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A dog’s journey through Pima Animal Care Center

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A dog’s journey through Pima Animal Care Center

Less than 7 percent of rescues are returned to owners

  • Hunter, a 4-year-old Weimaraner, waits in a kennel at Pima Animal Care Center. His owner surrendered him for adoption because she could no longer afford to care for him.
    Heather Rissi/ArizonaNewsService.comHunter, a 4-year-old Weimaraner, waits in a kennel at Pima Animal Care Center. His owner surrendered him for adoption because she could no longer afford to care for him.
  • Bumble Bee, a stray 1-year-old Labrador retriever mix, waits in a kennel after being brought to PACC. Strays are held three days before being evaluated and put up for adoption.
    Heather Rissi/ArizonaNewsService.comBumble Bee, a stray 1-year-old Labrador retriever mix, waits in a kennel after being brought to PACC. Strays are held three days before being evaluated and put up for adoption.
  • Any animal surrendered to or brought in as a stray must enter through the PACC back entrance, which leads to the in-take area.
    Heather Rissi/ArizonaNewsService.comAny animal surrendered to or brought in as a stray must enter through the PACC back entrance, which leads to the in-take area.

Day 1: A good dog

“I called earlier,” the woman said quietly when she got to the counter. “I have to drop off my dog.”

“OK, can I see your ID?” animal care technician Isabel Galindo asked from the other side of the counter. “Why are you leaving him?”

The woman, who did not want her name used in a story, showed Galindo her ID and said, “I’d rather keep my house than my dog.”

The woman kept looking at her 4-year-old, silver-gray Weimaraner. His assigned identification number is A238770, but according to the card hooked to the chain-link kennel door, his name is Hunter, and he weighs about 80 pounds.

Hunter is among the approximately 22,000 dogs, cats and other animals that pass through Pima Animal Care Center at 4000 N. Silverbell Road every year.

Statistics from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals show that, nationally, between five and seven million companion animals enter shelters every year. Five out of 10 dogs and seven out of 10 cats will be euthanized because there are not enough people to adopt them.

In Tucson, most of the stray, neglected, abandoned or surrendered animals end up at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, a private non-profit organization, or at PACC, a center run by the Pima County Health Department in an effort to ensure the health and safety of people and animals.

At PACC, the euthanasia number is higher than the national statistic. Of the 21,446 animals handled during the fiscal year of 2007-2008 at PACC, 61 percent were euthanized. More than half of them were dogs.

However, PACC records show that euthanasia numbers have decreased by about 7.5 percent over the past three years. During the fiscal year 2005-2006, 14,543 animals were euthanized, compared to 13,311 in 2006-2007 and 13,100 in 2007-2008.

The animals wait in a cramped, busy room riddled with both people and animals. The main office and in-take area show years of use, from the scuffed-up cement floors to the paint-faded walls. It is the place where owners wait to be reunited with a faithful pet, or where they say their final goodbyes.

Hunter’s owner had him for three years. That was long enough to count him as part of her family, long enough to know he loves to play with her grandchildren and that he is afraid of rain. And long enough to weep when she had to leave him behind after she got laid off from work.

“It’s him or the house," his owner said. "Unfortunately, the house comes first.”

According to the ASPCA, about half of the companion animals that enter animal shelters nationwide every year are brought in and surrendered by their owners, usually for a wide range of reasons. Some say they are moving or have no time for the animal. In Hunter’s case, the reason was unemployment. His owner couldn’t afford to take care of him any longer.

ASPCA estimates that up to one million cats and dogs like Hunter are at risk of becoming homeless as a result of the economic downturn in the United States.

Jayne Cundy, public service supervisor at PACC, said that it is hard to gauge the economic situation of an owner because the shelter doesn’t keep track of those numbers, and because some owners don't fill out fact sheets asking the reason behind their surrender.

“We don’t usually ask personal questions,” Cundy said. “We just try to get the animals out (of the shelter).”

Owners are asked to fill out a basic fact sheet about the animal they release to the shelter. This information is used to inform potential owners and often sets the animal apart from others or helps get them adopted.

“Hunter’s a good dog,” his owner said. “Very spoiled. He loves to sit next to you all the time.”

In the unfamiliar room, an anxious Hunter pulled and strained against the leash. Then, as he sat and tilted his muzzle up to look at his owner, he whined softly.

She stroked his head gently. Her face was red, her eyes puffy.

“It’s OK baby,” she said. “It’s OK. It’s OK.”

Then she turned away, toward the wall, and wiped the tears from her face.

Day 6: A waiting game

It has been six days since Hunter’s owner dropped him off at PACC and walked out the door. Hunter has spent his time in a kennel shared with another dog.

"Animals surrendered by their owners are evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible to determine if the animal is adoptable," said Ellie Beaubien, one of the shelter’s veterinary technicians.

After several days of waiting, Hunter was evaluated and began his wait to be neutered, which must be done before he is put up for adoption.

"Puppies and purebreds are pre-altered (neutered) before adoption" so they can leave as soon as possible, said Dan Miranda, a shelter supervisor.

The evaluation procedure is somewhat different for stray animals.

"Owners are given 72 hours to reclaim their animal," Miranda said. "If the animal has any form of identification, such as a tag, tattoo or microchip, owners are given seven days to reclaim that animal."

Cundy said the shelter will try to contact owners of animals with tags or microchips.

Animals are scanned as soon as they are brought to the shelter.

If the animal has a chip, but it is registered to someone other than the person relinquishing the animal, the shelter will call the person the chip is registered to make sure the animal wasn’t stolen, Cundy said. Also, PACC will send a letter to the person believed to be the owner of an animal brought in by a neighbor or another person, she said. The animal is also held for seven days to give more time for the owner to claim it.

If the animal is not claimed, and if it is neither aggressive nor sick, it is put up for adoption. Aggressive animals are euthanized immediately. Some sick animals are also euthanized, depending on their condition. Some sick animals may be taken to Sick Bay, a small room quarantined from the main building.

PACC records show that 655 animals have been returned to their owners so far this fiscal year, which began in July. That’s less than 7 percent of the total number of animals the shelter has handled.

One unclaimed stray put up for adoption was a 1-year-old female Labrador retriever mix, dubbed Bumble Bee. She arrived the same day as Hunter, with no identification and no background. She was found roaming the streets, her lack of care reflected by her ribs poking out slightly from under her skin.

No one came to claim her, and so she joined Lady, another stray female mix, to await adoption.

From there on out, it's always a waiting game.

The animals wait to be adopted. Or they wait to get sick.

Some wait so long, they get agitated and pick fights with their kennel mates. Some have to be euthanized, as was the case of a dog named Blue.

Blue, a medium-sized shepherd mix, was dropped off by his owner with several other aggressive dogs. He was the nicest dog of the bunch, Beaubien said.

"The average stay is seven days, but it depends on the dog," she added.

Blue is an example of one dog that spent a month waiting. He eventually became aggressive, attacking another dog.

"They are given a chance to see if they need special care or extra food," Beaubien said.

But if that doesn't work, the only option is euthanasia, a sad but common occurrence at an animal shelter.

"We all break down – every single day," Beaubien said. "But we don't have options.

"If we don't euthanize, there's no where to put them. And if people aren't interested, there's only so much you can do. He was really nice. It's a shame."

Beaubien turned her back to the kennel where Blue was waiting for the injection that would take his life.

Day 7: Controlling the pet population

The day has come for Hunter to be neutered.

He is taken from his kennel to the clinic, a small portable building behind the main PACC building. There, two shelter veterinarians work three days a week, to help sterilize the pet population of Tucson.

The ASPCA estimates that there are 70 million stray cats and an unknown number of stray dogs nationwide. According to Spay USA, just one of those unspayed female cats, her mate and all of their offspring can produce 11.5 million cats in nine years. And in six years, one unspayed female dog and her offspring can reproduce 67,000 dogs.

It costs less to spay or neuter an animal less than it does to raise a litter of puppies or kittens for one year.

PACC requires that all animals be sterilized before they are taken home. With the current special, adopters can get a dog, cat, kitten or puppy for $25 and a $15 licensing fee. The adoption fee includes vaccinations, the sterilization surgery and a microchip.

Hunter had never been neutered, so it was his turn to join the assembly-like line, where techs anesthetized and prepped the animals before the vets went to work.

On surgery days, the vets typically perform 40 to 60 surgeries, said José Ocaño, a veterinary technician.

"But they once performed 120 surgeries on a single day," he added.

Those extreme cases occur after a special event where many animals get adopted at one time, said Richard Page, a volunteer with the Animal Rescue Foundation, a non-profit, no-kill rescue that goes by the name ARF. It assists with adoptions at PACC or other adoption sites and rescue animals by placing them in foster homes until permanent homes can be found.

On this day and any other surgery days, the silver kennels in the clinic are filled to capacity with animals needing to be sterilized.

Day 8: Sick Bay

After his surgery, Hunter lay quietly in his kennel, sporting a new collar that prevented him from licking his wound. His kennel mates jostled around him, but he enjoyed sitting in the sun in the outside portion of the kennel.

The recently built kennel contains 30 indoor-outdoor runs, packed with dogs of all ages, sizes, shapes and colors. Nearly all the runs house two or more dogs. Hunter shares his kennel with two others.

Across the way, Lady has a kennel to herself. Bumble Bee and a newer kennel mate, Coco, lie curled up together on the cold concrete floor in the semi-darkness that is Sick Bay. The small kennel they share in Sick Bay is quarantined from the main building.

Coco is coughing and has nasal discharge, likely signs of kennel cough, a common upper-respiratory infection of dogs in animal shelters.

Bumble Bee has not exhibited signs of kennel cough, but her frail, thin body means she needs extra care.

Both have found their way onto the rescue lists, but rescue groups have been overwhelmed this year, and few places can afford to take them.

“PACC animals completely filled up all the rescues over the summer,” Page said. “It’s a phenomenon.”

So far this fiscal year, 496 dogs and 247 cats have been rescued.

“If they begin administrating drugs immediately, and if the animal gets better, they may come back to the main kennel and be put up for adoption again,” said Bob Smyth, an ARF volunteer.”

But in most cases the animals are not treated because there aren’t resources for it, Beaubien said. “They get added to rescue lists if they get sick,” she added. “Then you cross your fingers.”

Day 15: A good home

Hunter has one of the loudest barks in the kennel. He barks when people walk by, or when someone stops momentarily at his kennel before moving on to the next.

"He's too high strung,” a man said to his son as he walked by Hunter’s kennel. The man stopped at a run full of puppies instead.

People came and went. Most walked swiftly through the kennel. Some held pictures printed out from an online viewing site. Few gave Hunter more than a quick glance.

Then a man with two girls at his side walked up to Hunter’s kennel. He asked to take Hunter outside.

Hunter whined as he waited for a volunteer to put the leash on him and take him to a small outside play area.

The man, Justin Johnson, squatted and called Hunter to him. Hunter, suddenly shy, approached Johnson cautiously. Johnson rubbed his ears and asked: “Do you want to come home with me?”

The girls were all smiles and nodded when Johnson asked if they like Hunter.

Fifteen minutes later, Johnson said the magic words that every employee and volunteer waits to hear: "We want to adopt him."

Through October of this fiscal year, PACC has handled 10,065 animals. More than 3,000 of the animals have been saved, meaning they were adopted, returned to their owners or rescued. Nearly half of the animals were euthanized.

Johnson said Hunter is "different and well-mannered. And he needs a good home."

The family, who already has two Chihuahuas, also has a large yard, he said. "So they have plenty of room to run around."

Hunter spent 15 days waiting.

He whined in his kennel while he waited for his new family to sign the final papers.

A volunteer placed a new sign on his kennel door. It said what Hunter could not: "I've been adopted. I'm outta here!"

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