GUEST COLUMN: Columbia faces animal care crisis

Wednesday, December 17, 2008 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:19 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

COLUMBIA — There is good news about how communities across the country have provided for the care and control of homeless animals. Great news, really. Ten years ago in the United States, an estimated 15 to 20 million animals were euthanized each year. We are now down to about 5 million. Given the increases in human population since then, this turnaround is amazing! What is also amazing is that we don't hear about this news in Columbia. All we hear is that there are too many animals with not enough homes and the only cost-effective solution is to euthanize them. There are communities all across the United States and Canada that have permanently solved the problem of homeless animals in a way that has saved taxpayers money. Columbia is progressive in many ways and we need to follow the lead of these successful programs.

Columbia is facing a crisis in its animal care and control services right now. We take in a large number of homeless pets from the city and surrounding areas, which has overburdened our resources. The Central Missouri Humane Society (CMHS) has recently asked the City Council for significantly more financial support, but the city is unwilling or unable to pay. The city claims responsibility for the relatively small number of animals taken to the shelter by animal control officers (about 400 a year), but does not want financial responsibility for the much larger number brought in by others (about 7000). This seems an artificial distinction at best. If the CMHS closes, there surely will be a huge increase in the burden on animal control. Even though the city labels the CMHS a private enterprise, it is clear they are running a municipal animal shelter for us. Caught in the middle between limited funding by the city and an animal shelter that may be closing, the Columbia/Boone County Department of Health and Human Services has contacted local vets to see if any will agree to briefly house and then euthanize our homeless animals in the future. This is a poor solution for us all.

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The problem with further city funding of the CMHS is that we would be pouring money into a system that is not working well. The public does not think highly of the shelter and most do not want to take animals there or go see animals that are on "death row." The staff makes a valiant effort to find homes for the animals brought in but the majority of them are still euthanized. It is a blot on the image of our community and most of us look the other way and see it as a necessary evil.

It is not a necessary evil. Countless animal welfare programs across the country have completely eliminated the need to kill adoptable animals, without adding to the tax burden. There are two main characteristics that successful programs share. First, they recognize that to solve the problem of too many homeless pets, we need to look at the causes of the excess numbers. One major cause is accidental breeding by animals that are not spayed or neutered. It's estimated that every $1 spent on low-cost spay and neuter programs saves a community $10 in tax funds. The cost savings are so great that some cities actually pay owners to bring in their animals to be spayed. The subsequent decrease in shelter admissions is measurable and quick. So, successful shelters all have aggressive, community-friendly spay and neuter programs. Second, they recognize that euthanasia is costly! It is one of the most expensive things we can do to an animal. Animals are held for a reasonable time so owners can claim them — five days in Columbia —at a cost of $15 per day. They are immunized so they don't infect others. There is a cost to the chemicals used to kill an animal and to dispose of the body, though in Columbia we send all bodies directly into our local landfill. Most estimate it costs more than $100 per animal killed. And since euthanizing animals treats the symptom of too many homeless pets rather than the causes, it is an ongoing expense that often increases as communities grow. So, successful programs are no-kill, even in open-door facilities larger than ours.

There are two immediate steps we can take to solve our current crisis and move toward becoming one of these progressive, no-kill communities. First, we need a reliable source of revenue to keep the CMHS open. One source would be from improving our collection of annual licensing fees for dogs and cats in our city and earmarking that revenue for animal care services. If, in our population of 95,000, about 63 percent of people own an animal (and we will conservatively say each owns only one animal who is already spayed and neutered, thus paying a lower licensing fee), then revenue from those pet owners would be about $900,000 annually. This is three times what the CMHS has asked for just to stay afloat. Licensing programs in some cities have been so successful that they have paid for all animal care activities, including building new facilities. No tax dollars needed! The second immediate step we can take is to bring in a consultant who specializes in cost-effective, no-kill ways to run animal shelters. Given all the money we spend on animal control, hiring an unbiased consultant with a proven track record would be money well spent. We can get a blueprint on changes we need to be successful. At a minimum, "successful" would be that we euthanize fewer animals and are financially solvent.

It's time to learn from the success of others. It's time to carry out effective solutions that work. We need to talk with our friends and neighbors about solutions to this crisis before our shelter closes. Columbia is a city of pet lovers and it's time for us to speak up and say we want this problem solved. Humanely. It is within our reach.

Laura Brenner is a board member for Columbia Second Chance.  She works as a psychologist in Columbia.

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