By Jennifer Edwards
and Jeremy W. Steele
The Cincinnati Enquirer
LEBANON - Half the board members of Warren County Humane Association have resigned amid disagreements over the euthanizing of dogs and cats at a rate much higher than the national average.
Most of the 6,208 cats and dogs turned over to the Warren association last year were killed because the facility doesn't have room to hold them until they are adopted.
The humane association is raising money for a $2.8 million expansion. But some board members, including the president, quit because of a dispute over what they saw as unnecessary and premature euthanizing.
Nationwide, about 64 percent of the 8 million to 12 million animals sent to shelters each year will be euthanized, according to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy. But in Warren County, where 4,572 dogs and cats were killed last year, the rate was 74 percent.
An Enquirer analysis shows Hamilton County is just under the national average at 62 percent; Boone County is well below at 56 percent; and Butler, Clermont and Warren counties are all well above the national average.
"We are sick of putting all these animals to sleep," said Mari Lee Schwarzwalder, executive director of the Warren County Humane Association Animal Shelter off Ohio 48 in Lebanon.
"The worst thing is you have to put down a lot of perfectly healthy puppies and kittens because there just isn't the space. (But) we just couldn't keep them all."
Shelter operators hope the expansion project that should be complete by next spring will help reduce the number of animals killed.
But board president Wendy McAdams of Indian Hill quit last week - walking out in the middle of a board meeting - after concerns brought to her about cats being prematurely killed.
The issues came from two shelter employees, who wrote statements she shared with the rest of the board. But the concerns weren't going to be addressed, McAdams said, so she felt she had no other choice but to leave.
Three other board members - Debbie Hockenbery, Diane Ulrich and Barb Garten - also have quit over the dispute.
"I am involved with the shelter because I love animals. I have all my life," McAdams said. "To me, not to look into a problem that had to do with the direct care of the animals was not something I wanted to be involved with."
McAdams declined to cite the specific complaints she received from the two workers but confirmed it had to do with alleged premature killing of cats.
The other board members could not be reached for comment, but Warren County Commissioner Pat South said she was surprised so many resigned. It's likely the commission will ask Schwarzwalder to appear to explain the situation, she said.
"It's unfortunate," South said. "The shelter just broke ground on May 3 to more than double the size of the current shelter to accommodate more animals so they don't have to be euthanized so quickly. Bottom line: I don't know if you can ever build an animal shelter large enough to accommodate all of the animals without euthanasia."
Commissioner Mike Kilburn also said he was unaware half the board had quit, but he wasn't inclined Friday to get involved in the dispute.
"My goodness. They're animals. I've got kids, and we raise horses and I have three dogs - but they are animals. Give me a break," Kilburn said. "That's an overpopulation. We do this as compassionately as we can."
Shelter operators denied that animals were being put down needlessly. Schwarzwalder said the agency is doing the best it can to save as many possible dogs and cats, the number of which grows with the human population in Ohio's second-fastest-growing county.
She said the shelter strictly adheres to protocols set by the humane association's board.
National animals rights groups say it's unfair to blame shelters for pet overpopulation.
"The mistake many people make is pointing the finger at the shelter that basically has to carry out the dirty work for an irresponsible society," said Daphna Machminovitch, director of domestic animal crisis issues and abuse for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "The blame falls on our failure to spay and neuter our animals."
Sue Fugate, manager of Warren County's shelter, often is the one stuck "doing the dirty work" of killing animals by lethal injection. She says picking which cats and dogs will die has caused many tears and even some fights among employees.
When the shelter's population booms, particularly in the summertime, as many as 60 dogs a week can be euthanized, Fugate said. Out of 1,105 dogs that have come in this year, 772 have been killed, shelter records show. Out of 795 cats, 614 have been put to death.
The animals are dropped off throughout the day at the shelter and after hours at a side room stocked with cages.
On Friday, Marilyn Shepherd of Waynesville spotted a stray dog wandering in the road. She took him to the shelter to keep him from getting hit by a car.
"I didn't know what else to do," Shepherd, 59, told shelter workers as the dog pulled on a makeshift leash she had thrown around his neck. "It's going to get killed out there anyway. I can't take care of him. I have cancer."
Emily Highley of Waynesville brought her daughter, Abigail, 3, to the shelter Friday to look for a kitty. But Highley left empty-handed, saying the selection was poor and the adoption fees - $80 for cats and $93.75 for dogs - were too high.
The fees cover the animals' initial shots, worming, microchip identifications, veterinarian checks, licensing and other needs.
"There's not that much to choose from," Highley, 35, said as she strapped her daughter into a car seat. "There's only five cats in there. I would like a little one for her to grow up with. If the costs were lowered, maybe they would have more dogs and cats adopted."
Other Tristate counties also blame lack of facilities for large numbers of euthanized pets.
In Hamilton County, 10,951 of the 17,792 dogs and cats taken in by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Cincinnati (SPCA) were put down.
In Butler County, 5,329 of the 7,350 pets - 72 percent - brought to the Animals Friends Humane Society in Trenton were killed.
In Clermont County, more than 3,700 animals were killed last year.
Clermont County Humane Society's animal shelter plans to open a new facility in July. The $837,000 building will allow the group to care for 198 animals, compared with the maximum 120 at its current facility.
"I don't think there's ever enough space if you compare it to the numbers you have come in," said Kim Naegel, executive director of the shelter. "But there are some things worse than euthanasia - animals being abused or neglected or hit by cars."
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