, a national consultant on pet
population who helped implement the New Hampshire
program. "The model is right there in other cities."
The International City/County Management Association
says dozens of cities have opened government-subsidized
spay-neuter clinics or provided vouchers to low-income
residents. Others have passed laws requiring all pet
owners to sterilize their animals unless they pay for a
Whatever the strategy, it's up to
government agencies to take the lead, experts say.
"You need public money" to succeed, Marsh said. "It's
absolutely critical, because you can't raise enough
private money, and you need to have money year in and
Efforts fall behind
Two decades ago, the Charlotte Humane Society and its
executive director, Patti Lewis, pushed the city to let
the group open the first low-cost spay-neuter clinic in
the state. The city began requiring every animal adopted
from its shelter to be sterilized at the clinic. And in
1992, the city moved its pound to a new facility and
began leasing two former shelter buildings to the Humane
Society for $1 a year. For years, the clinic worked.
Immediately after it opened, the annual number of
animals killed dropped from 15,079 to 9,551. But in the
past decade, the numbers have risen again, and the city
has done little to keep up.
The wait for spay-neuter surgeries has grown to more
than a month, and Lewis says the society can't handle
the volume of pets without more resources. "It's a very
tiny clinic," she said. "... I can't put more people in
there because they're stumbling over themselves now."
One thing that could help keep euthanasias down, experts
say, is making it easier for low-income pet owners to
get their animals sterilized. That's important because
poorer people are traditionally less likely to spay and
neuter pets. About 80
percent of animal control calls nationwide originate in
Although pet owners at the Humane Society clinic pay
less than half the surgery's cost at a private vet's
office, experts say $30 for cats and $40 for dogs is
still more than many low-income residents are willing or
able to spend. "You've got this whole segment of society
that's going to have pets, and they're not going to have
the money to get them spayed and neutered," said Dr.
Marty Davis, a veterinarian at Monroe Road Animal
Charlotte's city manager sets the fees for the Humane
Society clinic, which are the same no matter a pet
owner's income. Other cities have reduced the charges to
as low as $10 or even free for residents who qualify
City Manager Pam Syfert said last week she relies on the
Humane Society to ask for fee changes and has never
considered a sliding scale.
"You're raising some policy issues about how you handle
the animal population, and I'm not the right person to
talk to about that," she said. Animal Control has helped
organize special clinics in low-income neighborhoods,
but they've asked other animal welfare groups to pick up
the sterilization costs. At three clinics in the past
year and a half, 77 animals have been neutered. At the
next clinic, the city plans to pay for the surgeries
with the grant money it received recently, officials
said last week.
Oversight is uncertain City leaders have done little to
oversee the Humane Society. Under the spay-neuter
contract with the group, city officials can inspect the
society's books and should receive annual budgets. Lewis
said the city used to visit yearly and look over
financial records, but that hasn't happened recently.
And city budget officers didn't notice that the society
didn't provide a budget for
the past three years until The Observer asked for copies
last month. "Through miscommunication or
misunderstanding of roles, the budget used to come to
the budget department for review, then go to police,"
city spokesman Rick Davis said, "and that has not
City officials couldn't agree who should provide
oversight. "I can't answer that," Chief Stephens said.
"Our only relationship with them is that they fulfill
the spay-neuter contract. We don't even manage the
contract. I think that's the city manager's office or
the city attorney." The city manager's office, however,
said animal issues are the police department's
responsibility. "Quite frankly," said Davis after
checking with the manager's office, "animal control is
really not on anybody's radar screen up there."
Cities that manage to stem their animal kill rates don't
stop with sterilization. They often pair those services
with extensive public education. Those efforts let the
public know the size of the problem and what happens to
thousands of unwanted pets every year. Cities have taken
out billboards, allowed euthanasias to be recorded and
shown by news media, and walked shelter dogs wearing the
dates they'll be killed if they aren't adopted.
Charlotte spends nothing on television, print or
billboard advertisements, although private groups have
occasionally funded such efforts. Williams allowed
Observer reporters and a photographer to view
euthanasias, but wouldn't permit pictures of animals
being injected or dead bodies. "We don't think we need
to shock the community by showing them 50 dead animals,"
said Williams, who added that the bureau is upfront
about its euthanasia rates. Speakers spread the word.
The bureau's main method of convincing people to neuter
their pets is sending speakers to schools, city events
and neighborhood meetings. "Are we in the schools enough
now? No," Williams said. "Are we going to try to improve
that? Yeah. We've got to do more to get the word out."
This month, Charlotte City Council raised pet license
fees for the first time since 1992. Owners now will pay
$2.50 more per year for a sterilized animal and $5 more
for an unaltered animal. That will bring in more than
$80,000 a year in extra revenue. Some animal welfare
advocates want that money to go toward spaying and
But right now, it's set to be folded into the city's
general fund, with none designated specifically for
Chief Stephens said it's not good policy to designate
fee revenue for a specific use, because the city's
priorities may change. Fees, though, are frequently used
to fund other local government functions, including
parks, building inspectors and utilities. "The license
fees are part of the general fund, and that's where our
budget comes from anyway," Stephens said. "So you could
say we already get that money back." The bureau is
trying to find other ways to pay for its efforts,
including more private grants.
Animal Control workers say they hate killing animals,
and their goal is to do it as little as possible. But as
long as the unwanted pet population grows, there's no
alternative. Shelters and rescue groups can't save them
all. "We do not take pleasure in what we do," Williams
said. "But we're the only ones who do it."