PAWS Magazine


Issue 51, Spring 2002

A decade of lives saved

by Lisa Parks

The dogs and cats of King county are celebrating 2002 for a very special reason. Ten years have passed since the county council passed a revolutionary ordinance to help end the euthanasia of thousands of animals in the King County shelters in Kent and on the Eastside. Since the spring 1992 passage of the ordinance, 65,564 fewer animals have been euthanized than would have been had the ordinance not passed.

Many places in the United States now have ordinances requiring spaying and neutering to prevent overbreeding of companion animals. In Washington state, no county had such a regulation until 1992, when Ordinance 123 was passed. This ordinance, whose title was later officially changed to “Ordinance 10423,” required the spaying and neutering of animals adopted from King County shelters, and provided significant financial incentives to encourage spaying and neutering of the general public's companion animals. In 1992, San Mateo California was the only other place that had a similarly progressive ordinance on the books.

Ron Sims, a King County council member, was the key figure in pushing Ordinance 123 through. Sims proposed the legislation and worked tirelessly with PAWS throughout the entire campaign. “Ron Sims showed that he was an amazing advocate for animals,” commented Richard Huffman, PAWS Advocacy and Outreach Director. “He took a stand where other politicians refused to. When the opposition first showed its teeth, he didn't back down. He dug in his heels and fought harder.” Unspayed and unneutered animals propagate at rates beyond the capacity of local shelters to absorb. According to a 1991 PAWS study, when Ordinance 123 was first proposed, animals in Washington shelters had a precarious three in ten chance of staying alive. Out of nearly 167,000 animals taken to the major state shelters that year, only 35,000 were adopted. Of the remaining animals, 18,000 were reunited with their owners, and more than 114,000 were euthanized. PAWS estimated that ninety-five percent of these euthanized animals were healthy, adoptable cats and dogs.

If you were living in King County 10 years ago, you may remember the PAWS-sponsored campaign on behalf of Ordinance 123. The campaign was publicized on TV stations, in newspapers and press releases, and through direct mail and many speeches. One PAWS flyer pictured a puppy named Buster and a kitten named Tiffany sitting together and looking cuddly and adorable. The text above their head read “Buster and Tiffany couldn't wait for the ordinance to pass.” On the inside of the flyer, Buster and Tiffany are lying slack-jawed on a tray. The subheading reads, “And now they're dead.” The flyer discussed the euthanization statistics and issues at stake, and it got the attention of the King County populace. PAWS also produced a public service announcement for television that showed a companion animal being euthanized.

Mitchell Fox, former PAWS Animal Issues Director, led the PAWS spay and neuter efforts at the time. In a 1991 press release he stated, “A shelter animal [in Washington state] is killed every four and a half minutes: that's 313 animals every day. That's more than a million pounds of dead cats and dogs in a year—550 tons to be exact... [which is] more than the weight of a fully loaded Boeing 747.”

These death statistics only include those animals that were brought to shelters. Several thousand more stray animals were estimated to be roaming the streets, mating and becoming victims of abuse, accidents, starvation, and disease.

There were factions adamantly opposed to the ordinance. The fight was heated and more pieces of mail to King County were generated regarding this issue than were generated for any other issue. The counter-campaigners claimed that the proposed regulation was the work of overeager animal activists seeking to curtail individual rights and make it harder to own pets. The opposition came primarily from dog breeders and hunters.

Council members began listening to the complaints of breeders and other opponents who claimed that the ordinance was not necessary. PAWS realized the ordinance was in danger of failure and that it would have to step up the campaign. This is when the Buster and Tiffany flyers and the public service announcement on television appeared. The organization hoped to motivate the thousands of people who supported the ordinance to act and to show their support by writing letters to the council.

The city council received between 40,000 and 60,000 individual comments—the largest number of comments received for any issue in its history. As the campaign progressed, the council received between 30 and 40 letters in favor of the ordinance for every one letter against.

“This predated the age of the Internet,” says Huffman. “These were individuals who took the time to write their comments, put them in an envelope, get a stamp, and mail the letter to the council. It was a pretty remarkable demonstration of how much King County cared about companion animals.”

With a decade of hindsight, it is clear that the Ordinance 123 campaign was a watershed that signaled the community's newly progressive attitudes about spaying and neutering. In the late 1980s, people had different attitudes toward companion animals. There was a prevalent feeling that it was wrong and unnatural to spay or neuter an animal. At the time, even groups such as the Seattle/King County Humane Society campaigned against the ordinance.

More than ten years later, attitudes have changed, and partially because of Ordinance 123, people now think positively about spaying and neutering. A recent PAWS poll of Snohomish County showed that 90% of its residents support mandatory spaying and neutering of adoptable shelter animals.

Said Huffman, “The problem in the early 1990s was that too many animals were killed in our shelters and something had to be done. To say it was unpopular among certain groups would be an understatement, especially with breeders, who felt it would take away their livelihood.”

Ordinance 123 has now been in effect for 10 years, and the passing of time has made it possible to measure the gains the ordinance has made. Positive statistics were essential to the longevity of the ordinance, which was essentially an experiment. The ordinance required that the King County shelter demonstrate that over time an increasing number of animals were being spayed and neutered, fewer animals were coming into the shelter, and euthanasia was being performed at lower rates; otherwise the ordinance would not survive.

“We had to show it worked,” reiterated Huffman.

The numbers set by the ordinance to determine its success in reducing euthanasia rates were based on the human population of King County. Milestones were set for 1996 and 2000. By 2000, the number of healthy animals killed could not exceed 1.7 cats per 1,000 people and one dog per 1,000 people.

The required spaying and neutering has helped prevent the King County shelter from performing thousands of euthanasias by helping to ensure that fewer animals came in to the shelter. In 1990, about 17,000 animals came into the King County shelter. Last year, only 9,000 animals came in despite the drastic growth in King County. (In 1990, the population of King County was 1,507,300; in 2000, it was 1,737,034.) If the number of animals coming into the shelter had grown at the same 15% growth rate as the human population, almost 15,000 animals would have been euthanized in 2000. Instead, only 6,069 animals were euthanized. This remarkable drop allowed King County to claim in 2000 that they euthanized no healthy, adoptable animals. Typically, an “unadoptable” animal is one that is extremely sick, and has a small chance of recovery.

Although King County has made remarkable strides, it is still euthanizing almost 50% of the stray animals it receives, (however with the reduced number of animals coming into the shelter, this is less than half the animals euthanized a decade ago). The county's next step is to incorporate more animals into its definition of “healthy and adoptable.” An example of a progressive definition can be found at PAWS.

Said Huffman, “We obviously have to balance the needs of healthy animals in the shelter with the tremendous costs that some medical treatments incur.”

Common illnesses such as upper respiratory infection, which often lead to euthanasia of the affected animal in other shelters, are always treated by PAWS veterinarians. However, a dog with a severely injured leg may be euthanized at PAWS because of the high cost of mending the leg. “Other unadoptable animals include those that we believe may represent a danger to themselves, other animals, or people. These animals are often poorly treated dogs that have had very little human love and companionship. Though we don't refer to ourselves as a “no-kill” shelter, our euthanasia rate (around 10%) is significantly lower than that of many shelters across the country that identify themselves as “no-kill” shelters.

With the decrease in euthanization, the King County shelters have found more resources to focus on adoptions. The increase in adoptions illustrates another positive effect the ordinance has had: 4,989 animals were adopted in 2000 (compared to 1,525 animals adopted in 1990).

In addition to requiring that shelter animals be spayed or neutered, the ordinance offers other important provisions. Among the most important of these provisions is a differential in the animal licensing fee charged for altered versus unaltered animals. Licenses for altered cats and dogs cost $10 per year, while licenses for unaltered cats and dogs cost $55 per year.

Educating the public and enforcing pet licensing have generated positive results as well. In 1990 about 31,500 licenses were issued for altered dogs, compared to 11,200 licenses issued for unaltered dogs. That same year, about 11,500 licenses were issued for altered cats, compared to 1,764 licenses for unaltered cats. By 2000, the number of altered dogs with pet licenses had grown to 61,000 (compared to 4,855 unaltered dogs with licenses). More than 38,800 licenses were issued for altered cats in 2000, (compared with only 328 licenses issued for unaltered cats. Clearly, more people are choosing to alter their pets. Total licenses issued (for altered dogs and cats combined) in 1990 equaled 57,254. The total for 2000 was 135,906.

Another important provision of the ordinance fines a person $500 for abandoning an animal. The ordinance also mandates educational programs about responsible pet ownership, pet adoption, and the benefits of spaying and neutering. Thirdly, it requires the tracking of companion animals: shelters, pet stores, kennels, and catteries are required to provide King County with quarterly reports that include the names and addresses of people who have purchased or adopted pets. This makes it faster and easier to return lost pets to their owners and track down unlicensed pets. Between 1990 and 2000, there was a steady increase in redeemed animals (from 1,775 animals in 1990, to 2,341 in 2000).

The financial cost of euthanizing animals is high for shelters. However, Ordinance 123 has helped to reduce the financial strain on King County. By helping to reduce the number of animals in the King County animal control system by more than half, the ordinance has also helped to reduce the costs associated with taking care of a large number of animals, thereby offsetting any additional costs incurred through mandatory spaying and neutering. A portion of the pet licensing fees have been used to fund free and low-cost spay and neuter surgeries for low-income and senior citizen companion animal guardians.

“It's one of the biggest successes on behalf of animals that PAWS has known,” said Huffman. “At the time, I don't think we even realized how significant it would be. This law helped change the culture of animal shelters. In the past, there was such a tremendous focus on euthanasia. Now the focus is on saving animals' lives. Because they're now less focused on euthanizing animals, the King County shelters have been able to work harder on adopting the animals out.”

As the staff at PAWS reflects on the ordinance's decade of success, they also feel frustration about the lack of a similarly progressive ordinance in Snohomish County. “While King County has dramatically reversed its shelter's killing of animals, Snohomish County and the Everett animal shelter have basically been killing the same number of animals as they always have,” said Tamar Puckett, PAWS Companion Animal Advocate.

In the coming year, PAWS hopes to persuade Snohomish County to adopt an ordinance similar to the King County ordinance. Huffman believes it takes people for such ideas and policies to come to fruition. The people-driven success of the King County ordinance has proven that. “But we're not seeing many politicians stepping up to the plate to advocate a similar ordinance in Snohomish County.”

Groups like PAWS are working to educate politicians and make it clear that the issue of animal shelter overpopulation is still a problem. Because of the ordinance's victory in King County ten years ago, many communities assume that the problem in their own neighborhoods has been similarly eradicated. Unfortunately, this is not accurate.

“Our survey showed that only 50 percent of people in Snohomish County are even aware that thousands of animals are being euthanized every year in their community,” says Huffman. “But once they're educated, fully 90 percent are in favor of a King County-type solution.”

To get involved with PAWS efforts to stop the euthanasia of companion animals in Snohomish County, please email Tamar Puckett or call 425.787.2500, ext. 257.

If you would like to make a donation to help PAWS control the animal population, please visit the donation page.

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