OPINION: Out of options, shelter threatens to kill dogs. Public steps up

Crowds packed the DeKalb County Animal Shelter Thursday after news went out the shelter was considering euthanasia for dogs because of overcrowding.

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Crowds packed the DeKalb County Animal Shelter Thursday after news went out the shelter was considering euthanasia for dogs because of overcrowding.

The plea was urgent. And dire: The Dekalb County Animal Shelter was packed with unwanted dogs. Historically overcrowded. If the public didn’t adopt some, like 150 by month’s end, animals would be euthanized.

It was like a giant clock ominously ticking alongside the face of an adorable — and doomed — dog.

Remember back at the start of COVID? Folks stuck at home rushed to dog pounds across the nation and snapped up furry friends to help them negotiate those scary times.

DeKalb, with a capacity for 450 dogs, got down to about 50 in mid-2020. Last week, it had almost 600.

The shelter is in crisis because dogs, especially strays picked up by the DeKalb’s animal control officers, are flowing into the facility and staying. Adoptions have plummeted nationwide.

“They keep coming in but are not leaving,” said Rebecca Guinn, CEO of LifeLine Animal Project, which has operated the shelters in DeKalb and Fulton counties since 2013.

I called Guinn Thursday morning after hearing the news.

"Scotland," a 5-year-old pit bull-mix, awaits a new owner at the DeKalb County Animal Shelter .

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

Guinn, a former criminal defense attorney, got involved in saving dogs 20 years ago when one’s paw got caught in a barbed wire fence near her home and she later found out how cruel the system was for unwanted pets.

DeKalb is now considered a “no-kill” shelter. That doesn’t mean they don’t euthanize animals. But she said their “save rate” has been over 90%.

Guinn figures economic uncertainty is causing the drop in adoptions, that people don’t want to take on the added responsibility of pets. Apartments have gotten tougher with restrictions on medium-sized and large dogs.

Also, a canine flu the past two month has made matters worse. Other facilities that were once able to take the shelter’s overflow are packed themselves and can no longer relieve them.

“It’s got to a point where our strategies to get them out alive have been working less and less,” she told me. “This year has been brutal. We have not had to euthanize dogs because of space since 2018. We’re at the point where we have run out of options for these animals. It’s heartbreaking. They deserve better.”

Ideally, they’d like to get dogs either adopted or fostered within a month. But “now we’re looking at (an average of) about 120 days in that shelter. Some are not doing well at this point. Their behavior is deteriorating, their mental health is deteriorating.

“I’ve never seen it like this. We’re really struggling. We can’t go on like this any longer.”

Hours after our bleak conversation, I dropped in at the shelter. Cars were parked on grassy shoulders up and down the street. The waiting room was full. The hallway in the adoptions’ section was packed with perhaps 40 people waiting on chairs. A couple dozen more wandered the hallways and looked in on the rooms with caged pens.

The public had heard the call and was responding.

Natalie Pierce and Lauren Holston, rear, ponder which dog to foster Thursday after the DeKalb County Animal Shelter made a plea for the public to come in and foster or adopt because of overcrowding.

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

Each time a door was opened to a wing of cages, the barking started. Some dogs looked up eagerly, tails wagging wildly, others bounced against their cage doors and barked.

Probably 80% of the dogs there are some kind of pit bull mix. It’s obviously a popular breed, because there are so many there. But it’s also unpopular with potential adopters because, well, so many remain. Many people are wary of them. Guinn said if a small fluffy dog or golden retriever gets loose in the neighborhood, a person will corral it and look for the owner. If a pit gets loose, the pound gets a call.

In a room with rows of cages stacked upon another, Natalie Pierce and her roommate, Lauren Holston, walked slowly, staring at each expectant hound. The cages are meant for small dogs, but given the dearth of space, medium-sized dogs are squeezed in there.

“We’re dog people,” said Holston. “We heard they needed homes for 150 dogs. If 149 got adopted and one didn’t make it, we’d feel awful.”

When I left them, they were looking at a 2-year-old pit mix that obviously had given birth and had been there for 87 days. Later on, Holston told me they decided to foster a dog called “Batty,” named for the bat-like ears on the 60-pound mutt that looked like a shepherd. They were going to hound their friends to get her permanently adopted.

Pound dogs have sad back stories.

“She had been adopted once and was returned because she ‘Did not meet expectations,’ “ Holston said. “She’s going crazy now; she’s so happy. She didn’t have a lot of room there.”

Mike Helms said his former fiancée kept his old dog and he was looking for a replacement. “It’s a win/win situation, get a dog, save a dog.”

Mike Helms gets to know his soon-to-be new dog, "Sully," at the DeKalb County Animal Shelter.

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

He wanted a “younger, sociable dog. Some of the poor dogs in there have behavior issues. They’re stressed. At my point, I can’t risk a dog with aggressive tendencies.”

Helms, from Woodstock, said he’s been living on a 42-foot sailboat in South Georgia. Finally, he decided on a year-old blond mutt named “Sully.”

As the shelter crew did up the paperwork, Helms went to Sully’s pen and sidled up to the cage.

“I hope you like it on a boat, Sully,” he said.

Thursday night, shelter director Kerry Moyers-Horton called me to say they adopted 55 dogs, fostered 13 and sent one to rescue.

That’s 69 in one day. Almost half way home.