Coconut enjoys the life of Riley -- making herself comfortable in her new home and enjoying the attention of two young girls excited to have a dog.
On a recent afternoon, the Labrador retriever mix lounged around Dean and Stacy Moore's home in Evans, getting her ears rubbed while recovering from spay surgery.
But less than three weeks earlier, the 11/2-year-old dog found herself in a concrete and chain-link kennel at Columbia County Animal Care and Control after being picked up as a stray from the Grovetown Animal Clinic.
When the Moores saw a picture of the dog that would later curl up on their living room floor, they knew she was the family pet they'd been looking for.
"We saw her ears and said, 'that's her,' " Mrs. Moore said. "She's been great. We already love her."
When the Moores adopted Coconut on May 23, it was the second dog they had rescued from a shelter. The couple had their first rescued dog for 11 years, so when it came time for an end-of-the-school-year surprise for their daughters -- Olivia, 5, and Emily, 7 -- they adopted Coconut from the Appling facility.
But not all animals are as lucky as Coconut.
In 2007, the shelter euthanized 2,544 animals. Many were euthanized not because of health or behavioral problems, but simply because they weren't adopted.
Unlike Coconut, a male yellow Labrador retriever mix met his sad end in a small back room inside the shelter on May 28. He fought the leash that shelter employees used to lead him from his kennel to the room used for euthanasia.
"The other stuff we can handle," said Linda Fulmer, manager of Animal Care and Control. "We can handle getting cussed out. We can handle irate citizens mad because we picked up their dog or something like that. That you handle it, and you get over it, and you are done with it. This part is the absolute worst."
The 2- to 3-year-old dog was found as a stray around Blue Ridge Drive on May 14 and was brought to the shelter by a resident. After an evaluation of his temperament and health, shelter officials deemed the retriever adoptable.
Daniel Mayne, a shelter supervisor, was one of the two people charged with euthanizing the retriever simply because no one adopted him and shelter space was running short. The shelter uses the lethal injection method, which Mayne said is an overdose of an anesthetic that "is instantaneous."
Mayne and his colleague emerged teary-eyed from the room moments later, carrying the retriever's body in a bag. The body was stored in a freezer and later incinerated in the county's furnace, used to dispose of euthanized animals and roadkill.
Without hesitation, Mayne said euthanasia is by far the most unpleasant part of his job.
"It is a sad realization you've got to do something like this," he said.
Fulmer said the shelter euthanizes animals as seldom as twice a week to as often as daily, depending on the available shelter space. Fulmer decides which animals are euthanized after reviewing shelter tenants and space each morning.
"This is a job that nobody wants," said Donna Evans, president of the Columbia County Humane Society.
Members of rescue groups come to the shelter and pick and choose which animals they will take, but "Animal Control does not have that luxury," Evans said.
"Everything that comes in, whether it can be placed or not, or whether someone comes up there and wants it or not, it might be a nice dog, but no one comes for it. They have the dirty job of taking that dog's life. They didn't do that to the dog. Somebody out in our society did that to the dog."
As Columbia County's population rises, to an estimated 113,000 by the end of the year, so does the population of unwanted animals.
Using a formula provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, Fulmer estimates there are 15,278 dog-owning households and 13,373 cat-owning households in the county. That equates to 24,444 dogs and 28,084 cats in the county, Fulmer said.
Evans said unwanted animals come from breeding pets of Columbia County residents, those brought into the county by rescue groups and others dropped in Columbia County from neighboring counties.
Because many pet owners don't bother to have their pets sterilized, every time the animals are in heat, they have the opportunity to breed.
That is especially true of feral cats. Mayne said two cats can create more than 400 offspring in a year.
Through increased efforts of shelter employees and rescue groups, and proactive adoption and identification programs, the number of animals euthanized in the county has steadily dropped -- from 3,233 in 2005 to 2,974 in 2006 and to 2,544 in 2007.
"If a stray shows up at their house, particularly cats, and they don't want it, call us immediately so we can come pick it up," said Fulmer.
This year has already been a busy one for shelter employees with an overwhelming number of cats and kittens, Fulmer said. "Don't let it stay there and have another litter. Then you've done nothing to stop the circle that compounds that problem."
When an animal is picked by Animal Control officers, shelter employees follow a county government-mandated protocol.
Each animal brought into the shelter by a citizen or picked up by shelter officers is scanned for a microchip or other form of identification. If the owner can be identified, they are promptly notified, and the animal is kept in a kennel with a bed, food and water.
"Either get a name tag for them, and a collar or a microchip, and it avoids this process because we can get in contact with the owner much faster," Mayne said.
If no owner is identified, shelter employees scan their database to see if the animal has been reported missing by its owner and post the animal's photo on the shelter's Web site.
If no owner has come to claim the animal after five days, it is evaluated for adoption.
Kennel technicians check for aggression and evaluate the animal's general temperament and health. Local rescue groups are notified, and if they have space and want the animal, it is released free of charge to one of the four rescue groups contracted with the shelter -- the Humane Society, Heartsong Animal Rescue, Happy Tails Rescue and Molly's Militia.
Only about a quarter of animals at the shelter are reclaimed by their owners or adopted by rescue groups or citizens. The rest are euthanized.
In addition to space considerations, the animal's quality of life is taken into consideration. Long stays within the concrete floors and concrete block walls of the kennel can lead to illnesses such as kennel cough and often to changes in the animal's temperament.
"Leave a dog in a kennel for 15 days, and he's liable to change, behavioral-wise," Mayne said. "You have to consider that, too."
Volunteers to the rescue
Until the end of 2007, the Humane Society was the only rescue group to have a contract with the shelter to adopt animals at no charge. Their adoptions make up part of the 507 adoptions in 2007 and 576 in 2006.
In the first quarter of 2008, Heartsong rescued 66 animals from the shelter and nearly 100 so far this year; Happy Tails accepted 44 animals through March, while the Humane Society took only a handful.
Because other groups have stepped up their number of adoptions from the shelter, Evans said the Humane Society now works more with owner-released animals and in assisting pet owners to find homes directly in cases of moving, illness or military deployment.
"We're able to move those animals out quicker," Evans said. "If we can do that, we're still saving them. They are still headed to Animal Control. And the cats, they are either going to take them to Animal Control, or they are going to just turn them loose."
But the number of animals the rescue groups can accept from owners, the shelter or other counties is limited by the number of volunteers providing foster homes for those animals.
"The rescue groups are working tirelessly to help the community by taking animals out of the shelters and helping find homes for strays," said Barbara Gleitsmann, co-founder and president of Happy Tails. "But we can't do it alone."
Heartsong, in addition to fostering animals, opened the county's first low-cost spay/neuter clinic in 2006 and has sterilized nearly 3,500 animals through that facility at 105 N. Belair Road in Martinez, said Loretta Emmons, rescue co-founder and director.
"The largest thing (pet owners) need to do is get them spayed and neutered," Emmons said.
Anyone adopting pets from the shelter are required to have the pet sterilized within 30 days for adult animals, or by the time a puppy or kitten is 6 months old.
The Humane Society recently started construction on the county's second low-cost spay/neuter clinic on Columbia Road near Appling.
The solution: sterilization
Everyone in the county involved with animals agrees on one thing: Pet sterilization is the one action that will make the largest impact on controlling the population of unwanted animals.
"This is the No. 1 thing," Evans said. "The spay/neuter clinic will save more lives than the adoptions because for every one person born, there are 15 dogs and 45 cats born the same day. There is no way adoptions will solve the problem. You have to get them before they ever are born, before they ever come to the shelter."
Gleitsmann said early sterilization, possibly mandatory sterilization for pets, is the only thing that can reduce the unwanted pet population. And that responsibility falls on the shoulders of pet owners.
"People just don't get it," Gleitsmann said, adding that some northern states require sterilization and have gained control over the population of unwanted pets. "Something has got to change. We cannot do this by ourselves."
Gleitsmann said some area humane societies, shelters and spay/neuter clinics offer vouchers for low-income pet owners making the process affordable. In addition, Columbia County now is studying a proposal to offer low-cost spay-neuter vouchers with pets adopted from the county shelter.
Early sterilization is not only affordable, but very effective in controlling unwanted breeding of animals.
"There's no excuse for not doing it," Gleitsmann said. "We can't do it all."
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