Last year, more than 17,000 dogs, cats and other animals were put to death in animal shelters across Colorado. That's more than 46 pets a day. That may seem stunning, but it actually represents a 62-percent decline from a decade ago, when nearly 46,000 animals were killed in shelters.
Roughly the same number of animals were accepted into shelters in 2003 and 2013 (175,000 in 2003 and 177,000 in 2013), providing a picture of how the welfare of animals in Colorado has changed.
Despite the decrease in euthanizations, several shelters kill more animals than they adopt out, Colorado Public Radio found in an analysis of data animal shelters report to the state.
Among examples, Pueblo Animal Services adopted out 641 dogs and put 1,109 to death in 2013. That shelter also adopted out 465 cats and put 1,070 to death last year. Mesa County Animal Services in Grand Junction adopted out 40 cats and put 894 cats to death and the shelter in the Town of Dove Creek adopted out 71 cats and put 102 to death.
Lisa Pederson, president of Colorado Federation of Animal Welfare Agencies, which represents dozens of animal shelters and groups, says communities that have high euthanization rates are typically in economically challenged communities where there are fewer families capable of adopting pets.
“So there are some places in this state where they’re seeing just a much bigger volume [of animals entering shelters] and they may not have the same adoption traffic as you do in Boulder,” says Pederson, who is also the CEO of the Humane Society of Boulder Valley.
The state’s role
There are no limits on the number of animals a shelter can kill under state law. But under most conditions, the law requires that shelters keep animals for five days before putting them down, in order for owners to have enough time to find lost pets.
Kate Anderson, the state Department of Agriculture veterinarian in charge of overseeing roughly 160 animal shelters, says shelters are required to destroy animals humanely. There are several approved methods.
“Most commonly, I believe, animal shelters in Colorado are using chemical euthanasia or euthanasia by injection,” Anderson says. “There are humane methods for using carbon dioxide euthanasia [and] carbon monoxide euthanasia. However, there’s not a blanket approval for use in small mammals.”
There are five inspectors across the state to check on the animal shelters -- as well as hundreds of other facilities, including pet shops and breeders. In all, the five inspectors are responsible for overseeing some 1,900 facilities.
In addition to inspections, the state responds to complaints from the public, and even shelter volunteers. Those complaints can trigger state investigations, which is what happened at the Humane Society of Fremont County, located west of Pueblo. Anderson’s office found in recent months that shelter violated several regulations, including its methods of putting animals to death.
“Inappropriate anesthesia was being used for the types of chemical euthanasia that they were performing,” Anderson says, adding, “as far as we could establish from the records they had.”
The shelter may have also put “a couple” animals to death without holding them for the required length of time.
All violations at the shelter were corrected in a timely fashion and the shelter continues to operate, Anderson says. The state did not fine the shelter.
Meanwhile, the sponsors of “no-kill” campaigns say reform is needed so that shelters put animals to death only in the rarest of cases, such as animals too vicious to handle or animals that could spread diseases. The movement, which could establish a ballot measure in coming years, says a tax on pet shops would raise $6 million to help shelters save more pets from the injection needle.
“We’re wanting to... use that money to... fund programs so that every healthy, adoptable pet can actually leave the shelter through the front door instead of through the back door in a body bag,” says Aurora animal law attorney Juliet Piccone, who is part of the campaign.
The campaign faces stiff opposition from the Colorado Federation of Animal Welfare Agencies (CFAWA) -- along with the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association. On its website, CFAWA says that a potential law would “have a devastating impact on Colorado’s animal welfare community.”
Pederson claims that the law would place additional strains on shelters.
Should a tax raise $6 million, Pederson says, it wouldn’t go far: “It just starts to scratch the surface of what we need to really meet that capacity need and to be able to provide resources for every animal."
The average cost of care per animal in a shelter is $250, she adds, a burden for shelters that don’t turn any animals away.
In a positive for both sides of the debate, adoptions of pets at shelters rose 22 percent compared to 10 years ago. About 76,000 were adopted in 2003. That number rose to about 93,000 in 2013.
Pederson says increased transfers among shelters and rescue groups to prevent euthanasia and better medical care are among factors saving the lives of more animals.
“We may have a dog that comes in with a fractured leg and we can fix that leg now,” Pederson says.
She also says there's an increase in the number of people who foster stray animals, helping to fix problem behaviors and make animals ready for permanent owners, she adds: “All of those types of programs allow us to place more animals into our adoption center and then ultimately into a family setting and give them a home.”