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A Nice Gesture, But. . .

We're already killing too many animals

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If you didn't know any better, you might have gotten a warm, fuzzy feeling last week when you read that animal rescue groups had brought more than 100 animals orphaned and starving by Hurricane Katrina to Charlotte to be adopted into loving homes.

You might have been touched by the generosity of the kennel owner who is putting the animals up for free until they are adopted.

My reaction, and those of others who closely follow the needless slaughter of animals at our local shelter month after month, was more a sick feeling of dread. "Turn back!" I wanted to yell at the television. "Please, take them up north, send them to California, anywhere but here."

Those of us who dread the crushing blow that comes each month with the arrival of the euthanasia numbers from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Animal Control shelter know exactly how this will turn out.

When the kill rate at the shelter spikes next month because Charlotteans already thinking about getting a pet adopted a Katrina dog or cat they saw on the news rather than one from the pound, we'll probably be the only ones who notice. Well, us and those down at the shelter who last month stopped the beating hearts of 46 animals a day, one animal at the time. Tragically, most of those animals were adoptable, but no one wanted them.

The South in general and Mecklenburg County in particular are still years behind the rest of the country when it comes to pet overpopulation. Two years ago, in its "Death at the Pound" series, the Charlotte Observer reported that the county shelter was euthanizing seven out of 10 animals brought in, about twice the national average. People were outraged. City Council took action. Rescue groups redoubled their efforts. But last month, just over two years later, 7.5 out of every 10 animals brought to the shelter were put down because there are no homes for them. When compared to August of the previous year, 115 more animals came in to the shelter and an additional 168 cats and dogs were euthanized. A total of 1,450 animals were put down last month. While the kill rates and the number of animals coming to the shelter fell during some months and rose during others compared to the year before, the bottom line is this: Little has changed in the last two years.

Those bringing animals back from New Orleans aren't to blame for this. While well-meaning politicians and volunteers with the city and the Charlotte Humane Society have built more runs at Animal Control and expanded a spay/neuter program, the root of the problem still hasn't been addressed.

The Humane Society offers low-cost spays and neuters to anyone who shows up, and it's not unusual to see new BMWs and Acuras in the parking lot at pick-up time. Meanwhile, in low-income neighborhoods, where the bulk of unwanted litters are born, people without money or cars can't take advantage of spay/neuter services. If you can't put your animal on a city bus, how can you take it to be spayed?

In community after community across the country, progressive animal shelters and nonprofits have slashed their local kill rates by 70 percent or more by targeting low-income neighborhoods with door-to-door spay/neuter campaigns and bringing spay/neuter vans in to perform the surgeries on spay days.

Long-term, the investment saves rescue groups and shelters money. Many have been able to reduce their budgets by more than half within a few years. In fact, it has worked so well in some northern cities that there is now a demand for more pets that rescuers in the South are filling by driving animals up north.

The problem is that attacking the issue here would require an initial investment of hundreds of thousands to a few million dollars. Given that the city spends more than $3 million a year on the animal shelter, in the long term, the investment makes sense.

Katie Tyler, a business owner who has spent the last year and a half strengthening the Humane Society and working with the city, envisions a time, perhaps two years from now, when the Humane Society might finally be able to free the resources to target the zip codes where the animal population is exploding.

Tyler hopes the new in-house spay and neuter programs at Animal Control will eventually help save time and money so the Humane Society can tackle the problem. Meanwhile, the SPCA Alliance, the only group currently targeting spay and neuter vouchers to low-income areas, scrapes for cash and prays that the next grant for a few thousand dollars more comes in. Sometimes it doesn't.

That a city as wealthy as Charlotte can't solve this problem boggles my mind. On an almost weekly basis, it seems, the city's in vogue nonprofits rake in cash hand over fist while solving the excess animal problem fails to rate very high on the sexy scale. For every year the situation doesn't change, another 12,000 animals will be needlessly euthanized and rolled out to the incinerator behind the shelter to be thrown out like yesterday's trash. We should be ashamed.

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