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Finding homes for the unwanted
Shelters struggle to find a place for millions of homeless pets
MARCH 13, 2006

DECATUR, Georgia (CNN) -- While pets across America cuddle in their owners' laps, sleep at the foot of a bed or fetch a ball in the backyard, countless others have no such comforts.

Millions of stray, unwanted or abandoned pets are left to fend for themselves while professionals and volunteers try to save their lives and find them homes.

Of the millions of animals in search of homes with people, the animals at the PAWS (Pets Are Worth Saving) Atlanta shelter are among the lucky ones. They are screened, quarantined, cared for and prepared for adoption. Unlike the traditional "pound," or local animal control shelters, no-kill shelters do not euthanize animals.

On a sunny, 70-degree day in early March, PAWS Atlanta takes advantage of the unusual weather by keeping its dogs in cages outside. The dogs react enthusiastically to visitors, leaping and barking inside their chain-link enclosures. "It keeps them from getting stir-crazy in the (indoor) cages," says Jeff Roberts, the shelter's executive director.

This no-kill shelter east of Atlanta has between 200 and 250 dogs and cats on any given day, sends out over 100 a month to adoptive families and takes in a similar number from owners and animal control agencies. The shelter stays full.

Difficult necessities

For a facility like PAWS Atlanta, sheer numbers lead to tough choices. The shelter's limited resources force it to focus on the animals that are likely candidates for adoption, so animals with health or temperament problems that make them unsuitable pets are sent to local animal control shelters, where they will likely be killed.

As daunting as the problem is, animal welfare agencies can point to progress; Kim Intino of the Humane Society of the United States estimates that 17 million animals a year were euthanized at shelters 25 years ago, and that number is down to 3 to 4 million a year today.

Even animals that could make good pets have to be sent elsewhere if there's simply no place to keep them here. "We have to turn away people all the time if we don't have space," Roberts says.

Parents often worry that their children aren't ready for the responsibility of owning a pet, but some adults apparently aren't much better.

"When it comes to summertime, we have people giving away animals because the family is going on vacation," Roberts says.

"We have to remember what it is we're trying to accomplish sometimes," Roberts says.

PAWS Atlanta screens people who want to adopt and narrows the pets suitable for a home based on available space, whether there are children present and other factors. This is necessary, Roberts says, to screen out people who see and decide to get a pet that won't be a fit for them.

The publicity effect

In the past, the rise of animal stars like Lassie, the Taco Bell chihuahua or Disney's "101 Dalmatians" has led to a surge in sales of particular breeds. Their new popularity, sadly, is followed by a surge in the shelter population when they become too much for their owners to handle.

The Humane Society's Intino sees pet fads as a real problem. "They get the animal, and then sooner or later when it grows up or does something that they don't like ... it gets dumped off, given away, brought to a shelter," she says.

"It's also causing people to breed more animals to meet a specific need when there are animals being euthanized in shelters every single day," Intino adds.

But the media can also work in animals' favor. Pet welfare groups and celebrities -- notably game show host Bob Barker, who reminds viewers every day on his show to spay or neuter their pets -- have spread the word over the last few decades.

Intino credits growing awareness of spaying and neutering pets to the overall decrease in shelter euthanasia. Spaying (for females) and neutering (for males) are surgical procedures that make pets unable to reproduce, and are strongly encouraged by animal welfare groups.

"However, I do have to say that I have still run into pockets of people who either have no idea about it ... or who are vehemently opposed to it," she says. "Even if they're a minority, they can still cause the most damage, because you don't need very many animals for them to start breeding like wildfire."

http://edition.cnn.com/2006/US/03/10/unwanted.pets/