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Debate continues between Harford Humane Society and former shelter volunteer group HOPE

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Two opposing organizations with the same objective: help Harford County's animals. Where they differ is when the decision comes to either put the animal up for adoption or to have it euthanized.

And while the two groups have had little, if any, back and forth communication, that is expected to change Wednesday, when representatives of the Humane Society of Harford County are scheduled to meet with members of HOPE, Humane Options to Prevent Euthanasia.

The Humane Society of Harford County, whose shelter serves as the Harford County pound, took in 4,246 dogs and cats, and more than a dozen other types of animals, in 2010, according to the humane society's website, harfordshelter.org; 2,896 were cats and 1,350 were dogs. Of those 1,350 dogs, 350 (almost 26 percent ) were euthanized for various reasons, including medical issues, the owner's request, temperament and lack of adopters. Of the 2,896 cats taken in, 1,829 of them (a little more than 63 percent ) were put down for the same reasons, as well as being feral (wild).

Humane Options to Prevent Euthanasia (HOPE), a group formed in the spring by former humane society volunteers, believes those numbers are too high and the humane society should adopt a no-kill policy.

"You start to see these animals that are killed and you wish that you could do more," Abingdon attorney Sue Dent, a volunteer for HOPE, said.

Dent, 41, had been a volunteer with the shelter since 2008, but left along with several other volunteers after they formed HOPE.

Dent said she had a desire "to go up and spend time with the animals and give them some love before they got adopted." At the shelter, she walked dogs and cuddled cats, "as they call it."

But Dent wanted to do more and take on a more active role as a volunteer. She began to foster animals and got her whole family involved in the process.

Over time, however, Dent said, volunteers "felt like there was some sort of wall between the shelter and volunteers," adding "they weren't exactly happy to have us help."

Dent says numerous people "tried to work with the management to put programs in place." But, she says, none were and volunteers began to feel frustrated.

"We're not paid. We're there out of the goodness of our hearts," she said. Soon, HOPE was created. Their objective was to work with the shelter.

"[We're] not trying to do anything negative, but they weren't willing to talk to us," Dent said. "We wanted to raise public awareness — what are the issues, what are the challenges and what can be done."

The newly formed group thought it would be a good time to put new practices into place since the humane society is in the process of designing a new facility for the field behind their shelter in Fallston.

"The very first step we took was writing a letter to the [humane society] board, but we got no response," Dent said. The group also sent a letter to the Harford County Council, and got no response. A Facebook page, facebook.com/hopeinharfordcounty, was then created "to inform taxpayers" of their mission and "create a public awareness forum for posting information" about their group and the humane society.

A petition was also started in hopes to see changes made before ground was broken for the new shelter, Dent said. The petition had 904 signatures and HOPE's Facebook page had 506 "likes," as of Tuesday afternoon.

The humane society's story is slightly different.

"They have never presented specific plans as to what they would like changed," David Fang, board president of the Humane Society of Harford County, said. "It's not a group that has constructively approached us."

Fang used a July 1 post by HOPE on its Facebook page as an example, saying "they [HOPE] said we're working on some programs to do this and do that, [but] we've yet to see specific programs come from them."

In an email, Fang said "We will be meeting with some of the HOPE people [the beginning of September]." A Tuesday morning post on HOPE's Facebook page says the meeting will take place today (Wednesday).

As far as HOPE's page, Fang feels the group's members have attacked the humane society.

"[They] portray the shelter as a slaughterhouse," he said. "If you want to meet with me, pick up the bloody phone and don't use a public forum."

Fang gave a few examples of these attacks. One was a June 19 post made by a woman who had applied for a job at the humane society about a year ago but was not hired. The post began, "Something rotten at HSHC? Could it be the smell of dead animal flesh?" Another post made by HOPE on June 23 called the humane society "sneaky," referring to its adoptions page being "out of order" and saying they "added a bunch of animals back to the page to make it longer." The humane society's executive director, Mary Leavens, said the shelter's computer software, which is being updated, caused the glitch and was not done intentionally.

Normally, Fang, Leavens and others with the humane society don't respond to posts made by HOPE. The one time Fang did say something was when he saw his home address posted along with the humane society's, which was meant to encourage members to write letters. He asked HOPE to remove his address from the page. Dent responded to the post, saying, "The address listed on our page is your business address that is listed on the Internet, but if you prefer to use the shelter address we will most certainly change it."

The shelter and the county, which helps fund the facility, are proud of their statistics. Fang noted that in 2010, more dogs were returned to owners — 427 in all — than there were euthanized, and 524 were adopted. Because of the large number of cats brought in every year — more than twice the amount of dogs — the statistics are quite different: 861 cats were adopted and 39 were returned to their owners.

Aaron Tomarchio, the county executive's chief of staff and county liaison on the humane society board, also believes the shelter is doing a good job.

"If we were any other jurisdiction and didn't have a relationship [with the humane society], our obligation would be to hold the animals for 72 hours, and after 72 hours our obligation is concluded. If it were a county-run shelter or space, animals would be euthanized after 72 hours," Tomarchio said about the reality of other county-run programs. "They have an opportunity to have a new lease on life, to be adopted and be cared for the way a county-run program wouldn't be able to give them."

"Would we have preferred it [the number of animals euthanized] to be zero? Of course we would have," Fang said. But Fang added the shelter is open-admission, meaning it doesn't turn away any animals regardless of health, age or any other factor. With limited space and resources and taking the well-being of the other shelter animals and general public into consideration, he said having a no-kill shelter isn't possible at this time.

The decision to euthanize an animal isn't "done willy-nilly," Fang noted. The shelter's staff, veterinarians and Harford County Animal Control judge the temperament of dogs and cats. Medical screenings are also done.

Fang stressed that the shelter takes "the matter of public safety very, very seriously." They refuse to let animals who have a history of biting and other violent behavior be adopted. "When the feral [cats] come in, we have no choice. If Animal Control is bringing in feral cats, we do not want those feral cats put back where they were a nuisance."

Dent and HOPE don't believe the shelter is "forthright in information with the public," a thought reiterated throughout the organization's Facebook page.

She said the humane society publishes weekly numbers of how many animals were adopted and returned to owners online, but doesn't list how many were killed. "They never really acknowledge the problem," she said.

While it appears the shelter does not post the number of animals euthanized on a weekly basis, it has begun posting year-end numbers for the public to see. Last year was the first the shelter did that.

Fang said prior management "miserably kept" records and they were unable to publish accurate statistics.

"When it came to our attention, I said, 'This is crazy. Fix this.' We can't run a place and have all those animals in inventory and not know who there are, where they are," Fang said.

Leavens said two big reasons why a post doesn't go up online when an animal has been euthanized is because it doesn't effectively convince someone to adopt and invites a barrage of questions – and possibly judgment – from people upset about the animal's death. The majority of shelters don't post those numbers online, Leavens said.

As Leavens explained, if a post were made on HSHC's Facebook page or website about "Fluffy" having to be put down, naturally the public would want to know the reasons behind the decision. Someone at the shelter would then explain why the decision was made (Leavens gave an example of bad health, teeth falling out, vision problems and other medical conditions). If the person commenting on the post didn't agree with the shelter's reasoning, that person could easily start a vicious cycle of more people getting involved and potentially deter future adopters or donors.

If someone does call the shelter asking about a particular animal, Leavens said, they will respond with "that animal is no longer with this shelter."

In terms of shelter programs, HOPE believes simple things can be done to improve the facility.

One practice that can be put in place, Dent said, is to change the shelter's hours of operation. The facility is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, as posted on its website.

Dent thinks this could pose a problem for people who wish to visit animals for possible adoption as "most people are not out of work" by the time the shelter closes during the week. She thinks if the shelter remained open later once or twice a week, it could make a difference. "It takes staff time, but you get bang for your buck," she said.

Fang believes "the public has plenty of opportunity to come in" and the shelter is "doing everything possible to ensure that as many adoptable animals as practical can get adopted and don't have to be put down for space [reasons]."

A few other heated topics debated between HOPE and humane society are the number of animals being spayed and neutered, as well as foster or rescue homes.

Dent said animals from the shelter would be put in foster homes for a period of time and eventually asked to be returned.

But fosters and rescues can be tricky, Leavens said.

When an animal is put in a foster home, the shelter still pays for the animal's food and medical costs. If a person wants to visit the animal for possible adoption that person has to go "off site" to the foster home, which doesn't happen very often, Leavens noted. "It's not a long term solution," she said.

As for rescues, the shelter calls them frequently but rarely gets a "yes" to bring in an animal.

Just in June, the shelter called various animal rescues more than 200 times. Shelter staff keep a call log of when they call which shelters and what their responses were. Of the calls made in that month, the vast majority of responses were "no," "no space," "too big" (referring to the animal) or declined because of a young child present.

"When you call a rescue, you don't know if they're hoarders," Leavens also brought up. She gave an example of residents of two homes in Whiteford that in 2006 were found hoarding 69 or 70 dogs and four cats. "They were a rescue," she said.

Fang believes the new shelter will help solve spay and neuter issues. Calling the shelter's current process "imperfect," he hopes "a surgical suite will fix this and help with overpopulation problem."

Where HOPE, as well as many no-kill advocacy groups, and humane society differ: HOPE believes pet overpopulation is a myth.

But what it all boils down to is HOPE wants the humane society to have a no-kill policy and, at least for the foreseeable future, the humane society doesn't see that happening.

"While euthanasia is going down, deaths in the shelter is going up and adopters go down," Leavens said of no-kill shelters. She went on to say that if the shelter adopted a no-kill policy, the number of sick animals spreading disease to others would go up, as well as the possibility of animals and staff members being bitten or severely injured – possibly killed – by aggressive animals that would, in a typical situation, be euthanized.

Tomarchio also believes turning humane society into a no-kill shelter isn't possible at the moment.

"A no-kill shelter is an admirable idea, but it requires resources and dollars and a facility [they can't provide]," he said.

HOPE isn't the only group that believes a shelter can go no-kill and be successful.

Several shelters around the country have stopped euthanizing animals or significantly decreased their kill rates.

On Sept. 2, HOPE's Facebook page cited Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter in Williamson County, Texas, an open admission shelter like the humane society, as having a 89 percent save rate for August, 93 percent for dogs. The statistics were also posted on Williamson County shelter's Facebook page.

But for every success story there's a tale of things going horribly awry.

Liberty Humane Society in Jersey City, N.J., failed three inspections by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2010 and was cited for keeping dogs in cages that were too small, as well as for not having a disease control program or supervising veterinarian at the shelter, according to The Jersey Journal. The newspaper went on to say the shelter's board of directors quit in July that year because of differences with the former executive director, who wanted Liberty Humane to go no-kill.

Leavens said the humane society is working with a man from Shelter Planners of America, and his belief is it would take a shelter 15 to 20 years, depending on where that shelter was, to properly adopt the policy.

In the meantime, the humane society is doing what it can to get animals adopted and HOPE continues to reach out to the public.

Over Labor Day weekend, the humane society held a "Be a Lifesaver" event in which the adoption fee for cats and kittens was reduced to $50 from $95, and the adoption fee for all dogs older than 1 year was $100, down from $160.

The shelter is also planning a promotion offering free microchips and dog toys with each dog adoption in October, which is National Adopt-a-Shelter Dog month.

In a perfect world, the humane society's save rate would be 100 percent and all animals brought in would find new, loving homes. In reality, there aren't enough resources and people able to adopt. But groups such as HOPE and others around the country continue to strive for that ideal.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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