Sonoma County's animal shelter has adopted new policies aimed at easing overcrowded conditions and reducing the number of healthy animals that are needlessly killed.
Dog and cat owners who want to surrender their pets now must schedule an appointment with shelter staff to discuss alternatives. Healthy animals will be taken in only if space is available, otherwise these owners must wait.
The changes, which also include a new trap-and-release program for feral cats, represent a fundamental shift from the shelter's open-door policy.
Most public shelters in California operate in that fashion, with the result that it has been "letting in a flood and drowning everybody," said Brigid Wasson, who was hired Sept. 17 as the director of Sonoma County Animal Care and Control.
The county shelter's conversion to a "managed intake" facility is an effort to stem that tide. Concerns have been raised, however, that the new restrictions might prompt some pet owners to dump animals elsewhere.
Such a fate often isn't any worse for the animal, and may even be better, than if it had been admitted to the shelter, particularly in the case of cats.
An estimated 393,000 cats entered public shelters in California in 2010, an increase of 25,000 from 1998. About 278,000 cats were killed in shelters in 2010, which is only slightly fewer than the number killed in 1998.
The data is contained in a report generated by a group of animal welfare experts that seeks fundamental change in how public shelters operate.
Veterinarian Kate Hurley, director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at University of California-Davis and one of the report's authors, noted in an interview that shelters house less than one percent of the estimated population of domesticated and feral cats, and yet facilities are still swamped.
She said shelter managers normally respond by going beyond capacity, a decision she said has "crippled themselves without really helping cats."
Wasson said 79 cats are currently available for adoption at the county shelter — 29 more than the facility's targeted maximum. She said kittens are doubled up in cages, and that the shelter has had to farm out some of the overflow to local pet supply stores.
To help staunch the flow, the shelter has launched a new program in which feral cats that are trapped and brought to the shelter are spayed or neutered and then returned to where they were found, so long as it is safe to do so. The program is called "Community Cats" and operates in partnership with the Sonoma Humane Society and Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County.
Wasson said 100 cats were spared euthanasia in September when the program was tested. Such programs are already a feature of other shelters, including at the Humane Society.
"If there isn't room at the shelter, it doesn't serve anybody to keep taking in animals when you basically have to make euthanasia decisions based on space," said Kiska Icard, executive director of the Sonoma Humane Society, which operates a shelter on Highway 12 near Sebastopol.
She said Community Cats is the more affordable option, given that the average cost to house a cat in a shelter during the initial assessment phase is between $200 and $250, compared to about $60 to alter the animal and release it.