WAIF shelter boasts lowest animal-kill rate

Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation’s rate for euthanizing animals is one of the lowest in the state, or depending on how you look at it, in the nation, according to statistics from the nonprofit group.

Armed with a Powerpoint presentation, officials from WAIF fought back against critics during a Wednesday meeting with the Island County commissioners. The nonprofit group runs animal shelters for the county and Oak Harbor.

A national expert in animal protection and humane shelter issues also weighed into the debate. Merritt Clifton, a South Whidbey resident and editor of a national newspaper focused on animal protection issues, said the shelter’s low euthanasia rate was amazing.

“Here on Whidbey, the numbers are actually so extremely low, it’s incomprehensible to me that there’s any controversy,” he said.

The commissioners’ meeting with the two groups that manage shelters on Whidbey and Camano, as well as the animal control officers, was supposed to be about promoting dog licenses and other revenue ideas. It turned into a debate about WAIF.

Passions have been percolating since the Smiley incident. Freeland residents Barbara Moran and Bob Baker brought a lawsuit against WAIF in 2008 to stop the staff from euthanizing the dog, which had been deemed aggressive and unadoptable. The dog was stolen, found and ultimately saved.

The couple and a handful of other critics attended the meeting Wednesday, along with many WAIF supporters. The people with concerns about WAIF spoke with emotion and a couple of women openly cried during remarks.

“This is criminal. It’s inhumane. It’s from the ignorance of the shelter team,” said Pamela Hill-Keeva, a former WAIF board members who claimed she was forced out because she was against euthanizing dogs. She suggested that what WAIF said and what WAIF does are two different things.

WAIF has been criticized for its lack of transparency in the past, but Wednesday the group pulled out the big guns: the facts. Board member Kit Maret gave a thorough presentation detailing the budget, outreach efforts, social media involvement, volunteer hours, the number of pets taken in and the number of pets euthanized.

Maret said that it cost more than $250,000 last year to run the Coupeville facility, even with thousands of volunteer hours. Island County, which owns the building, paid WAIF $56,503 last year to run the shelter, but WAIF returned $24,852 in dog licensing and other fees to the county. That’s a net cost of $31,852 for the county.

This year, the county cut its WAIF payment by 10 percent. The group also runs a shelter for Oak Harbor, two thrift stores and two cat adoption centers, but those operations weren’t included in the county’s numbers.

Most of the expense of running the shelter are covered by donations.

“Our accountability is to our donors,” Maret said. “They’re paying for our services.”

A total of 1,420 dogs and cats entered WAIF shelters in Coupeville and Oak Harbor last year. Of the 706 dogs, 31 were put down.

The shelter staff doesn’t euthanize for space and it obtains veterinary treatment for sick pets.

“We euthanize animals that can’t be saved or are dangerous,” she said.

The euthanasia rate for dogs over the last 10 years has ranged from 4 to 11 percent. Even the highest rate is better than the rate at a long list of nearby animal shelters provided by WAIF. PAWS of Snohomish County, for example, has a 16 percent euthanasia rate.

Yet Clifton explained that a more meaningful statistic is the number of dogs euthanized per 1,000 human residents. He said that successful shelters need a spay and neutering program.

In the past, large numbers of puppies and kittens went to shelters and were adopted easily, making the euthanasia rate look low. If the number of unwanted puppies and kittens is reduced through neutering, then the number of overall adoptions will plummet and the regular euthanasia rate will rise; this happens even though the shelter is doing a better job and putting fewer animals to sleep.

Maret said WAIF’s rate of animal killed per 1,000 people was 2.2 in 2009. Clifton said the 2.2 rate was very impressive and far better than the rate at the Calgary shelter, which was touted by WAIF critics.

“The lowest number in America. How can you get any better than that?” Coupeville veterinarian Ken Leaman said.

Maret admitted that the 11 percent spike in euthanasia in 2007 was because of an influx of pit bulls and the lack of adoptions. The group started that year with 35 pit bulls and an additional 111 of the dogs were brought in.

Only four were adopted out. Maret said the shelter leaders made the difficult decision of temporarily refusing more pit bull surrenders and to start euthanizing strays after the mandatory hold. After 2007, the number of pit bulls has eased and the practice was ended.

“It was really a heartbreaking decision,” Maret said. “It was not something we wanted to do. ... Rumors persist that we kill pit bulls. It’s not true.”

The commissioners urged everyone in the room to work constructively for the welfare of animals. The one argument from the critics that seemed to gain traction with the commissioners was Moran’s complaint that WAIF won’t let her rescue group take homeless dogs from WAIF.

“We have been completely shut out of rescue work on Whidbey Island...” she said, noting that her group brings rescued pit bulls to Whidbey Island from other areas. “It seems we have to get permission from another nonprofit.”

Afterward, Maret said WAIF works often with other nonprofit groups and would be willing to work with pit bull rescue groups.

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