Cupped in a volunteer’s hand, the week-old black kitten nursed eagerly on a tiny bottle.
The kitten will likely be spayed when it grows to about two pounds. Then it will be put up for adoption, just like hundreds of others that came before it at the kitten nursery inside Charlotte’s animal shelter.
“That kitten is a prime example of an animal that, as recently as three years ago, would not have made it out of here,” said Dr. Josh Fisher, director of Charlotte Animal Care and Control.
Before the kitten nursery opened in 2017, such cats were usually killed. Shelter workers simply had no way to care for them. But now, with the help of about 200 volunteers, the nursery is a place where new lives are launched.
The program’s success is reflected in the numbers. The percentage of cats killed at Charlotte’s public animal shelter, dropped from 67% in 2013 to 25% last year, according to state Agriculture Department data.
Across North Carolina, the number of animals killed in public animal shelters has plunged in recent years, a Charlotte Observer analysis found.
The percentage of cats euthanized statewide fell from 71% in 2013 to 44% last year, while the number of dogs killed dropped from 46% to 28% over that period.
In a 2003 series called “Death at the Pound,” the Observer reported that public shelters in the Charlotte region killed more than eight out of 10 animals that came through their doors. Last year, that kill rate had plummeted to three of every 10.
While North Carolina’s animal shelters continue to kill animals at a rate higher than the nation as a whole, some public shelters here have made so much progress they’ve been designated as “no-kill” shelters, meaning they don’t euthanize healthy animals. Among them: the Lincoln county shelter, which euthanized just 4% of cats in 2018 – one of the lowest rates of any shelter in North Carolina.
But some public shelters continue to kill cats and dogs at rates that trouble animal advocates. Union County’s shelter, for instance, killed 78% of the cats brought in last year, while the Burke County animal shelter killed 87%, and the Halifax County animal shelter killed 94%.
Becky Robinson, who heads an international advocacy group for cats, said that when she sees kill rates that high, “I think alarm bells should be going off.”
“It’s a crisis and it demands immediate attention,” said Robinson, president and founder of Alley Cat Allies. “...Taxpayers should be demanding that shelters do things differently.”
Shelly Moore, president of the Humane Society of Charlotte, says she still sees too many North Carolina counties that refuse to invest enough to save the lives of animals.
“You’ve got to allocate the resources,” Moore said. “...I do believe the buck stops with elected officials.”
Life-saving changes at Charlotte’s shelter
At Charlotte’s public animal shelter, just south of the airport, the euthanasia suite was once one of the busiest parts of the office.
Now, however, the shelter’s 79 staff members spend most of their working hours trying to keep animals alive.
The numbers clearly show how much things have changed. In 2013, more than 7,700 dogs and cats were killed at the shelter. By last year, that number had dropped to about 2,600.
The shelter runs several programs to help owners keep their pets, even if they are facing hardships. With grant money and donations, it helps low-income people pay pet deposits on apartments. It also provides financial help to some whose pets need medical procedures.
“We’re trying to keep pets and people together,” says Fisher, the shelter’s director.
Fisher and his colleagues are also working to reduce the population of unwanted animals.
The shelter sterilizes every animal before putting it up for adoption. It also uses donations to put on a free medical clinic at the shelter on the second Saturday morning of every month. There, pet owners can get their animals spayed, neutered and vaccinated for rabies. The shelter sterilizes about 700 animals a year through that program.
And when owners come to the shelter to claim stray pets, Animal Care and Control waives sterilization, impound and boarding fees — if the owners agree to get their pets spayed or neutered.
Saving animals requires more money than euthanizing them, Fisher says. His shelter has a $6.5 million annual operating budget and receives an additional $300,000 to $500,000 in grants and donations each year. It spends about $210,000 a year on spaying and neutering.
Wake County Animal Care and Control in Raleigh has made similar progress. There, 31% of cats were euthanized in 2018, down from 54% in 2013.
Wake Animal Services Director Jennifer Federico says the shelter employs three veterinarians who help keep animals healthy — and therefore adoptable.
The shelter also use volunteers to walk dogs and pet cats — work that helps reduce behavioral problems and makes animals more suitable for adoption.
Sparing the lives of cats and dogs
Shelters in North Carolina continue to kill cats at a rate almost twice the national average, according to data collected by Shelter Animals Count.
But like animal shelters nationwide, most public shelters in North Carolina have dramatically reduced the rate at which they kill animals. About 90% of public shelters in North Carolina euthanized cats at a slower rate in 2018 than they did in 2013.
Reducing the number of animals killed is “not rocket science,” says Robinson, of Alley Cat Allies. Many shelters have done that by spaying and neutering animals, hiring veterinarians to keep pets healthy and adoptable, and spending the money necessary to save lives, animal advocates say.
At the Rowan County Animal Shelter in Salisbury, for instance, only 4% of cats were killed in 2018 — down from about 52% in 2013.
With 22 staff members and an annual budget of more than $800,000, the shelter holds special adoption events in the community, regularly offering “80% off” sales to encourage would-be pet owners.
On its Facebook page, the shelter features photos of animals that can be adopted — along with the animal’s projected “last day” to encourage people to adopt before it’s too late.
The shelter also works with nonprofit rescue groups to send some of its animals to the Northeast, where fewer pets are available for adoption.
Those who run Lincoln County Animal Services, meanwhile, have demonstrated that there’s an alternative to killing cats without owners.
In 2018, the organization received grant funding to participate in a program focused on “community cats” — outdoor animals that are fed by people in the community, but not owned by them. Under that program, those cats are trapped, spayed and neutered at the animal shelter, and then returned to the communities where they lived. That’s helping to reduce the population of unwanted animals, animal services director Hannah Beaver says.
When the shelter receives cats that seem unfit to live in a house, it sometimes gives them away for free to barn owners who need them for rodent control.
In 2018, just 4% of the cats brought into the shelter were euthanized — down from 59% in 2013.
Funding and community support have been key to reducing the euthanasia rate, Beaver says. Lincoln County Animal Services has 22 staff members and an annual budget of more than $1.4 million.
Where few cats get out alive
But at more than 30 other public shelters across North Carolina, most cats wind up getting killed, state data show.
At Union County Animal Services, “the volume of cats we get is unreal,” says Lt. Scott Green, the county sheriff’s officer who has run the shelter since early this year. On some days, as many as 50 cats are brought in, Green said. But the shelter has just 45 kennels to hold cats for adoption.
More than three quarters of the cats brought in to the shelter last year were killed. Most feral cats are killed a few days after they’re brought in.
Euthanizing animals is “not something we enjoy doing,” Green said.
“But we’d fill this building to the brim in a week or two with cats and dogs … if we didn’t have a way to move them,” he said.
Green said the shelter needs more groups and individuals who are willing to take responsibility for animals. And he said he’s trying to strengthen partnerships with animal rescue groups, who he hopes will help get more of their animals adopted.
But stemming the tide of animals into the shelter is difficult when pet owners fail to spay and neuter their animals or keep them from roaming, says Sgt. Chad Coppedge, an animal control officer for the county.
“The pets aren’t the problem,” Coppedge said. “It’s the owners. You can’t make somebody care.”
‘Underfunded, understaffed and undersized’
Some of North Carolina’s public shelters run on a shoestring. At least 11 of them had less than $100,000 in operating expenses last year. Compare that to Charlotte’s shelter, which spent more than $6 million.
Under state law, shelters must hold stray animals for at least 72 hours before killing them.
But Fisher, the Charlotte shelter’s director, says the budgets of some shelters are so small that they can’t afford to do much more than house most animals for 72 hours before euthanizing them.
Angela Rovetto, Mid-Atlantic Regional Manager for the Best Friends Animal Society, said that shelters with high kill rates are usually underfunded.
“It indicates they need help,” she wrote in a statement to the Observer.
By spending more money on shelters, local officials can ensure that animals are spayed, neutered and cared for in ways that will make them more adoptable, animal advocates say.
Until this year, Burke County’s animal shelter had just one employee who had to split her time between enforcement and shelter work.
“We were just underfunded, understaffed and undersized,” said Burke County Sheriff Steve Whisenant, whose office was until recently responsible for running the animal shelter.
Nearly nine of every 10 cats brought into the county’s shelter were killed in 2018. Whisenant said he hated that.
“Nobody wants to euthanize little kittens and puppies,” he said. “It’s horrible.”
But Whisenant said he now has reason for hope. The county recently put the shelter under the control of the county manager’s office and hired three new shelter employees.
Those employees will work with rescue groups and others to increase adoptions — along with the number of animals that are spayed and neutered, Whisenant said.
Another longtime problem: Burke’s shelter is simply too small to hold all the animals brought in.
Shelters can face large fines for exceeding the number of animals they’re legally able to house. So, Whisenant said, the sheriff’s office sometimes faced a terrible choice: “Do you face the fines or do you euthanize the animals?”
Now, though, the county is planning to build a larger shelter — a step that Whisenant believes will help reduce the kill rate significantly.