On the Bright Side: Rays of Hope for Maricopa County’s Homeless Pets

Euthanasia down 14% in first year of innovative program

girls with dogThe constant sunshine is just 1 of the many reasons why some people flock to Phoenix, Arizona. But it’s also the likely cause of a not-so-sunny reality: Phoenix, and the surrounding Maricopa County, is flooded with homeless pets, and only about half of them end up finding forever homes.

While each animal welfare organization has worked hard to save as many pets as possible, the problem was greater than they could handle on their own. To boost their ability to help more pets, since 2004, 7 of the county’s largest groups  work together as the Alliance for Companion Animals.

In 2012, 90,000 pets entered shelters in Maricopa County. “We are the 2nd largest city for pet homelessness in the nation, after Los Angeles,” said Judith Gardner, president and CEO of the Arizona Animal Welfare League (AAWL).

Not surprisingly, that ranking didn’t sit well with the community. With the help of PetSmart Charities® and the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, the Alliance came up with a 3-year plan to give pets in Maricopa County a better chance. The initiative is called Fix.Adopt.Save. It tackles pet homelessness by increasing spay/neuter surgeries and adoptions, and by educating the public about responsible pet ownership.

So far, it’s working.

Maricopa County’s animal welfare groups identify the problems

Because of Maricopa County’s warm weather, pets can breed year-round. Shelters deal with an influx of pets with no lull during the winter months — forcing the animal welfare groups to make tough decisions constantly.

“The euthanasia numbers were just too high. We were adopting out about 100 animals a day and euthanizing about 100 animals a day. That equation has to change,” Judith said.

woman holds kittenSome pets have it rougher than others. “Cats, pit bulls and Chihuahuas are really big challenges,” said Dr. Steven Hansen, DVM, president and CEO of the Arizona Humane Society (AHS). 

“For cats, we've got a lot of wide-open space, and the temperature in this area of the country is very conducive to cat reproductions. Pit bulls face common problems across the country, and it's really no different here. But Chihuahuas are very popular here. We have a lot of Chihuahuas that end up breeding, and we can't find enough homes for them,” Steven said.

PetSmart Charities, along with the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, recognized the need in Maricopa County — and saw that the Alliance could make the area a better place for pets. Each organization invested $2 million in the Fix.Adopt.Save. initiative.

AHS, Maricopa County Animal Care and Control (MCACC) and the Arizona Community Foundation have also raised funds for the campaign.

Fix at-risk pets to end pet homelessness proactively

To “fix” the problem, Fix.Adopt.Save. provides spay/neuter vouchers to county residents who can’t afford the surgery. The campaign focuses on high-risk pets — pit bulls, Chihuahuas and owned cats — and targets ZIP codes that contribute more than their share of homeless pets to area shelters.

The program also helps free-roaming cats. Fix.Adopt.Save. provides surgeries for these cats in target ZIP codes through Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). The targeted programs have already produced positive results.

“In those targeted areas, we have seen a decrease in the number of pets that are coming into our shelters,” Steven said.

man holds kittensIncrease in fostering turns kittens into adoptable pets

While spaying and neutering is the best way to proactively end pet homelessness, thousands of pets in Maricopa County are still without homes. The Alliance must boost adoptions — and one way to do so is by fostering pets until they are ready to be adopted.

The strongest example: kittens. Kittens are often at a higher risk for euthanasia because they require additional care, and many shelters just don’t have the resources to care for them.

Fix.Adopt.Save. enabled groups like AAWL to expand their kitten foster programs. AAWL used part of the funding to train new staff, which increased kitten fosters by 40%. That’s 40% more kittens who will survive long enough to become adoptable pets.

Work with treatable dogs to get them ready for adoption

Efforts to adopt more pets don’t stop there. Fix.Adopt.Save. makes it possible to care for dogs with medical conditions that, previously, would have landed them on the euthanasia list. “AAWL accepted the challenge of taking on 650 additional treatable dogs. These might be dogs that would otherwise be euthanized because they needed some kind of special medical care,” Judith said.

veterinarian treats dogIt’s not just physical injuries or conditions that could make a dog unadoptable. Some dogs have emotional scars from a rough past, or they haven’t received proper training. Fix.Adopt.Save. funding goes to giving these dogs the time and attention they need to get them ready for lifelong, loving homes.

“[The AHS] behavior team works with them one on one, can teach them manners, can teach them how to get along with other dogs and other people and make them much more adoptable,” Steven said.

Public education goes a long way toward saving lives

The efforts to save homeless pets through increased adoption and spay/neuter surgeries can fall flat if the community doesn’t realize the scope of the homeless pet problem. That’s why a portion of the Fix.Adopt.Save. funding goes toward educating the public about the resources that are available to them through the campaign. 

“We're able to let the community know about the services that the Alliance is producing so we can put more pets into loving homes and raise awareness for the need to adopt a shelter pet,” Steven said.

Fix.Adopt.Save. also aims to teach folks about responsible pet ownership, encouraging them to visit  shelters, where wonderful pets await homes. Ultimately, the program wants people to know that shelter pets aren’t damaged — they're just unlucky, ending up in the shelter through no fault of their own.

Change is evident 1 year into the grants

Through Fix.Adopt.Save., euthanasia in Maricopa County has decreased by 14% in the first year.

girl kisses pit bull“We are just thrilled that we succeeded far beyond our expectations in the first year. And I think it's done such wonders for us as a collaborative group,” Judith said.

While the county’s animal welfare groups worked together through the Alliance for Companion Animals, Fix.Adopt.Save. has bolstered those relationships.

“Fix.Adopt.Save. is definitely innovative. It's something that I've never seen in all my years in animal welfare,” said MCACC’s Public Information Officer, Melissa Gable. “When I started in animal welfare, it was competitive. It was kind of an ‘us and them’ mentality. That's gone. And I think it's because we all realize that we’re not going to be able to solve the problem on our own. We need to work together."

The Alliance knows there is still more work to do. The campaign will be in effect through 2015, and while the Alliance is seeing progress in certain areas, they are ready to tackle new challenges.

“Moving forward, we’re going to expand TNR,” Steven said. The groups also will focus on finding homes for pit bulls, and they will continue to promote spay/neuter education.

While the sun continues to shine in Maricopa County, we are certain that brighter days are on the horizon for the area’s homeless pets. 

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