Bill aims to open spaces at animal shelters

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    By Callie Buys

    Last month marked a good one for dogs and cats in the Utah County Animal Shelter: only 63 percent, or 345 animals, had to be killed, according to animal attendant Jacky Barlow.

    According to its Web site, the shelter usually euthanizes 80 percent of the approximately 600 animals that briefly inhabit its 50 dog kennels and 57 cat kennels each month.

    Proposed legislation encouraged by Utah County Commissioner Jerry Grover and sponsored by Rep. Darin Peterson, R-Nephi, would allow local animal shelters to quickly euthanize unadoptable animals, leaving more space for pets that may be adopted or claimed by their owners.

    The legislation, titled “Disposition of Property: Feral Cats,” would designate Saturdays as possible working days to euthanize stray animals, and would allow feral cats to be euthanized without a waiting period, Peterson said.

    “Unfortunately, a lot of the space in these kennels is being taken by unadoptable animals,” Peterson said. “In the meantime, they”re racking up all these costs for the extra days they have to keep these animals around.”

    Current law requires shelters to hold animals for at least three working days, not including weekends, before euthanizing them. The waiting period, pushed by the Humane Society and passed into law in 1995, aims to give owners a chance to claim lost pets.

    The animals collected at the end of the week must be fed and taken care of for extra days over the weekend, at added cost to the shelters.

    “There”s no doubt it would save us money,” Grover said. “There”s a financial element, but it”s not our driving factor.”

    Chris Jenkins, animal control administrative assistant at the Orem Animal Shelter, favors the proposal.

    The wild cats the legislation would affect will never or rarely be claimed, she said, and the new rules would save space for other animals.

    “It (a feral cat) is wild. It would rip your face off if you tried to hold it,” she said. “We want to have more space for adoptable ones.”

    The Humane Society of Utah opposes the bill, pointing to difficulties in differentiating between an anxious, scared pet and a feral cat.

    “I would defy anyone to be able to say upon immediately seeing these cats that they were feral and should be euthanized at once,” Baierschmidt stated in a news release.

    Grover said no one would ever claim the feral cats.

    “There”s a population out there that have never been owned by anyone. They were born as strays, raised as strays,” he said.

    The Humane Society worries that a loved pet, acting out in a strange environment, will be euthanized before the owner can check the local shelters. The society also cautions the passage of the bill from a Constitutional perspective.

    “Rep. Peterson”s proposal involves the destruction of personal property without due process, which violates a guaranteed right of all Americans,” Baierschmidt said in the release.

    The bill, largely unwritten and not yet numbered, will amend the state”s judicial code on property, Grover said. It may also include special provisions for organizations such as the Humane Society, Peterson said.

    For Peterson, the issue boils down to a simple debate between state and municipal control.

    “It”s a local issue,” he said. “The unfortunate thing is that sometimes in the past the legislature has stepped into this. They did this with good intention, but it leaves local governments to exorbitant costs.”

    Utah County”s animal shelters are “chuck full,” Grover said. A new, larger shelter to replace the Utah County Animal Shelter will be completed next year.

    Peterson”s plan would allow city and county animal shelters to use or to ignore the new allowances.

    “We”re not telling them (animal shelters) they have to do this, we”re just giving them the opportunity,” Peterson said.

    The Orem Animal Shelter, which serves northern Utah County cities, has 54 dog kennels and 22 cat kennels. It usually houses between 400 and 600 animals per month. Thursday, the shelter had approximately 30 cats and over 40 dogs.

    While the shelter waits to euthanize adoptable pets if space allows, the mandatory waiting period sometimes forces the shelter to kill adoptable animals to make room for unadoptable animals, Jenkins said.

    The shelter euthanizes more than 90 percent of the cats it houses, with people adopting about two percent of the shelter”s cats and owners claiming another two percent, Jenkins said.

    Dogs tend to fare better. The shelter releases approximately 30 percent of dogs to their owners and another 30 percent to adoption, while most of the rest are euthanized.

    “Cats don”t adopt very well at all,” Jenkins said. “We do adopt a lot more dogs than we do cats-a lot more.”

    Barlow notes that certain characteristics, such as appearance and personality, make animals more or less likely to be adopted.

    “Most people don”t want to adopt black animals, so a lot of black labs and (black) cats get put to sleep,” she said.

    And while euthanizing animals comes with the job description for animal shelter employees, it doesn”t become any easier.

    “There have been times in the past where I have gone home and had nightmares,” Jenkins said. “It”s not easy to for anyone.”

    Proponents and opponents of the bill alike say the debate about euthanasia could be avoided if pet owners acted responsibly and spayed and neutered their pets.

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