A pink-collared pit bull named Lucy and a small Chihuahua-cross named Huey push their noses through snout-sized holes in the chain-link gates that confine them at Missoula Animal Control. Small and large dogs emit high and low pitched barks of excitement when alerted to a visitor on a warm day late last week. A partially blind, 2-year-old brown-and-black Shar-Pei with a wrinkled face missing patches of fur stands out in the chaos. He lies quietly on the cement floor next to his silver food bowl, his brown eyes glued to the floor. Missoula Animal Control's Elaine Sehnert says that it's not all that unusual for dogs that are separated from their owners to fall into a funk. "There's a grieving process."
The Shar-Pei's owner was incarcerated in early August, forcing the animal, along with three other dogs, to go homeless. The quiet canine is a relatively new arrival compared to Humphrey, a white hound with red spots on his ears and chest. Tightly wound, Humphrey appears eager to get out of his kennel, drooling and jumping up on his hind legs. Sehnert says the display is natural in light of the fact that Humphrey's lived in his cement and chain link kennel since May 23, when Animal Control found him wandering the South Hills. Since then, he's earned the unfortunate distinction of being the longest canine shelter resident.
"He's just active," Sehnert says.
Sehnert has worked for the shelter for 17 years. Despite the time she's spent watching abused, neglected and abandoned animals come and go, she's far from thick skinned—she can't help but become emotionally invested in the dogs. She's gleeful when one of her charges is adopted into a new home. And she's rooting for Humphrey. The hound doesn't yet exhibit the extreme behaviors that can develop in shelter old-timers, such as constant circling in their kennels and incessant barking. "We call it going kennel crazy," Sehnert says.
Sehnert doesn't like to see dogs linger at the shelter, something that's happening more frequently these days, says Animal Control Supervisor Ed Franceschina: "It's been historically, continually packed."
Adoption rates are waning. Of the 582 dogs admitted into Animal Control this year, 379 of were returned to their owners and 160 were adopted. That pencils out to a 78 percent adoption rate for dogs, a number lower than averages seen during the past two years.
That reality is clearly difficult for dogs. It's also tough for Animal Control. As a taxpayer-funded agency responsible for providing shelter for lost and homeless animals, it's legally mandated to keep kennel space open for emergency surrenders. However, a steady stream of new arrivals coupled with the fact that old-timers like Humphrey are lingering has made keeping kennels open virtually impossible.
The shelter euthanized three dogs two weeks ago in order to make room for more. One of the dogs put down, via an intravenous injection administered by a veterinarian, was a Chow mix named Toby. He wasn't a bad dog, Sehnert says. He was just anxious after being adopted from the shelter and again returned by his owners.
"He was such a nice dog," Sehnert says. "It just broke our heart."
Sehnert says dogs like Toby are adoptable. It's a matter of finding the right person for them. That's why Animal Control Shelter Attendant Erin Horner two weeks ago launched the "Save Our Strays Campaign," aiming to lure more people to the Butler Creek Road facility. Horner hopes to increase the shelter's visibility and the odds that an animal like Humphrey will find a home. She says her SOS is already triggering an uptick in adoptions. "Things were pretty bad," she explains. "We were going to put down a lot more dogs than [three]."
Missoula Animal Control likes to consider itself a "seldom-kill" shelter, Sehnert says. The agency has no fixed rule governing when it's time to put adoptable animals down. The Missoula shelter actually euthanizes fewer animals—less than 1 percent of the total admitted this year, including those that are sick and injured—than many of its peers. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, approximately 5 million to 7 million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide every year. Of that, approximately 60 percent of the dogs and 70 percent of the cats are euthanized.
That number seems large. But it's probably accurate, says Lora O' Connor, director of the nonprofit Humane Society. The Humane Society of Western Montana operates independently from Animal Control, though it frequently helps the shelter place animals. "We took six (animals) last week," O'Connor says.
The Humane Society has resources like professional training and foster care programs that help bolster adoption rates, O'Connor says. However, perhaps because the economy continues to linger in the doldrums, even the Humane Society is seeing fewer animals find new families. Its adoption rate slipped from 98 percent last year to 97 percent this year.
"We're always full," O'Connor says.
As for Sehnert, on this warm day last week, she was pleased to see one dog leave the shelter. The relief didn't last long. Two dogs showed up immediately to take its place.
"There we are," she says. "We're back where we started."