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The Beaufort County Animal Shelter euthanized 3,876 of the 5,604 animals it took in last year -- some feral, some too aggressive or too sick to be adopted and others casualtiesof tight space and scarce resources.
That statistic alarms animal-rights advocates countywide. They want to see the county transition to a no-kill shelter and seek support for their cause, though they have yet to work out how much it would cost or how the shelter would operate.
"What drew me to it was actually seeing the numbers," said County Councilman Rick Caporale, who represents Hilton Head Island and is one of the advocates for a no-kill shelter.
The Hilton Head Humane Association already operates a no-kill shelter on the island, and Caporale said he has adopted several pets there through the years.
"I think I always felt the animals were in pretty good shape," he said. "When I got on council, one of the things that shocked me was seeing the monthly reports from the animal shelter. We would take in 500 to 600 animals a month, and we'd kill 400 of them. I thought, 'My God, that's horrendous."
Nationwide, several animal rights groups are coming to the same conclusion. Both the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animalshave launched campaigns encouraging communities to start or switch to no-kill shelters.
"This is not a money issue," Caporale said. "This is a matter of values."
<strong>When an animal arrives at the county shelter</strong>
Toni Lytton, director of Beaufort County Animal Control and Shelter, said her staff values the lives of every animal they handle but can only do so much in a facility that has enough cages for just 48 adult dogs and 68 adult cats.
Volunteers willing to foster sick animals until they can be spayed, neutered and adopted are hard to find, she said, as are those willing to adopt.
"People always say, 'Yeah, you're the killers,'" Lytton said. "We love the animals. That's why we work here. Everybody's always thrilled when we have animals that we don't have to put to sleep, but the euthanasia is just part of the job."
When a stray, friendly animal is taken in, shelter staff house and feed the animal three days before running a battery of physical and personality tests. Healthy animals with good temperaments are put up for adoption, Lytton said.
"Once there, there is no set time on how long it stays there," Lytton said. "We try to keep everything as long as we can. We had a cat here over a year ago that was here for 465 days, and she finally got adopted."
Feral animals and overly aggressive animals are likely to be put to sleep first, while dogs with heartworms or other severe health problems, like advanced mange, are also let go, she said.
Attempts are made to put older animals, those with minor illnesses and larger breeds like pit bulls into long-term foster families or with animal rescue groups, but the economy has made it hard for even rescue groups to find enough space.
"We try," Lytton said. "A no-kill shelter would be wonderful if it could be done."
<strong>Finding space for all the animals</strong>
Lytton and Caporale agree that starting a successful no-kill shelter would mean expanding the space in the current facility.
"Our shelter was built almost 30 years ago ... at a time when the population was about half of what it is now," Caporale said. "You've got the same facility serving a population base that's doubled, and I think people have been trapped into doing what they've always done."
The number of animals brought into the shelter varies wildly from day to day, Lytton said -- particularly if animal control officers pick up many feral animals.
There often is not enough space to house, feed and treat every one, she said.
"It's not unusual that one of the officers goes somewhere and traps 10 to 15 cats in one spot that are all feral," Lytton said. "One of my officers walked in a few weeks ago and had 27 on her truck that were all feral. But what do you do?"
It's a question that Caporale has thought often about and discussed with several animal rights advocates in the county since starting the no-kill project in earnest nearly two years ago.
"I don't think that anyone realistically expects that we can create a no-kill shelter out of what we have now," he said. "There's just too many animals. The real key is to begin to put some money and effort and creativity toward reducing the animal population."
A good place to start would be to examine how the more than $1 million the shelter gets each year from the county is used, Caporale said.
"What are we getting for the million bucks?," he said. "Can we divert some of those resources maybe and get more for the money? We've got a lot of inertia to overcome."
<strong>'It's a right to life'
Local animal rights advocates say it would be more simple to start a no-kill shelter than people might expect.
Kim Bonturi, founder and president of local non-profit organization Chain Free Beaufort, said the steps are clearly spelled out in the book "Redemption" by Nathan Winograd, a leading voice in the no-kill shelter movement.
Caporale gave copies of Winograd's book to all County Council members and other officials several months ago. In part, the book calls on communities to form spay and neuter programs that help control the pet population and keep shelters less full.
"In Beaufort County, we're a rarity nowadays in having a high-kill shelter," said Bonturi, whose group pushes for laws banning the chaining and tethering of animals. She posts monthly reports from the county animal shelter on their Web site.
"Everyone in the country is moving towards no-kill. Statistics show it can be done," Bonturi said. "There's no reason why Beaufort County shouldn't do this."