COLUMBIA — For Kimberly Newberry, a bad day at work means choosing which animals must die.
Newberry, assistant manager at the Central Missouri Humane Society, has trouble talking about the grim undertaking. Her voice catches as she describes walking through the shelter when it's already full and new animals arrive. In the back of her mind, she knows which ones must go.
"Personally, I think it's the hardest job at the shelter," Newberry said.
On average, four to five animals have been euthanized each week this year as a direct result of a lack of shelter space. Others are euthanized because of behavioral issues, such as aggression toward children, or because they are sick.
Of the 5,132 animals the society's shelter has taken in this year, 2,633 have been euthanized; 227 of those were because of a lack of space.
For Newberry and Julie Aber, deputy director of the shelter, the use of euthanasia is a complicated issue that involves not only the shelter's capacity and the condition of its animals, but also funding. Donations to the humane society have decreased this year by about $65,000, while the number of animals it receives has remained steady.
This September, a group of eight people, mostly former and current humane society volunteers, formed No Kill Columbia to urge the society to adopt 11 practices they think would help it become a no-kill facility —one that doesn't euthanize healthy animals simply because it lacks space or resources.
The fight between No Kill Columbia and the Central Missouri Humane Society has become personal. It isn't a debate about the goal: Both groups want to reduce the number of animals being euthanized. They differ, however, on how to do that and how much progress is feasible.
Humane society representatives say they already have in place several of the steps proposed by the group. Members of No Kill Columbia, however, think that the humane society isn't trying hard enough, has let personal vendettas hinder progress and isn't receptive to new ideas.
Strategies for euthanizing fewer animals
No Kill Columbia president Liz Burks thinks euthanizations can be reduced gradually.
"It doesn't mean that CMHS will say 'starting on this date, we will stop euthanizing healthy animals,'" she said. "If that were the case, then yes, you would have over-crowdedness. It's a trickling effect, helping lost animals connect with families, using foster homes and things like that."
Of the 11 steps proposed by No Kill Columbia, the practice involving feral cats is one of the most contentious. No Kill advocates trapping and neutering feral cats then returning them to their colonies.
As it stands, the shelter euthanizes every feral cat that comes through its doors; there have been 256 this year. Aber said she is unsure how the shelter would manage a trapping and neutering program or whether such a program would resolve feral cat nuisances.
No Kill also wants the humane society to work with animals and pet owners outside the shelter to increase the number of people who keep pets. It calls for recruiting more volunteers to help make pets more adoptable, increasing public relations efforts and hiring an executive director committed to eliminating euthanasia because of space constraints.
This is where the debate between No Kill and the humane society gets sticky. Aber said the shelter already implements most of the steps No Kill advocates.
The shelter has more than 400 volunteers. It provides low-cost spay and neutering services to low-income residents. It averaged 330 surgeries per month in 2010, though not all of those involved pets owned by people eligible for assistance.
Aber and Newberry said the humane society also reaches out to rescue groups, including those in other states. It uses more than 100 foster homes and regularly schedules adoption events.
"We are constantly looking for ways to improve service for the community and adopt out more animals," Aber said. "I am sure when we get a new director this and other policies will be reviewed."
No Kill Columbia member Tracy Green said there have been problems with the humane society failing to return calls from local rescue groups or to reach out to them when the shelter was at capacity.
Megan Burnam, a member of the Columbia Second Chance board, wouldn't comment on past issues but said Second Chance frequently gets calls from the shelter now.
No Kill also believes the shelter should be open more often and on Sundays. It is open from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Newberry said the staff kept the shelter open until 9 p.m. on Wednesdays for two years but saw no increase in adoptions.
The environment and attitude of a community play a significant role in how shelters can care for animals, humane society board President John Shrum said.
"We have a community problem that is far bigger than us and No Kill Columbia," Shrum said. He cited Missouri's high number of puppy mills and a lack of awareness of responsible pet ownership as contributors to the large number of animals who end up in shelters.
Shrum noted that about a month ago the humane society started a program called Bulls Run that lets people adopt "bully breed" dogs — bull terriers, pit bulls and mastiffs — that used to be euthanized. Aber said the shelter has taken in 262 pit bulls this year. Four have been adopted since the program began.
"That is one huge thing we've done to try to curb euthanasia," Shrum said.
Shrum said the board is looking into the material from No Kill Columbia. "We'd be horribly remiss if we didn't do some investigative work to see if this is something we want to hang our banner on."
On its website, No Kill Columbia lists 23 communities with no-kill shelters. One of them is the Humane Society of Boulder Valleyin Boulder, Colo., but CEO Lisa Pedersen doesn't describe her shelter as no-kill.
"The 'no-kill' language, we feel, is divisive because even in our shelter we do have cases where we are euthanizing animals because we feel they are not safe to put back in the community" Pedersen said, adding that avoiding the no-kill label is more honest.
Like the Central Missouri Humane Society, the Boulder Valley group turns no animals away. Unlike Central Missouri, Boulder does not euthanize animals because of space or financial constraints.
The animals Boulder euthanizes — about 8 percent of those that arrive at the shelter — have severe behavioral or health problems. Community support makes that low rate of euthanisia possible, Pedersen said, citing Boulder residents' financial and volunteer support and their passion for animals.
"It's about what a community is doing, not just an individual shelter," she said.
Boulder residents can bring their animals to the society's full service veterinary clinic, and those with low incomes can get help paying for veterinary care. The humane society staff also focuses on building positive relationships between people and their pets; it offers training and allows people to call for advice when pets pose problems.
The Nevada Humane Society in Washoe County, Nev., became a no-kill shelter in 2007. It adopted 10 guidelines similar to the steps encouraged by no-kill advocates.
Diane Blankenburg of the Nevada Humane Society said that when the board decided in 2006 it wanted a no kill shelter, it brought in consultant Nathan Winograd, author of "Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & the No Kill Revolution in America." It's a book No-Kill Columbia asked the Central Missouri Humane Society board to read.
The Washoe County guidelines also include a trap, neuter and release program for feral cats that Blankenburg said is succeeding. The humane society's website says it has seen a 52 percent decrease in euthanasia within the first year of becoming no kill.
Blankenburg said the Washoe humane society hosts events promoting adoptions two to three times a month. "You have to keep changing things up and keep it fresh in order to get new people to pay attention. Our philosophy is to be creative and try new things."
At a humane society board meeting earlier this month, board members and staff sat around a large table with an agenda in front of them, while No Kill Columbia members and their supporters sat waiting for a chance for public comment.
Almost everyone in the room sat with their arms crossed.
The public comment lasted the full 30 minutes allotted, but it very well could have lasted for hours. The board and staff seemed braced for debate; society board member Jim Loveless moved for public comment to be pushed to the beginning of the meeting.
Four no-kill advocates, including Green and Burks, begged the board to keep an open mind and try the 11 steps. A big sticking point was No Kill's push for longer shelter hours to accommodate people who work or who need landlord approval to have pets.
"How easy do you want us to make it for the public?" operations coordinator Joe Caputo asked. "Should I go out and go and interview their landlord and say 'No, please stay home. Let us bring pets to you?' It seems like we're being villainized."
Shrum, who said his opinions don't represent those of the entire society board, acknowledged the tense relationship between the humane society and No Kill Columbia is adversarial, but he doesn't know where the bad blood started.
Shrum said he feels the group is always disappointed with the shelter, even when it strives to improve. He cited a No Kill Columbia poster displayed downtown saying that the shelter euthanizes more than 50 percent of the animals it receives. The statistic, though accurate, is incomplete, Shrum said. He said the poster came off as an accusation.
Green, however, said the number of animals euthanized is too high. "If 50 percent of the animals are euthanized for being truly aggressive or sick, that's a shelter process issue."
Shrum said he wishes animal advocates on both sides of the debate could come together.
"Many of the people that represent No Kill Columbia I think are just some of the biggest animal lovers in the world," he said. "... It just seems like there is always contention, and I don't understand it. I don't know if they don't like the speed at which we operate. We put initiatives in place, and it just never seems to be good enough."