Harris County Animal Shelter: Leading the Pack

By Joe Stinebaker

It wasn’t all that long ago that Harris County officials had to expand the county’s animal shelter — not to accommodate the number of dogs and cats awaiting adoption, but to provide a “euthanasia wing” to dispose of hundreds of unwanted pets every week.

Veterinarians, technicians, and volunteers who had devoted months, years, and even entire careers to caring for animals instead had to try to harden themselves to what had become a production line of death. It was a painful process – if not for the abandoned animals, then certainly for those who cared for them.

But now, after years of enduring a reputation as one of the nation’s most lethal places for abandoned, unwanted and stray animals, Harris County has reversed that trend and recently celebrated its best month ever for “live releases” to adoption or transfers. Shelter officials were understandably proud to announce in March that they had achieved a live release rate of 95.7%, a figure lauded by animal welfare groups around the country. And so far this year, the figure has never dropped below 90%.

By comparison, the county’s live release rate in 2012 was 15.3%.

What that means in more visceral terms is that the shelter’s former “euthanasia wing” can now be almost entirely devoted to the isolation and treatment of sick dogs and cats before adoption.

“When I took over (in 2013), we were euthanizing probably 60 to 80 animals every day,” said Dr. Michael White, the director of veterinary public health. “Now that number has dropped to a handful and, sometimes, none at all. I’m really surprised we were able to do what we’ve done.”

As a result, the men and women working at the shelter are finding themselves spending their time caring for the animals rather than prepping them to be euthanized by the dozen.

“When the staff was doing that many, somehow they could put up this wall. I don’t know how they dealt with it,” White said. “It seems ironic, but now that we’re doing less and they’re seeing the animals more as individuals rather than just a list that they have to do, I think it’s even more difficult for them now than it was back then, and that wall has been broken down.”

White attributes much of the improvement to partnerships that he and his staff have fostered with local and national animal welfare and rescue groups, such as Houston Pet Set and Best Friends Animal Society. These partnerships have allowed the shelter to release animals to adoption, rescue, and foster care that had previously been blocked by red tape and exorbitant fees. Instead, working with Commissioners Court, shelter officials were able to eliminate the red tape, waive the fees, and allow private groups to help relieve shelter crowding.

One of the most helpful pipelines for relieving that crowding was the discovery that, while Texas was plagued by a chronic stray overpopulation, other states are suffering a shortage of adoptable animals. Thus, a partnership was born in which strays from Harris County are sent elsewhere for adoption, with some of the costs offset by private groups.

“Northern states don’t seem to have the issue with free-roaming animals the way that we do here,” White said. “It’s a different mentality. Down here, there are some cultural issues where people don’t believe in keeping their dogs up and don’t believe in spaying and neutering, and that tends to add to the number of animals that are free-roaming. But there are many states up north that do not have enough animals in their shelters for adoption, and they will take many of the animals from down here. The issue is trying to get the animals up there. It’s an expensive process to transport.”

Another factor in boosting the shelter’s live-release numbers is the Community Cat Program, in which eligible outdoor cats brought into the shelter are vaccinated and spayed or neutered and then “put back where they came from.”

The Community Cat Program alone has helped reduce the number of euthanized cats from about 90% to about 10%, White said.

Not surprisingly, implementing these programs has led to a significant increase in the shelter’s medical costs. Although the shelter receives some assistance from its private partners, that help is not enough to offset the increased financial burden on the county.

“We started vaccinating on intake and, back when I took over, we had one veterinarian and one technician for the shelter, and anything that was sick or had any kind of problem, it was just euthanized,” White said. “Now we try to treat everything. And that’s expensive, but that’s best practices in running a shelter facility.”

Far from celebrating, though, animal shelter officials continue to encourage county residents in responsible pet ownership, especially now. The “dog days” of summer do not bode well for the dogs and cats of Harris County, whose shelter population – and thus euthanasia rates – tend to go up in the summer.

Shelter officials recommend that pet owners spay, neuter, microchip, and vaccinate their pets, and not allow them to run loose. For information about the shelter and adopting shelter pets, call 281-999-3191 or visit http://publichealth.harriscountytx.gov/Services-Programs/Services/Shelter-Services/AdoptPet