Transports help 'no-kill' communities save dogs, cats

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 1:01 PM

Lee Bowman

Toby had issues. The 4-year-old chow's owners had dispatched him to the municipal shelter in Virginia's King George County for being aggressive with their children. He had skin allergies and wouldn't let anyone near him. Prospects for adoption seemed grim.

But after a few weeks, Toby made friends -- first with one attendant, then with the rest of the shelter staff and King George Animal Rescue League volunteers.

After five months, the dog got a second chance. The league arranged with volunteers from Chow Chow Rescue of Central New York to drive 16 hours roundtrip to pick up Toby, with another chow, and deliver him to the home of a New Hampshire couple.

Transporting unwanted dogs and cats to places with better adoption prospects is a common tool among the nation's relatively rare "no-kill" communities, which routinely save more than 90 percent of the animals brought to their shelters, and is utilized by hundreds of other rescue groups around the country.

The informal transport network is "our movement's Underground Railroad," says no-kill advocate Nathan Winograd, who helped establish one of the first no-kill communities, Tompkins County, in upstate New York a decade ago.

As of January, just 34 U.S. locales were recognized as no-kill communities by the No-Kill News, a blog affiliated with a national alliance of shelter reformers.

Two in Virginia -- in mostly rural King George and in urban Arlington County, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. -- show some of the characteristics these communities share and the challenges they confront.

Most of the communities, Arlington included, are concentrated in somewhat more affluent metropolitan areas.

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington hosts the only shelter for the county of 200,000. It has a paid staff of 35, including several animal control officers, plus more than 700 volunteers. Its $2.5 million budget includes $1.2 million from the county contract.

Even with all its resources and services, the shelter transfers out some pets, working with dozens of rescue groups to place animals such as Biscuit, an energetic 60-pound foxhound mix that had limited appeal amid Arlington's high-rises and small backyards. Biscuit was adopted within weeks of a transfer to the Loudoun County Animal Shelter 35 miles to the west.

Transferring "frees up some space and allows us to look at other shelters, perhaps in other parts of Virginia that don't have the resources, where animals are essentially living day-to-day, and transfer them to our shelter," said the league's executive director, Neil Trent.

League policy prevents the shelter from turning away any animal from anywhere -- making it the ultimate "open-admission" facility. It makes no guarantee of survival, just a commitment to strive for "positive outcomes." In 2011, the shelter, which takes in fewer than 2,000 animals a year, had a "live release" rate of 93 percent.

Owners surrender most of the animals arriving in the Arlington shelter. So the league offers an extraordinary range of services to help people keep their pets, from "canine good-citizen classes" to keeping tabs on pet-friendly housing. The league also offers temporary shelter for pets whose owners face an emergency and can't afford a kennel.

"We're fortunate to have the volunteers that allow us to try and do the right thing for every individual animal and put it in the best home," Trent said.

Although King George's population nearly doubled to more than 20,000 in the past decade, as subdivisions have sprouted amid farmland, it's still rural.

"We deal with the barn cats and dog litters right along with the pets given up when folks lose their homes," said Kevin Eller, the senior animal control officer. He has five full- and part-time staff and a $250,000 budget for the 2-year-old shelter, which can hold 50 or so animals.

Last year, just 4 of 422 dogs were euthanized, along with 7 of 305 cats, or about 1 percent and 2 percent. As recently as 2006, the shelter put down 41 percent of dogs and 80 percent of cats.

The change has come from gradually stronger partnerships between county officials and the hundred or so volunteers with the local rescue league, which spent about $27,000 last year.

"We're still a kill shelter, although we're working to reduce that," said Eller. "I think the only (animals) euthanized last year were due to injuries or by court order for vicious dogs."

Last year, local residents adopted more than 100 animals directly from the shelter. But the league, working with hundreds of rescue groups, arranged for most of the shelter's animals to be transported to adoptive homes as far away as far away as Connecticut and Florida.

"Most of the time, the organizations we work with have already got a match in mind when they take the animal," said Anna Gruszka, the league's president.

"Thankfully, more people are looking to adopt a pet, and they go out to the rescue groups and search through the Web. Our transport coordinator is emailing and Facebooking constantly. We're moving our animals to areas ... that have a better handle on spay-neuter and there's a better chance for adoption."

Similar rescues take place all over the country. For example, a group called Colorado Animal Rescue Express last year reported making 151 transport trips that moved 3,143 dogs and cats from shelters with high kill rates -- in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Wyoming and rural Colorado -- to more than 100 rescue groups or adoptive families, mainly in Colorado. Hundreds, if not thousands, of similar groups operate nationwide.

Although some transport volunteers get money for gas, most pay their own expenses. League dues, adoption fees and fundraisers -- such as craft fairs and raffles -- mostly go toward support medical care of animals.

Along with foster care and networking, other key no-kill tactics include promoting spay-neuter programs to curb the number of animals coming into shelters and sponsoring various programs to make sure adopted animals and their new families "stay."

Gruszka, also the league's spay-neuter coordinator, said along with vouchers to low-cost clinics, "we're focusing on educating people about how important this is to keep populations down at the shelter and the killing rate down. But it takes time to get that message around, so we have to transport."

(Contact Scripps Howard News Service investigative reporter Lee Bowman at

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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