In June 2010 alone, San Antonio Animal Care Services euthanized 1,191 dogs. Of those, approximately 409 were healthy and adoptable, with no medical or behavioral reason to be put down. A whopping 723 were categorized by ACS as definitively unhealthy and untreatable, while the remainder were put down as unhealthy but potentially treatable or manageable. That’s out of a total of 1,570 dogs that ACS took in from the public that month.
That same month, ACS adopted out 168 dogs from their constantly full kennels. Almost an equal number of dogs were saved by rescue groups and no-kill shelters. If spay and neuter is the long-term solution to San Antonio’s stray-pet crisis — the formula first requires a certain number of all animals in San Antonio to be fixed, itself a multi-year process, and then a years-long wait for the birth rate to drop sufficiently — adoption and rescue is the short-term solution to San Antonio achieving No Kill status by 2012. By ACS definition this means releasing 70 percent of its healthy, adoptable animals alive. All those animals ACS takes in with stray sweeps and increased owner surrenders (thanks, recession) simply have to go somewhere, and it can’t be the gas chamber anymore.
To their credit, Animal Care Services recognizes that it needs to up its game, and has undertaken to build a new adoption center in Brackenridge Park with 50 additional kennels. They are also actively involved in Alamo Area Partners for Animal Welfare, a local coalition of adoption and rescue groups, which combines resources to rescue and protect the highest number of stray animals possible. ACS staff now send out a nightly “candidates for rescue” email to AAPAW listserv members, with photos and brief details of animals in near-danger of euthanasia. Additionally, Heather Guthrie, the City’s foster and rescue coordinator, regularly sends out a list of owner surrenders, which can be euthanized before the standard 72-hour hold period. This helps what rescuer Kelly Walls, of the group Homeward Bound SA, calls “the death-row walks,” where rescuers physically inspect ACS kennels for adoptable animals that could be put down due to a misidentification of breed or disease. For instance, an animal can be considered “unhealthy” due to ringworm, mange, or a broken leg, all treatable with enough time.
“Right now, AAPAW is working with ACS to refine the rescue policy to streamline and facilitate it,” says AAPAW president Deanna Lee. But ACS is just one source for stray animals in danger of dying, albeit a major one. Rescuers and no-kill shelters take in animals from other area kill shelters, from the streets, and even off of craigslist.com, where they trawl for puppy-mill and free-puppy listings. This summer, in the midst of a puppy and kitty boom caused by early summer weather conditions that for once didn’t lead to massive dehydration fatalities, rescue and adoption agencies are at capacity everywhere, struggling to find permanent homes for their charges. We followed three animals to discover the underlying challenges to finding a pet their “forever home.”
To make adoption more apparent and appealing to the general public, AAPAW frequently holds what they call mega-adoptions, wherein some or all of the 53 affiliated rescue and shelter organizations, including ACS, bring their most adoptable animals. On July 17, 11 participating organizations held such an event at the Brook Hollow Shopping Center, which regrettably lacked air conditioning thanks to a last-minute breakdown.
The stifling atmosphere didn’t dampen Terry Verner’s hopes for Henry, a three-month-old puppy she had been fostering for SNIPSA, a local group of veterinarians and foster pet parents who care for dogs in their own homes. Verner, a city employee who emanates a sense of calm, has been fostering dogs for SNIPSA for four years. “I’m not worried,” she said, nuzzling her vivacious ball of white fluff, likely a golden retriever and border-collie mix. Looking at Henry being cooed over by children and parents alike, it was hard to believe that a few months earlier he was scheduled for euthanasia at Animal Care Services, where he, his mother, and six brothers and sisters came in as strays. ACS euthanasia rules require dogs to be held for 72 hours before they are euthanized. Animals under eight weeks of age are often the first to be scheduled for euthanasia, in accordance with the Asilomar Accord, national standards of intake categorization for animal shelters. Under Asilomar, only animals eight weeks or older are deemed “healthy.” It is the number of “healthy” animals euthanized which affects No-Kill rates throughout the nation.
Verner heard about the puppies through the AAPAW email list, where news circulated that unless the puppies and mother could find a foster home by 5 p.m., they would be euthanized the following morning. Although Verner typically prefers taking in older dogs, “3:30 p.m. came, and I said, I’ll take the puppies.”
At first, they seemed to only have kennel cough, a communicable disease much like the common cold in humans. However, after fostering them for a few days, the puppies showed signs of Parvo, a highly contagious virus that destroys the stomach lining, causing bloody diarrhea and vomit. It can be fatal if not treated quickly. “It hits hard and fast. Within 24 to 48 hours of contracting Parvo, a dog can die of dehydration,” said Verner. The puppies required constant care. Verner estimates that she spent between $700-$1,000 on Henry’s Parvo treatment alone, far more than the $200 adoption fee SNIPSA charges for a vaccinated, fixed, healthy dog.
Although Henry’s good looks and playfulness flash P-U-P-P-Y in neon lights, he was the only one of his litter Verner had yet to find a permanent home. In the humid environs of Brook Hollow, Henry collected a following of teenage girls, pre-school boys, and a couple of serious adoption inquiries. But at the end of the day, the financial responsibility of a puppy scared away his most serious suitors. Verner shrugged her shoulders. “Sometimes the cutest puppy, the sweetest animal, won’t get adopted,” she said, “and the dog from hell will go home with a really great family.”
While Henry, the easy sell, was passed over, a massive all-white Great Pyrenees reveled in the attention of a Univision videographer, who filmed what he called “the abominable snow man.” A more apt title for the 2-year-old would have been “ the indestructible snow man.”
On September 29, 2009, Stephanie Hallit, a member of the Texas Great Pyrenees Rescue Group, received an email from a contact at Bandera Animal Control. “Here is a dog I found for you, look at the attachment,” it read, accompanied by a digital photo of a horribly thin, almost hairless male dog. He had been found in Bandera three weeks earlier. Obviously abused, he wouldn’t look anyone in the eyes and was terrified of water hoses. He had a severe case of scabies that resulted in cherry-red skin and open sores. Still, when Hallit and fellow Great Pyrenees rescuer Lin Lichtenberg saw the dog they later named Bandero, Hallit decided to take him in, even though he was so weak he had to lean against her to stand on his own four paws.
Hallit never found out who abused Bandero or why. His gentle nature charmed the Animal Control Officers in Bandera, and they reported no behavioral issues. It’s possible that Bandero’s all-white coat, common but not preferred in pure-breds, caused his breeder to abuse or abandon him. Or maybe he was purchased as a puppy, and his family soured on his hulking frame (mature Great Pyrenees males weigh 100 pounds on average), the shedding of his long white coat, or his instinctual guard-dog bark. One of the most common reasons owners surrender or abandon dogs is that their tiny puppy has simply grown too big for the owners’ lifestyle.
The first few weeks at the Hallits’ Boerne household were rough. Bandero lay motionless in the same spot near the piano in the family room for hours. “I would go and touch him just to see if he was dead,” says Hallit. Gradually gaining weight, Bandero underwent painful heartworm treatment, was neutered, and eventually healed from his scabies infestation. Over the course of 10 months, Hallit, a horse trainer who lives with two other Great Pyrenees, nursed her beloved “Bandy” back to health. “He’s the sickest dog I’ve ever had,” she said, “and now he’s the healthiest.”
At the adoption event, Bandero appeared beefy, with a full coat of white, slightly curly fur and a sleepy demeanor. Hallit considers the lucky dog to be 90-percent healthy. “He has some more mental work to do,” she said. “He needs to know it’s OK to be happy and play.”
After only a couple of seriously interested candidates in four hours, Hallit packed Bandero back up early. The hot and humid environment especially taxed Bandy and his fellow Great Pyrenees, who were originally bred for mountain dwelling. She made plans to take him to another adoption event in Houston the following week. “It will be hard to let him go,” she said, “but he’s got to continue his journey.”
If a puppy is too young, and a Great Pyrenees too big, Herman, a medium-sized short-haired mutt about 2-years-old, is perfect. Or, in the words of Mark Wilkinson, a vet tech at Animal Defense League, Herman is “a dream boat.” As long as you’re OK with scars.
Wilkinson and Animal Defense League hospital manager Emily Cotrell both agree that had Cottrell been in the office last December when Herman was turned into ADL, he might not have been accepted due to a large black burn running along the left side of his body. “Unfortunately,” says Maggie Smith, Kennel Manager at ADL, “being a no-kill facility you have to think, how long is this animal going to be here? Because if this animal is here for 30 days, that’s 30 dogs we could have saved instead. If this dog’s here for a year, that’s 365 dogs we could have saved for that one dog or that one cat.” Although other rescue groups like Homeward Bound report little trouble finding homes for tri-pods, one-eyes, and other physically afflicted pets, in the ADL staff’s experience, a dog like Herman, with a visible scar, may not be adopted quickly. Indeed, Herman has been at ADL for more than six months, or, in their terms, more than 180 potentially saved dogs.
Wilkinson never thought Herman would be here that long. “He came in with that scar, and my heart just melted,” he said. He repeats a refrain familiar to employees of rescue shelters: “If I didn’t already have so many pets at home …” The scar Herman appeared with had already healed, though he quickly contracted a two-month long bout with kennel cough. Wilkinson can only guess what caused the rectangular black scar—maybe a chemical burn or a hot object. When asked if it’s possible the burn was animal abuse, Mark hesitated. “That’s hard to tell,” he said. “I’d like to think humanity wouldn’t do that.”
Herman certainly doesn’t act abused. At the adoption event, he’s lead around and around the parking lot on a leash, wearing a jaunty bandana. His mouth curls back into a permanent grin and his wagging tail confirms that this is an extraordinarily happy dog. He’s also very well-behaved, standing still when his walker pauses to show him off to potential adopters, never barking. “He would make someone a real great pet,” says Smith.
So why hasn’t someone taken him home? ADL staff speculate it must be the scar, which counts against Herman to potential adopters who are also viewing the dozens of regal German Shepards, silky Golden Retreivers, and handsome Chocolate Labs housed on ADL grounds. Another, more positive mantra the ADL staff repeat to themselves is that the right family just hasn’t found him yet. They’ve been switching around his kennel position on the ADL property. Much like merchandising in a department store, “it’s all about placement,” sighs Smith.
ADL staff frequently parade Herman out of their mobile van unit, where he’s housed with puppies and toy dogs. In July, at the Brook Hollow Shopping Center, the placement trick fails to cath the eye of Herman’s new parents. Up into the mobile unit he goes, as they pack up at the end of the day, tail still wagging.
From these three stories, the July 17 adoption may have seemed like a flop, but considering that AAPAW has never held a summertime event before, the 42 adoptions managed by 11 rescue organizations is an accomplishment. Even more impressive was the Pet Expo event held two weeks later, where 115 pets were adopted, including Henry, who went home with Catherine Board, who had already applied to adopt Henry online, within the first 30 minutes of the event. On the phone, AAPAW’s Deanna Lee tempered her pride with realism. “We can’t sit back and say we got 115 adopted,” she said. “That’s not even close to the weekly euthanasia rate.”
As for Bandero, the day this issue hits the stands, Lichtenberg of the Texas Great Pyrenees Rescue group will be visiting a certain Current staffer’s home — surely violating all those journalism ethics codes about never getting too close to a source — to ensure it’s suitable for a dog of his size.
Herman continues to wait for his new owner to find him. Is it you? He’s in unit four at ADL, hoping to free up his kennel for the next stray animal. •