The Animal Shelter of Wood River Valley has some very ambitious goals. During its board of directors’ annual strategic planning session last weekend, the group committed to two primary outcomes the organization will be working toward in upcoming years. The goals were inspired by the expanded opportunities made possible by the new “humane education and animal adoption center” the organization is currently building in Hailey, across the street from the current shelter.
The first goal is to leverage the Animal Shelter’s “expertise and resources to be a catalyst for the State of Idaho to decrease by 100% the number of healthy, adoptable animals euthanized in shelters by 2025.” In other words, the goal is for Idaho to be a “no-kill” state by 2025. Board President Jan Main says, “While in Blaine County we’ve made great strides in animal welfare, much of our state is still struggling, with thousands of adoptable animals being euthanized every year. We have the opportunity to make a huge difference.”
“No-kill” is a common phrase used by animal lovers and animal welfare groups, but isn’t always fully understood. According to Best Friends Animal Society, one of the nation’s leading and best-known animal organizations, “No-kill pet shelters and organizations only euthanize animals who are irremediably suffering and a veterinarian has determined the animal has no chance of recovering an acceptable quality of life, or the animal’s behavior doesn’t allow him/her to be a candidate for rehabilitation. They do not kill pets as a means of population control. The benchmark to achieving no-kill is when a community saves at least 90 percent of the homeless animals it takes in.” The Animal Shelter meets this definition of no-kill and is proud to have a consistent annual save rate of between 96-98%, well above the 90% benchmark.
In 1999, the Animal Shelter of Wood River Valley became the first shelter in the state of Idaho to adopt no-kill policies. In the first decade after this resolution, the shelter still struggled with its population and the resources necessary to humanely house and treat all the animals. It saw a dramatic increase in its save rate, from a shockingly low 68% in 1982 when the shelter first opened its doors, to an average of 88% in the decade after its commitment to become no-kill. It is only after dedicating the resources to hire a full-time veterinarian in 2006 and a certified trainer in 2009 that the shelter was able to get above the 90% benchmark, finally reaching 94% in 2008 and staying at or above that point every year since.
The organization is committed to placing healthy and safe animals into the community and continues to improve its practices and training to achieve this important goal. Shelter staff have been trained extensively by national experts in behavior evaluation in addition to receiving professional accreditation. To date in 2017, the Animal Shelter has euthanized a total of 15 animals (8 dogs for dangerous/aggressive behavior and 3 dogs and 4 cats for untreatable illness) out of the 488 available for placement, putting the organization on track to achieve a 97% save rate again this year. According to Main, continuing to improve the health and well-being of shelter animals, in addition to being able to save more pets from overcrowded regional shelters, are among the primary goals of building the new campus.
The definition of “no-kill” is not universally agreed upon in the animal welfare world, with some believing that euthanasia for any reason is unacceptable. When asked why their definition allows for euthanasia in certain circumstances, Animal Shelter Executive and Medical Director Jo-Anne Dixon (who is also the staff veterinarian) says, “We strongly believe in being a humane organization – that means sometimes we have to make hard decisions in the best interest of an animal and/or the community. In the case of aggressive animals, we make every reasonable effort to give them the benefit of the doubt and have highly trained staff who evaluate and work with them. However, we are not always able to save them – and when it comes down to protecting the community, we cannot in good conscience place into homes animals we know have a bite history or are a significant bite risk. Children are the most at risk of dog bites – failing to fulfill our legal and moral responsibility would put people at risk and jeopardize our ability help the hundreds of other adoptable animals we are saving every year.” According to Dixon, there is research and data from national experts that help her staff determine if an animal can be rehabilitated or not and they have a detailed process for making such determinations.
There are many shelters in the state that are still struggling with pet overpopulation and are forced to euthanize healthy, adoptable animals every year. According to Dr. Dixon, “Every time I talk with staff at other shelters who are having to euthanize adoptable pets regularly, it’s clear this is a huge burden on them emotionally – no one wants euthanasia to be the solution for pet overpopulation. We have the opportunity to help them, both by acting as a relief valve when they are overcrowded, but more importantly, by providing information, training, and resources so they can move toward the no-kill model.”
The Animal Shelter’s success in decreasing local pet overpopulation and increasing annual adoptions is a model Dixon believes other shelters can emulate. She says, “Since we started the free community spay/neuter program available for all Blaine County pets, the local stray population has decreased by 50%. At the same time, the number of animals being adopted from us by families has doubled. There are concrete things we can teach other shelters so they share this success.” According to the Animal Shelter’s website, 629 animals were adopted by families and 863 spay/neuter surgeries were performed by the group in 2016.
The other organizational goal adopted by the Animal Shelter’s board of directors is meant to support the goal of making Idaho a more humane state. They are positioning the Animal Shelter to be a “national animal welfare resource for adoptions, donations, educational and volunteer opportunities, and collaboration, while maintaining comprehensive local services for Blaine County.”
Dr. Dixon says, “The new animal adoption and education center we are building will enable us to be an amazing resource for our community, the state, and beyond. This is a critical step to making Idaho a no-kill state, while being a tremendous asset for Blaine County, bringing people from all over to enjoy our local community.”