Chorus of meows, barks grow louder at city shelter

ACCT Lifesaving Manager Natalie Smith scooped a handful of mewling kittens from one of the cages lining the North Philadelphia shelter’s walls earlier this month — when the drop-off center was flooded by an influx of animals large even for the always-bountiful cat breeding season.

“We’ve seen increases every year,” she said. “The intake is way higher, but the number of cages stays the same. We have a couple hundred foster parents, but as you can see from this room, it’s not enough.”

When ACCT’s operator, the PSPCA, was awarded the city’s animal control contract in 2009, its shelter housed 104 critters on-site. By the end of 2011, that number swelled to 247. Right now, there are about 600.

“It definitely has to do with the economic situation,” Smith said. “We have seen a change in the reasons why people drop off animals. Reasons like a lot of the surrenders can’t afford to feed or house them. The most highly-cited intake reason for dogs is the health of the animal, which sounds like a medical issue but really is a matter of cost. Most medical issues can be treated at a vet, so we’re seeing that people can’t afford that.”

Despite the rise in drop-offs, the number of animals euthanized actually dropped over 25 percent between 2009 and 2011, while adoptions more than tripled.

Smith credits a rise in volunteers – including University of Pennsylvania veterinary students completing clinical hours — and ACCT’s ongoing effort to be a convenient “one stop shop,” both in North Philadelphia and at three satellite pet stores. “We have the lowest prices and the biggest selection,” she chuckled. “It sounds like a shoe store.”

Not yet ‘no kill’

ACCT intake center operator, the PSPCA, pledged some time ago to work toward becoming a “no-kill” organization, where animals are euthanized only for medical reasons, not to save space. Though some leadership shakeups have caused delays in implementing this goal, local animal organizations say progress is now being made.

“Things are better with ACCT under the current management,” Founder of nonprofit Citizens for a No-Kill Philadelphia Garrett Elwood said in an email. “We hope to see continued improvement in save rates over the next few years and a commitment to make Philadelphia a safe place for shelter animals. The PSPCA has had a big management overhaul and is also in a better place. …They seem to be well poised to make a real difference.”

Happier pets, smarter owners

Both the facility and its practices have seen upgrades aimed at making animals happier – and more adoptable.

There are four dog runs on-site and a new donor-financed play yard. Longtime inhabitants are assigned a “pen pal” to act as both advocate and post-adoption counselor and workers recently started kenneling dogs in pairs to ensure they remain socialized.

The second prong of ACCT’s approach is prevention, with a low-income pet food pantry and low-cost spay and neuter programs.

But Smith said that more community outreach – both in the form of spay-neuter education and promotion of ACCT as a viable pet source – would go a long way toward helping to solve Philly’s population problem. “We want people to know that they don’t have to go to a pet store or a breeder in Lancaster County,” she said. “They can come here.”

By the numbers

115 cats and 40 dogs were dropped off during some of the peak days the week of July 16, about a 50 percent spike from ACCT’s normal daily average of around 50 cats and 20 dogs.

32,119 animals were dropped off at the ACCT shelter in 2011, compared to 29,492 in 2010 – a nine percent increase.

5,688 animals were adopted in 2011, compared to 1,740 in 2009.

60.5 percent of animals were “live released” – either adopted, transferred to rescues or returned to their owners – in 2011, compared to 43.6 percent in 2009.

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