*This story from July 2013 has been updated to include information about the lower euthanasia rate for the past year.
COLUMBIA — When Katie Steckel began working at the Central Missouri Humane Society three years ago, 44 percent of the animals that came through the doors were eventually euthanized.
Now, the euthanasia rate at the shelter is at a record low. According to the Humane Society, it was 12 percent for dogs in 2013 and 28 percent overall, considered to be "an all-time best" in 71 years of operation.
In 2008, the euthanasia rate was 62 percent. In 2012, it decreased to 29 percent.
The shelter attributed the milestone, in part, to an aggressive foster and rescue program. The shelter sent 936 cats, dogs and small animals to rescues across the country.
During the year, 2,956 animals were spayed or neutered, and 2,167 pets were adopted.
Shelter director Mary Pat Boatfield has also attributed the decrease to better staff education, an increase in the number of volunteers and marketing strategies.
"There's more collaborative effort in exploring all possible options before making any final decisions about the animals," Steckel said. "It was never something we were casual about, but there's definitely more effort put in now."
When Boatfield became the new director of the shelter in June 2012, she said her main focus was on data.
"I wanted to see what we've been doing and how we can best allocate our resources for the most impact," she said.
She spent a lot of time evaluating the Humane Society's programs and staff. She then required staff members to attend webinars and presentations on topics such as disease prevention, customer service training, and working with animals on behavior.
For example, to address the challenge of working with pit bulls, who usually have trouble getting adopted, the shelter sent Steckel to attend a pit bull advocacy conference in California. She now works as the Bull Runs coordinator at the society, educating the rest of the staff on how to evaluate dogs to determine if they're aggressive.
Steckelcq and the rest of the staff are trained to use the SAFER test to assess how dogs 6 months and older are likely to become aggressive. The test covers seven areas, including how a dog reacts to touch, and how the dog interacts with other dogs. The test determines whether a dog is adoptable.
If they're not, the animal might be euthanized, but it's a last resort, Boatfield said.
Animals that are euthanized are given a sodium pentobarbital injection and, if necessary, are pre-tranquilized to make it more peaceful — just as is done at they would atveterinary clinics.
The shelter's volunteer program serves an important role in the Humane Society's efforts to increase adoption rates and decrease euthanasia rates. More than 400 people volunteer, including some at events and others who provide foster homes for the animals.
Foster homes reduce euthanasia rates because they free space at the shelter and make the animals more adoptable by putting them in an environment where people are working with them on house-breaking, walking on a leash or some other issue. Right now, about 130 animals are in Humane Society foster homes.
Allison Lienz decided to volunteer just over a year ago. Her children were grown and she found she had extra time. She spends an average of 20 hours a week at the shelter doing whatever is needed. She also fosters dogs in her home.
"I feel useful," Lienz said. "They have a lot going on all the time that I help with, whether it's cleaning, entering vaccinations in the system or organizing paperwork."
"What I love the most is knowing I made a difference, whether it was for the staff or the animals, or both," she said.
Marketing strategies and events
Boatfield said the shelter is in the process of improving its marketing, both through a revamped Facebook page and through e-newsletters. She also expects a new website to be finished in six months.
The shelter has also increased the marketing of its spay and neuter program on its website, which has helped attract several people, Boatfield said.
"A lot of people just weren't aware we had it," she said.
The low-cost spay and neuter program, with prices ranging from $30 to $70, helps make the animals more adoptable. The program costs the Humane Society about $150,000 a year, but it receives $20,000 per year in state funding. The rest comes from donations from local businesses and individuals.
To further market its animals, the shelter holds several adoption events each month. Because the Humane Society receives more animals in the summer, the events take on added urgency in June, July and August, Boatfield said.
Boatfield can't say whether the euthanasia rate is the lowest it's ever been because when she started her job there, she discovered a lack of record keeping pre-2008. But, with more volunteers and marketing, Boatfield hopes to eventually increase the adoption rates to 90 percent and reduce the euthanasia rate to 10 percent.
What makes the biggest difference in decreasing the euthanasia rates and increasing adoption rates is the staff's dedication.
"Ultimately, you have to have a staff that has the passion and commitment," Boatfield said. "And this team's got it."
Steckel says it's just a kind of professionalism.
"I feel like we're transitioning from the way old shelters were and we're pushing toward the way shelters are trying to be," she said, "which is increasing adoption rates."