In the first year under the city of Waco’s control, the Waco Animal Shelter killed 4,121 fewer dogs and cats than the year before.

A 73 percent drop in the euthanasia rate is just one indicator of the change since the city took over kennel operations from the Humane Society of Central Texas on Dec. 1, 2012.

The city has invested in equipment and facility improvements, beefed up hygiene practices and reduced intake by placing tougher restrictions on animal surrenders.

The Humane Society, which runs the shelter’s adoption side, has worked with other organizations in Waco and across the state to clear the inventory, increasing rescues by nearly 40 percent.

Humane Society executive director Don Bland said the city staff’s emphasis on examining animals on intake and improving hygiene has paid off in building relationships with rescue groups.

“We’re providing them with healthy, quality animals, and when we tell them that, they trust us,” he said. “We have built a reputation with these people.”

Cost of progress

Progress has come with a price. Before the takeover, city officials had predicted that the city’s contribution would not increase significantly above the $350,000 it had given the Humane Society under the old contract. The Humane Society ended the contract because the city wouldn’t increase its payment.

The city has budgeted $557,172 in operational costs in the budget year that started in October, including a $100,000 contract to increase spay and neuter services. It had similar operational costs last year, plus $106,000 in physical improvements such as stainless steel surfaces and ventilation improvements in the intake center.

Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said the money has been well-spent.

“We are comfortable with that budget number going forward a few years,” he said. “This is not a one-time commitment. To get these kinds of results shows it’s a good investment.”

The new model has won over one-time critics from other animal welfare organizations who had warned that the takeover would lead to mass euthanasia.

‘No-kill’ approach

Now the city has embraced animal advocates’ goal of making the shelter “no-kill,” with a live exit rate of 90 percent. Last month, the rate was 83 percent, and during the past year it has been about 65 percent, up from 35.6 percent in the prior 12 months.

Michelle Nemec, president of the McLennan Animal Rescue Coalition, said the shelter statistics show the city is doing the right thing.

“I don’t think we could ever say thank you enough to the Waco City Council and to our community for supporting some of these changes and providing funding to help the shelter,” she said.

She said concerns about the takeover prompted local animal welfare groups to sit down together and put aside past differences. In summer 2012, some animal advocates expressed doubts about the Humane Society’s proposed role in overseeing the adoptions.

“I agree there was some mistrust at the time, but that seems to have gone away,” Nemec said. “Communication is better, and I think that is what has helped the most.”

Duncan said the support of animal welfare groups was “critical” to the shelter’s success.

“We couldn’t get anywhere without all of them being supportive of what we do,” he said. “That turned the tide of public will and support.”

2012 changes

Assistant City Manager Wiley Stem, who oversees animal operations, said the shelter was moving in the right direction even before the transition. In 2012, the Humane Society reduced crowding and resumed the practice of vaccinating all animals on intake.

Bland, who started in 2012, also ended the shelter’s ban on adopting out pit bulls and pit-bull mixes. Those dogs, which accounted for more than half the shelter’s population, were being automatically euthanized.

Shelter officials began doing temperament testing of pit bulls and found that many would be suitable pets, Bland said.

Mayor Duncan said the old pit bull policy was probably a measure of desperation.

“Part of that is that they were so tired of trying to adopt out big dogs,” he said. “The operation was geared toward euthanasia because they knew they couldn’t get them adopted. With a 70 to 75 percent kill rate, it was easier to say let the big dogs go because the odds of getting smaller dogs adopted were better.”

Since the city took over the kennel operation, the shelter has started charging $50 to drop off animals, even for strays brought in by good Samaritans.

In the last few months, the shelter has allowed surrenders only for two hours a day, with the idea that surrendering an animal to the public’s charge shouldn’t be easy.

Intake at the shelter has dropped to 7,384 in the 12 months ending Dec. 1, down from 9,544 in the previous 12 months.

Pet sterilization

The city has also taken an aggressive stance on pet sterilization, which officials see as the ultimate solution to pet overpopulation.

The city passed an ordinance that requires pets to be spayed or neutered starting in January, with some medical and breeding exemptions.

The city has funded the Animal Birth Control Clinic to do 6,000 free surgeries for pets owned by lower-income residents, but only 140 people have taken advantage of the program since it began in October.

The city is also requiring other surrounding towns to adopt the mandatory spay-neuter policy by January if they want to continue using the shelter.

Several cities, such as Hewitt and Marlin, have adopted the policy. The Bellmead City Council plans to hold a public meeting in January to discuss the issue. Bellmead City Council member Kevin Wilson said he’s concerned that such an ordinance would be a burden on the poor and elderly.

Stem said the spay-neuter mandate needs to be uniform among all the shelter’s participating cities so the shelter can enforce it for animals being adopted or reclaimed.

Duncan said the city and the Animal Birth Control Clinic are stepping up their public education effort to get more pet owners to comply with the spay-neuter law.

If those efforts are successful, Duncan said, the shelter could win a “no-kill” designation within two or three years.

He said the declining intake has taken pressure off the crowding problems the shelter has seen in the past, but he still sees a need for further improvements. Duncan said he would support replacing the older buildings, kennels A and B, within the next few years.

“If we’re going to do it, we want it to be right,” he said. “I think the city and the council are very pleased with the results so far, and that makes investing in the shelter a lot easier.”

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