At Baltimore County's animal shelter this week, dozens of animals were waiting for someone to adopt them. Among them were Cisco, a year-old pit bull terrier, a bulldog named Ivan and Sugar Pie, a tricolor cat.
But judging by shelter statistics, potential pets are more likely to be put down than placed in a home.
Now, under pressure from animal advocates and some lawmakers, county officials are looking for an animal-oriented nonprofit to take over the shelter.
"Much like most animal-control agencies, their focus is really on protecting people from animals," said Ron Lambert, a board member of the Maryland Feline Society. "The rescue community has a different perspective. Their job is to help animals — and protect them from people sometimes. So they have more of an incentive to save lives."
Lambert and others say private groups are better equipped than the county to care for animals and have more expertise in marketing pets to potential owners.
County officials, meanwhile, say finding the right organization to run the shelter would free county workers to focus on animal control. The county issued a request for proposals last month, and recently relaxed requirements and extended the deadline to May.
"The goal was to see how we could create a partnership that would allow the county do what it does best, which is to take care of public safety aspects and dangerous animals," said Don Mohler, chief of staff for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "And then allow the advocacy groups to do what they do best, which is to provide long-term care."
Baltimore made a similar move eight years ago, when the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter was formed to take over the city shelter.
"Similar to the county, there was a lot of public pressure," said Jen Brause, BARCS' executive director. "The conditions of the shelter were poor, and the euthanasia rate was 98 percent."
Under BARCS, Brause said, the shelter has a euthanasia rate of 32 percent. It employs more than 50 workers and has attracted a corps of 300 volunteers.
The city gives BARCS an annual grant that covers about half its $2 million budget, Brause said. The organization raises the rest of its money through adoption fees and private donations.
Brause said operating as a nonprofit gives BARCS flexibility in areas such as fundraising and recruiting volunteers. In tight times, she said, when local agencies are vying for the same limited dollars, "the government's going to choose human causes over animal causes."
Howard and Anne Arundel counties run their own shelters.
The Baltimore County shelter sits at the end of a long driveway off Manor Road in Baldwin, deep in horse country. It is the county's only such facility.
The shelter took in 5,775 animals last year, according to the county Health Department, which oversees the facility. Of those, 3,642 were destroyed, a euthanasia rate of more than 63 percent.
The Humane Society of the United States said there are no accurate statistics on euthanasia rates nationwide.
Baltimore County law requires the shelter to keep animals for at least four business days, said Health Department spokeswoman Monique Lyle. Animals that can be adopted are kept as long as possible, she said.
But the county destroys animals too quickly, critics say, and adopted dogs and cats are not spayed or neutered before leaving. Some say adoption hours — ending at 3 p.m. five days out of six — make it difficult for people to visit. They say the shelter's management is ill-equipped to work with animal advocacy groups and volunteers, and hasn't made use of technology to find homes for animals.
"They don't have a website that has accurate information," said Darla Feeheley of the dog-rescue group Tails of Hope.
Lyle said the shelter began posting descriptions of adoptable pets on the county website in 2011. Before that, she said, the county posted to the website Petfinder.
The county has considered turning the operation over to a nonprofit. Officials issued a request for proposals a month ago, with responses initially due last week. They extended the deadline to May 15 after animal advocates said the timeline was too short.
The county also relaxed some requirements. The original request for proposals called for organizations to operate their own shelter. But officials changed it to say they would consider sharing space at the existing shelter.
Mohler said the county extended the deadline to give more organizations a chance to turn in proposals.
"We want to get as many as possible," he said. Officials would not say whether the county had received any.
In addition to connecting pets with adoptive homes, the county operation is charged with providing rabies clinics, seizing animals in animal-cruelty and dog-fighting cases, and picking up strays.
"Our primary role is a public health and safety role," director Tom Scollins said. "We're many times just stretched thin doing that."
The county's animal-control division employs 28 workers, and the shelter has eight volunteers who perform clerical work, do laundry and care for animals.
Some say more volunteers could help with the workload.
"When it comes to animals, there are a lot of people that would like to volunteer and help out," County Councilman Todd Huff said.
Donna Bernstein, an animal advocate from Pikesville, said volunteers could coordinate adoption events, socialize cats and take care of other shelter needs.
"There are so many really effective positions if they would just let people in," she said. "Right now, they just will not deal with the vast majority of reputable rescues."
Scollins said the shelter works with many rescue operations.
"You can't make everybody happy all the time," he said. "It is certainly everybody's goal here to get as many animals adopted as possible. That's why they're in this line of work."
State lawmakers tried last year to open the shelter to more volunteers. Del. Wade Kach, a Republican from northern Baltimore County who said he has received complaints from constituents about the shelter over the years, sponsored a bill that would have required the county to allow volunteers to help with adoptions.
"They were shutting out groups that were advocates for animals," he said. "That was the main problem."
Kamenetz's administration lobbied against the proposal. Mohler said the shelter is not equipped to accommodate a large number of volunteers.
Kach is hopeful that the proposed public-private partnership would improve conditions for the animals.
"I think they're going to have a better shot at getting adopted," he said.
Whether the county finds a nonprofit to run the shelter, officials plan to hold on to their animal-control responsibilities, including confronting rabies and animal cruelty. The county would not lay off its animal-control employees, officials said, but it is unclear whether their duties would change. Officials said they did not know how much a private takeover of the shelter would cost.
Lawmakers say they'll keep pushing for change.
Del. Jon Cardin has reintroduced legislation that would require the shelter to provide volunteer opportunities, and the county's House delegation is to vote on the measure Friday. The Owings Mills Democrat said he believes the county needs to be pushed to improve the shelter.
"We feel that if they're not going to do anything that's meaningful, we need to put the legislation in to push them," Cardin said.
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