Five years ago, Greenville County Animal Care was a death sentence for 4 out of 10 dogs and cats taken there.
Now, the county-operated open-admission center is about one more adoption a day away from achieving no-kill status.
“Not all animals that come here are adoptable, but the idea of having to euthanize one that is healthy and adoptable because of space is not acceptable,” said Paula Church, community relations coordinator for Greenville County Animal Care.
A 90 percent lives-saved rate qualifies as no-kill for open-admission shelters, those that have no weight, behavior, breed, age, or health restrictions for incoming animals. The other 10 percent are not adoptable because of health, quality of life, or because serious behavioral issues make them a danger to the community.
That goal seemed impossible in 2014 when the shelter was euthanizing 53 percent of the cats it took in and 21 percent of the dogs. In December 2015, the county shelter became a Target Zero Fellow and began implementing programs to lower its euthanasia rates in 2016.
“We have a very clear roadmap for life-saving,” Church said. “The progress being made has surprised us.”
Little cats, big dogs
In addition to further developing a rescue network, a foster program, and an ambassador program in which volunteers take home a dog when the shelter gets full and find it an adoptive family, Animal Care has implemented programs to address two populations that are difficult to care for or adopt out — kittens under 1 pound and large dogs over 40 pounds.
A community cat-diversion program in which outdoor cats are caught, spayed or neutered, and returned into the community where they lived has successfully reduced the population, Church said. In 2015, the year before the no-kill initiatives were started, the shelter took in more than 8,700 cats. Last year, the number was lowered to 3,137.
“It worked for us. The only way to lower the number of homeless cats is to have fewer,” Church said during a tour of the facility that had rooms full of empty cat cages. “We used to have six or seven rooms full of cats. We don’t anymore.”
Carol Creech has fostered four litters of kittens for Animal Care, including a litter she picked up just last week. She has a room in her house dedicated as a kitten room, which she calls Moo Cat’s Finishing School, named after the cat that made her a foster fail (which is what animal people call someone is fostering an animal only to adopt it themselves).
“I’m too old to adopt a kitten because the kitten will outlive me,” she said. “I encourage retired folks to foster. It’s a way to still have kittens and puppies, and you give them a good start in life.”
The shelter has also implemented a free large-breed dog spay and neuter program that is not income-based. Enrichment programs such as Dogs Playing for Life and cat play enclosures allow the animals to be less stressed so they are likely to be adopted more quickly. Through the shelter’s Second Chance program, a certified trainer has been hired to assess behavior and train dogs in basic behaviors such as walking on a leash, not jumping on people, and interacting well with other dogs. In addition, the shelter is providing treatment for some heartworm-positive dogs.
Susan Austin, who is president of Partners in Animal Care, a recently formed nonprofit charitable organization that supports GCAC, got involved with the shelter because of a lost cat that belonged to her son’s former girlfriend.
For months afterward, Austin or one of her family members did walk-throughs of the shelter. Although they didn’t find Willoughby, Austin said, “The end result was I ended up rescuing four cats.”
She also rescued Odie, a high-heartworm-positive cocker spaniel who was about to be euthanized. Odie, who died unexpectedly last month, “would have been a statistic,” she said. Instead, he was the best cocker spaniel she ever had.
Now, she spends her time heading up a nonprofit to pay for the programs designed to help dogs and cats find their forever homes like Odie did.
“Partners can help raise funds in ways the county can’t,” she said. Those ways include planned giving, shopping donation sites such as Amazon Smile and I Give, and accepting donations from corporations that can give only to nonprofits.
Last year, its first full year of operation, Partners in Animal Care contributed $23,000 to GCAC. This year, it plans to launch a microchip voucher program at this year’s Tails and Trails race in May and it also plans to continue Yappy Hour, a fundraiser at Brewery 85 held the fourth Sunday from April through October.
Some people who work in animal rescue say GCAC could achieve its goal of no-kill status if it would stop accepting strays from Spartanburg County, something that started in 2011 as temporary.
Spartanburg County pays Greenville County $29,000 per month for up to 400 animals and $60 per animal above that. Spartanburg County also provides one full-time employee at GCAC Monday through Friday, Greenville County spokesman Bob Mihalic said. The contract will expire June 30, but it allows for an additional one-year renewal.
“While it’s easy to speculate that more animals could be saved if we weren’t taking in Spartanburg County animals, the reality is that only about 2 percent more of all of the animals we help can actually be saved,” said Shelly Simmons, division manager of GCAC. “In the end, any person who cares about the welfare of animals should ask themselves, ‘Is it important to save Greenville’s animals or is it important to save as many animals as we can?’ If we were only looking at how fast we can go, we’d go alone. But we’re looking at how far we can go, and so we’ve decided that we’re better together.”