Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle
Dr. Michael A. White dreams at night of the creatures whose lives are in his hands. At home, the director of Harris County’s Veterinary Public Health unit is fostering two labs and four basset hound pups with highly contagious mange. At the county shelter, White supervises the crew that euthanizes unclaimed, injured and unadoptable animals – to clear space for dozens of new arrivals daily.
“If 80 to 100 animals come in here every day, 80 to 100 have to go out,” White said, whether they are recovered by their owners, adopted or in many cases euthanized.
While the human population has nearly doubled in the last two decades in unincorporated Harris County, the animal shelter remains a vestige of a less populous time and must confront the challenges that come with it. More households means more pets and – without widespread spaying and neutering – more unwanted pets. But the facility has not grown to accommodate the burgeoning population of animals.
“We cannot close our doors if we are at capacity like many shelters are able to do,” White said. “We do the best we can with the resources we have.”
When the county built the shelter on Canino Road in 1986, it was designed to take in 12,000 lost and abandoned dogs, cats, snakes, turtles, guinea pigs and tropical fish annually. The shelter now sees about 25,000 every year, the vast majority being cats and dogs. The current intake roughly matches that of the much more well-known Houston Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, although BARC operates with four times the budget.
With more animals, the discussion inevitably turns to concerns over euthanasia rates. After a boost in funding and increased partnerships with non-profits, BARC’s live release rate is now 80 percent, up from a low of 20 percent in 2005.
But this is not the case in Harris County. About 70 percent of the county shelter’s animals were euthanized in 2014, though that represents a 13 percentage point decline from 2010.
“It’s an extremely hard decision for staff to make: which ones to keep and which ones to let go,” White said. “There are so many really nice animals that come through here. They’ll come here with little sweaters or little dresses on. If they’re not micro-chipped or tagged there’s no way we can find the owner.”
The shelter partners with 131 rescue groups to aid with adoptions and help lower the kill rate. Nevertheless, the facility faces significant hurdles as it accommodates a growing region.
In an April 15 email to Dr. Umair Shah, the county’s public health director, White wrote, “While we have implemented efforts to decrease the number of animals that enter the shelter each day, which has helped, our intake is still beyond the scope of our facility to house the high numbers of animals and our staffing level to provide adequate care for them.”
More pets, fewer put down: The Harris County animal shelter, which was built in 1986,
receives several thousand more animals than it did a few years ago, but it has lowered its euthanasia rate by 10 percentage points.
Harris County’s compound was built to house 230 animals at a time. At near breaking point occupancy in April 2015, the facility had 380.
State law mandates a three-day hold for animals to be redeemed by their owners. After that period, rescue groups may foster pets and try to place them in homes. Whenever possible, White said, he keeps the animals on site longer, especially if there’s a glimmer of interest in adoption.
When dog and cat breeding reaches its peak in the spring, the number of puppies and kittens arriving at shelters rises, making it harder for older pets to get adopted. Last week, the shelter’s cages and kennels were overflowing, with as many as six kittens or six dogs to a cage.
Many pets get left behind when tenants are evicted. Some wander off, and their owners never retrieve them. Some dogs arrive covered in motor oil, or wearing collars that are choking them because they were put on when they were puppies and they have outgrown them.
“This isn’t about politics, this is about a community problem,” Shah said. “We can’t say, ‘At this time we are not taking any more animals.’ … We can’t say, ‘We’re not going to accept injured ones’ or ‘We’re not going to take the funny looking ones.’ We’re going to take all comers.”
Monica Schmidt, public relations manager for the Houston Humane Society, noted that pet overpopulation is a problem on a broad scale because of a pervasive mind set: “There’s a big difference between a stray problem and an irresponsible owner problem. You get reasons like, ‘I’m moving.’ Or I didn’t spay and neuter them and now I have too many.'”
For the situation to improve, she said, the basic idea of pet ownership has to change.
Government facilities around the country and in Texas are overwhelmed, said Joanne Jackson, director of operations at Citizens for Animal Protection. “They have to take animals in, and they don’t have the flexibility of a private place that can pick and choose,” Jackson said.
White said the more crowded quarters become at his facility, the greater the risk of disease like the bout of distemper that spread among the dogs last year.
There has been some progress in addressing the overflow. The operating budget for animal control has increased 28 percent in the past three fiscal years. Animal control has proposed two capital improvement projects for this coming year: a partial expansion of the shelter, which includes a new education and adoption building behind the facility, and a project to replace the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in the kennel area.
Jackson, whose group collects animals to foster from the county shelter and from BARC, said the county facility faces the additional hurdle of being in a somewhat remote area in north Houston.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Mormon said he made the trip out to Canino Road two Christmases ago with his daughter and they adopted the mixed breed puppy she named Snowflake. “Back then it wasn’t nearly as crowded as now,” Mormon said. “It seemed they were at capacity. I know they’ve got them stacked everywhere and it’s a problem, but I think they’re operating as well as possible with their limited conditions.”
White joined the staff as the center’s infectious disease specialist in 2010. He assumed leadership of the facility in 2013.
The former director, Dr. Dawn Blackmar, retired amid reports of inhumane and unorthodox euthanasia practices at the facility. A 2012 report by the county attorney’s office found that caregivers under Blackmar had re-used hypodermic needles and left containers of the euthanasia drug Fatal Plus unsecured.
The report said employees had been euthanizing dogs and stockpiling carcasses in view of live animals waiting to be euthanized – a violation of protocol. The county attorney’s investigation also confirmed allegations that animals, including some that had apparently been given the Fatal Plus solution, were found alive inside a freezer.
The shelter now adheres to the mandated protocol, Shah said. And White has established a reputation as an animal lover.
“I think Dr. White has done a wonderful job. From what I can tell, he has done a lot to reach out to different rescue groups and organizations to fill in some of the gaps where due to funding or staff they can’t do all they would want to,” said Schmidt of the Humane Society. “I do think he’s doing a wonderful job. They have a lot of staff that care deeply.”
The shelter has added a new puppy yard for adoptions and hopes to open a new surgery wing in a double-wide trailer on the 15,000-square-foot grounds.
Kill rates have also dropped under White. The euthanasia rate in 2010 including sick, injured and aggressive animals was nearly 84 percent. By 2014, the rate had dropped to 71 percent.
“It breaks our hearts to have to euthanize,” White said. “We are an open-door shelter. They say we euthanize for convenience. That’s hurtful. We want to save every animal.”