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The confusion over ‘no kill’ policy

In fact, she said, staff at Dakin hate the term because it is a buzzword that leads to confusion. “The public has a different perception of what ‘no kill’ means,” she said.

For example, many people think it means a shelter that will never euthanize any animal, while others use the term to describe shelters that won’t euthanize just in response to space constraints. Still, Harris said she understands why many in the area assume Dakin shelters in Springfield and Leverett are “no kill.”

The confusion goes back to when Dakin’s shelters in Leverett and Greenfield were limited-admission shelters.

“We only accepted animals we had room for — and that we believed had a realistic chance of being adopted,” she said. Animals were not euthanized due to space restrictions, although they were sometimes put down if staff discovered a serious health or behavioral problem after intake.

In 2009, a shelter in Springfield run by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals closed. Dakin directors decided to close their organization’s Greenfield facility and open an adoption center in the Springfield building, but decided it would have to become an open admission shelter like the MSPCA. “Before, if we wouldn’t take an animal, an owner could go to an open admission shelter,” Harris said. If there is no such shelter in an area, more animals will be dumped or put out on the street to fend for themselves, she explained. As an open admission shelter, Dakin must take in animals that staff know might not be adopted out and therefore may be put down.

Dakin would euthanize cats at times if the shelter got too crowded, but that practice changed in 2012. Harris said that’s when Dakin realized its “three-year plan to adoption guarantee,” launched when the new facility opened in August 2009.

The goal was to guarantee that all adoptable dogs and cats, even those with manageable health or behavior problems, would be adopted. They made this possible essentially through programs that aimed to reduce the number of abandoned animals.

Because so few dogs are surrendered — about 1,000 per year — Dakin instituted the guarantee for all healthy, well-behaved dogs immediately, and by 2011, it guaranteed dogs who could be rehabilitated would be adopted.

Cats were the greater challenge, Harris said, because they are surrendered four times as often as dogs. But the shelter instituted the adoption guarantee in 2012 for all healthy, sociable cats as well as those that could be rehabilitated. This expansion was possible through steps like broadening Dakin’s network of foster homes, adding a behavior hotline and other services to help people keep their pets, and holding adoption events.

Harris said Dakin’s community spay and neuter program helped. It has sterilized 45,000 animals since 2009, which means fewer unwanted litters end up at shelters. The surgery is affordable to more people at Dakin’s Springfield Adoption and Education Center, at a cost of $35 to $85 for most. The procedure is free for pet owners who live where unwanted litters are frequent — including Holyoke and Springfield — and for feral cats. There are special rates for breeds that are frequently surrendered. “We look for the animals that are most likely to become homeless — pit bulls, feral cats and those in low-income areas.”

“Our kitten intake is down 36 percent in the last two years, which is fantastic,” Harris said. “It means adult cats can have a bigger piece of the pie” because they have more space and resources to devote to getting them healthy and ready for adoption.

Also during the last two years, the euthanasia rates for adult cats has decreased 62 percent. “We’ve placed 17-year-old cats into homes,” she said, which is unheard of at many shelters.

Of the animals the shelter admits each year, roughly 80 percent, or 4,000, are cats, 1,000 are dogs, and 500 are other animals such as ferrets, rabbits and birds, Harris said.

In 2013, of the 4,070 cats that Dakin took in, 12 percent were euthanized, for reasons that Harris said were most often poor health. Of the 1,519 dogs taken in 2013, Harris said 36 percent were euthanized, mostly because they were dangerous. Those numbers include about 200 animals each year that are brought in by owners asking that they be put down because of health or behavioral problems. Dakin’s adoption guarantee program has improved the chances of survival for animal shelters around the area, Harris said.

“Shelter animals are being saved at an unprecedented rate,” she said. “Even animal control here can guarantee placement now because they’re seeing less cats.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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