Our Opinion | Save our strays: New shelter can increase adoption

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It’s no exaggeration to call state Sen. Rick Horner a saver of four-legged lives.

The Bailey Republican and Senate Education Committee co-chairman secured a $200,000 appropriation in the state budget to help Wilson County build a new public animal shelter. Horner and Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, accompanied House Speaker Tim Moore on a tour of the current facility last week.

Settling unevenly into soft ground, the Airport Drive shelter continues to warp and buckle. A scathing state inspection report we obtained through a May public records request helped convince county commissioners to more than double the amount of money set aside for a replacement shelter when they passed the 2019-20 budget, taking the balance from $370,000 to $800,000.

With assistance from the General Assembly, Wilson County will have a cool million and should be able to break ground as soon as architectural drawings and site plans are complete.

The new shelter won’t just replace an aging, structurally unsound building. Commissioners say it will more than triple Wilson County Animal Enforcement’s capacity for stray animals.

That’s where our senator’s lifesaver designation comes in. Wilson needs a bigger animal shelter as much as it needs a better one.

Our county euthanized 568 cats and 148 dogs last year, according to N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services figures. A new shelter will allow pets a longer stay and a greater chance at a new leash on life because staffers should no longer have to put pets down to make room for more.

A three-year trend shows dog euthanasia rates falling — from 18.7% in 2016 to 16.6% in 2017 and 14.4% last year — while the number of cats humanely but needlessly killed continues to climb.

In 2016, Wilson County euthanized 47.7% of the cats it took in. That number rose to 54.3% in 2017 and swelled to a saddening 61.4% last year. In 2015, almost eight out of 10 cats brought to the shelter did not make it out alive.

While feral cats that wouldn’t warm to prospective adoptees may skew the figures, it’s clear more must be done to find loving homes for people-friendly felines in our community. A higher percentage of U.S. households own dogs than cats, but American Veterinary Medical Association statistics show more cats than dogs living with American families overall, making cats the nation’s most popular pet.

Companion animal euthanasia isn’t a Wilson-specific problem. North Carolina is the ninth most-populous state but has the third-highest euthanasia rate in the country, with 55,900 falling to the needle in 2018. Only California and Texas put more strays to sleep.

Irresponsible pet ownership is the chief culprit. Animals that are not spayed or neutered are permitted to roam, where they mate and contribute to pet overpopulation. Researchers say it’s a phenomenon specific to Southern states, which lack the spay and neuter laws that are common in the Northeast.

“Perhaps more people in the South don’t like restrictions on the sex lives of their pets any more than they like zoning or gun laws,” Western Carolina University psychology professor emeritus Hal Herzog wrote in a May 2018 analysis for Psychology Today. Herzog’s comparisons show a dog is almost 25 times more likely to be euthanized in North Carolina than in New Hampshire.

We can begin to reverse this troubling trend. Max Fitz-Gerald of animal rescue group For the Love of Dogs is spot-on when he says the new Wilson County Animal Shelter must be “an adoption center, not a killing center.”

While Fitz-Gerald is sour on the shelter’s planned location and fears adoptees won’t come to N.C. 42 East, we’re convinced that tripling the capacity, extending hours of operation and improving access for volunteers and visitors are the ticket to saving more animals’ lives regardless of the building’s address.

Wilson County can increase adoptions and effectively end nonessential euthanasia if our community unites behind that humane and worthy goal. We’ve come a long way from just a couple years ago when animal rescuers were openly feuding with county commissioners over pet registration fee proceeds.

Today, there’s a growing spirit of cooperation. Our commissioners stepped up to the plate and committed to building the shelter without further delay. Another animal rescuer, Sara Lima, has proposed updates to the county animal control ordinance to crack down on cruelty and neglect. And Senator Horner came through with a timely and much-needed contribution from the state.

We applaud Horner, the unofficial third member of Wilson County’s legislative delegation, for intervening on our behalf. Wilson was drawn out of his district in court-ordered 2017 remapping, but he’s continued to look out for Wilsonians anyway.

Making Wilson a no-kill community will require all the stakeholders — commissioners, the sheriff, animal advocates and state officials — to work together and find common ground despite occasional differences of opinion.

We can do better than euthanizing an average of 1 ½ cats every day of the year and putting a dog to sleep once every 2 ½ days. Let’s fix this together.