Adoptions are up, intake is down. Rescue and neutering programs are strong.

But the simplest indicator of progress since the city took over the troubled Waco Animal Shelter five years ago is this: The shelter no longer kills healthy, nonaggressive animals.

At a five-year celebration Thursday at the facility at 2032 Circle Drive, city officials and consultants pointed to that progress with pride.

In 2017, 94.5 percent of animals that came into the shelter came out alive, making it the second year the shelter qualifies for “no-kill” status with a live exit rate topping 90 percent. It is a striking contrast from 2012, when the live exit rate was only 33 percent and the shelter euthanized 6,013 animals, mostly healthy.

Shelter experts who have guided Waco toward its no-kill goal over the last five years said Thursday that the turnaround is astonishing.

“It’s a shining example,” said Sara Pizano a program director for the Florida-based nonprofit Best Friends. “I show Waco slides when I present nationally. The trends are amazing. It’s really my poster child in helping other communities. They don’t have the euthanasia rates or the poverty rates Waco had, but when they see Waco could do it, they say, ‘We can do it.’ ”

The city took over management of the city-owned shelter in late 2012 from the Humane Society of Central Texas, hiring new professional staff, establishing new standards and leaving the Humane Society to focus on the adoption business.

“When I visited the shelter five years ago, it was a place of despair, not happiness,” said Rick DuCharme, founder of First Coast No More Homeless Pets and a consultant on the shelter. “Since then it’s gone from a place of despair to the place of hope you’ve seen today.”

DuCharme credited community and city leaders such as then-Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. and Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem for the turnaround.

Rescue groups from Waco and other Texas cities stepped up their efforts, and lower fees helped drive adoption increases.

The city of Waco got to work planning a renovation and expansion of the shelter, which was completed last year, and passed a mandatory spay-neuter policy that was accompanied by a campaign to connect pet owners with low-cost sterilization procedures.

It hired a full-time veterinarian, Dr. Ron Epps, to improve the health of the animals and start a clinic that provides sterilization and other procedures.

But city and animal welfare officials said the battle is not over when it comes to reducing the surplus of unwanted animals in Greater Waco.

Intake numbers to the shelter have decreased from more than 10,000 in 2012 to 5,509 animals in 2016, but those numbers ticked up last year to 5,798.

Carrie Kuehl, executive director of the Animal Birth Control Clinic, said the community spay-neuter effort is the ultimate solution to animal overpopulation, and it is already starting to pay off.

“We know the problem is not growing, and we are actually making progress,” she said.

Kuehl said the procedure not only results in fewer unwanted puppies and kittens but also keeps animals from breaking out to meet their urge to reproduce.

For the last few years, the city has been funding about 2,700 low-cost and free spay-neuter procedures at the nonprofit clinic. In the current fiscal year, the city is set to spend about $166,000 on the service, which it promotes through the Spay Street Waco campaign.

In all, the Animal Birth Control Clinic performed 12,347 spay-neuter procedures last year, in addition to the procedures done in-house at the shelter.

Pizano, the shelter consultant, said she does not believe Waco is yet at the tipping point when the overall population of animals begins to decline because of spay-neuter services, but it has made a good start.

“Nobody knows what those percentages are, but we know from research, when you do about five subsidized surgeries for those of fixed income per 1000 people in the community, you decrease intake at the shelter,” she said. “So that’s been part of the story.”

Stem, the deputy city manager, said the support of the community, including nonprofit groups, has helped the city succeed in its no-kill aspirations.

“When I started this, I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ” he said at the event Thursday. “Gifts come wrapped for a reason, and this has been a gift. Who’d have thought we’d do what we’ve done?”

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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