Photo credit: Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times

From Seattle Times

A decade ago, King County nearly abandoned animal services amid high euthanasia rates and poor shelter conditions. But officials and animal-welfare advocates are marking a dramatic turnaround in providing care and finding good homes for sick and abandoned animals.

By Lynn Thompson
Seattle Times staff reporter

Barb Horton remembers the hundreds of animal activists who packed a Metropolitan King County Council town-hall meeting in 2008, decrying the poor condition of the county-run animal shelters and euthanasia rates of nearly 40 percent. The previous month, a consultant hired by the countyfound sick cats in filthy cages and few animals displayed for adoption.

The overwhelming message to elected officials at that meeting, Horton said, was, “Stop the killing.”

On Wednesday, at the Kirkland Petco where the reorganized Regional Animal Services of King County runs its second-most-popular dog and cat adoption center, county officials and animal welfare advocates celebrated a dramatic turnaround.

The county shelter’s euthanasia rate for dogs and cats has fallen to 12 percent. Hundreds of volunteers donated more than 20,000 hours last year at the renovated shelter in Kent and as foster parents to dogs and cats awaiting adoption.

The care of animals at the Kent shelter has markedly improved, officials and advocates say. The reorganized animal services — which contracts with 25 suburban cities — is run by a veterinarian, and not by what Horton, of Puget Sound Working Cats, described as a “rotating county bureaucrat.”

The turnaround almost didn’t happen. In 2009, amid deep budget cuts that forced the closure of parks and the elimination of social-service programs, the county said it would end its animal services, send the strays to private shelters and leave animal control to individual cities.

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who was on the council during that emotional 2008 meeting, said that instead of abandoning its role in providing care and finding good homes for sick and abandoned animals, the county decided to restructure animal control and model the new organization on the best no-kill shelters in the country.

“It became clear to me that there were other places that had adopted a more humane approach, that every animal had value and every one that could be adopted or rehabilitated should be. We weren’t living up to the standards that our citizens expected,” said Constantine, who noted that he’s adopted black cats from the county because they are often the hardest to place.

In reducing the euthanasia rate, the county put more focus on spay and neuter services. It hired an additional vet to oversee animal medical care and a volunteer coordinator to recruit more help for the animals and provide more transparency for shelter operations, said Dr. Gene Mueller, a veterinarian who was hired in 2012 to manage the reorganized operations.

“He’s worked very hard to put the right team in place. He’s put in a lot of hours to turn the ship around,” said David Loewe, CEO of Seattle Humane in Bellevue, a nonprofit, no-kill shelter that was among King County’s models for change.

King County spent about $7 million on animal services in 2015. More than 2,100 cats and dogs were adopted and more than 750 lost pets were reunited with their families.

The dogs and cats that are euthanized have health or behavioral problems too serious to be handled by an adoptive family.

Seattle manages its own shelter and animal-control services.

King County Animal Services partnered with a number of nonprofits that host adoptable animals in local communities. It also opened its satellite adoption center at the Kirkland Petco. The store gives the county space to display dogs and cats for $1 a year, Mueller said.

“My mantra is, ‘How do I have other people help us help the animals,’ ” he said.

The county has even supported programs to rescue and spay or neuter barn and feral cats with a goal of reducing their numbers and the high rates of death among their kittens.

Lori Mason, the foster-care coordinator for animal services, said the county also created an “angel fund,” a charitable arm to pay for specialized veterinary care for sick and injured animals so they can be rehabilitated and adopted, and for specialists such as dog trainers and behaviorists to help families who have adopted from the county to keep the animals in their homes.

She said they even have a hospice program to place abandoned senior cats in a loving home so they can live their final years outside of the shelter.

Fifteen years ago, when she took over the foster-care program, Mason said, she had to be an advocate for animals; the organization wasn’t.

She called the change that’s taken place over the past few years, “amazing.”

Lynn Thompson: or 206-464-8305. On Twitter@lthompsontimes