Editorials

Tacoma saving animals at record rate; can it save them all?

Happy first-time meetings and joyful reunions have helped define the Humane Society of Tacoma and Pierce County during its 130 years. Here, California construction worker Bryan Rapozo is reunited with his beloved "Bear Bear," a rat terrier mix, after a long-distance separation.
Happy first-time meetings and joyful reunions have helped define the Humane Society of Tacoma and Pierce County during its 130 years. Here, California construction worker Bryan Rapozo is reunited with his beloved "Bear Bear," a rat terrier mix, after a long-distance separation. News Tribune file photo, 2011

Pet lovers and animal welfare benefactors around the South Sound have much to celebrate this week as they hold a “society soiree” transporting them — as well as some VIP four-legged companions — to 1888.

That was the year a group of visionary Tacomans established the local humane society, a journey back in time of 130 years. (Which translates to more than half a century in dog years. In a word: rough.)

Through the decades, the Humane Society for Tacoma and Pierce County has represented the community’s better angels with respect to all creatures great and small. It’s also euthanized far more animals than its dedicated staff and volunteers should have to bear.

At sad points in its history, the shelter resembled a death camp more than a rescue operation. The worst period might’ve been the early 1970s, when it killed 121 cats and dogs every day.

Today, the norms and expectations for compassionate animal care in America have evolved extraordinarily, as have spay-neuter rates, medical interventions, behavior modification tools and pet rescue resources.

The past year is a good measuring stick of steady progress at the shelter, the beating heart of Tacoma’s industrial Nalley Valley.

In 2017, for the second straight year, it surpassed the gold standard of a 90-percent “live release” rate. That means less than 10 percent of dogs and cats coming through its doors were euthanized.

The release rate stood at 92.65 percent last year, a historic peak. Contrast that with 2009, when the rate barely topped 50 percent and an animal’s chance for a new life was a toss-up.

Give credit to determined staff, skilled veterinarians, generous donors and 350 regular volunteers. Also helping mightily is a growing outreach network, poised to fill gaps for low-income households that otherwise would surrender their pets due to medical or other expenses. For example, 146,000 pet meals were distributed through the Pet Food Pantry in 2017.

Other statistics from the past year:

▪ 11,578 total animals received care from the Humane Society.

▪ 7,145 animals were placed in homes.

▪ 1,744 animals were welcomed into volunteer foster care.

▪ 1,742 lost animals were returned to their families.

The news is similarly encouraging up the freeway in King County, where the pet-save rate touched 92 percent in 2017 after the animal services division increased adoptions by 20 percent in a single year.

Other milestones have been recorded through the years at the Humane Society of Tacoma and Pierce County. In 1995, it stopped euthanizing puppies for want of a home — a practice that seems unthinkable now, when nearly every puppy listed for adoption is snapped up within a day. In 2014, it launched a trap-neuter-return program that reduced the overpopulation of feral cats.

There have been setbacks, too, including a big one now simmering: Labor unrest at the shelter has reached the point that talk of a strike is in the air. The society's new executive team must redouble efforts to make rank-and-file employees feel as humanely treated as the animals.

The work done by these employees can be heartbreaking, the consequence of striving toward the ever-elusive goal of becoming a “no-kill” shelter. While they’ve attained it for healthy, adoptable dogs and cats, they must make hard decisions every day due to an animal's chronic disease, aggressive behavior or other irremediable issues. And they always will.

“We never euthanize for space or a treatable medical condition,” spokeswoman Laverne Pitts told us Wednesday, but “sometimes we’re put in horrible positions, because we’re an open-admission shelter.”

Even so, saving animals at a clip better than 92 percent seems an achievement worthy of a Victorian soiree.

Perhaps you’d like to visit the shelter this year and help move the needle past 93 percent?

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