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With More Pets Neutered, Shelter Shifts Emphasis

Friday August 15, 2003

After years of preaching by animal advocates, pet owners are finally getting the message and spaying and neutering their animals, and Bay Area animal shelters are getting smaller numbers of abandoned cats and dogs. The flip side is that the ones they do take often prove the most difficult to place, requiring considerably more human investment than newborn pups and kittens. 

That’s the reason why the diminishing number of critters has resulted in an explosion of volunteers at the Berkeley Animal Care Shelter, reports Amelia Funghi, who coordinates volunteer efforts for the facility which takes unwanted or abandoned animals from Berkeley, Albany, Piedmont, and Emeryville. 

Similar programs have sprung up in animal shelters across the country since the mid 1990s, playing a central role in slashing euthanasia rates. 

The first decision workers must reach when an animal shelter takes in an animal is whether or not the animal is immediately suitable for adoption or whether it needs additional care and training before it’s ready to go home with a family. If not, it’s up to shelter staff work to provide necessary training and human contact. 

Fughi said that because most hard-to-place critters are adult dogs or cats that have had limited positive interactions with humans, volunteers start out by playing with the animals daily to make the animals comfortable with two-legged types. 

The program is enjoying particular success in Berkeley, Funghi said, because residents have contributed to the shelter’s low euthanasia rate by “buying into the idea of adopting an animal from us.” 

One key factor in Berkeley’s success has been Funghi’s skill in recruiting volunteers, leading to an almost seven-fold increase in the last two years—from fewer than 50 in 2001 to 330 today—after the city hired Funghi in February 2001, to focus on getting the word out into the community. As a result, animals in the Berkeley shelter are receiving lots more play time and training. 

“People are responding to our outreach efforts,” Funghi said. “To make more animals ready for adoption takes a lot of work by a lot of different people, and volunteers have really come through.” 

A major focus of the volunteer program in Berkeley is direct human-animal contact as often as possible. Almost all of Berkeley volunteers do hands-on work with animals, walking and training dogs and petting cats. 

“I’ve made contact a priority so animals could really get the care that they need,” Funghi said. “I think that’s the most important thing in terms of helping animals move away from the shelter to live in somebody’s home.” 

Funghi and shelter director Katherine O’Connor have implemented a variety of special events and programs to keep Berkeley residents aware of the shelter’s presence and work. The mobile adoption program brings animals to the Fourth Street shopping district every Saturday to publicly display some of the potential pets at the shelter and appeal to people to adopt an animal. 

“I got involved when I saw the animals down on Fourth Street,” said volunteer Lucy Tyler. “I knew I couldn’t have a pet myself, but I wanted to help make sure the word got out to other people that would be able to take an animal.” 

O’Connor said that although very few people adopt animals directly from the Fourth Street station, many people come in shortly after seeing the mobile adoption team and choose an animal to take home. This, in turn, raises awareness about the shelter’s work. 

Additionally, partnerships with animal rescue groups allow the shelter to share resources and receive help with particular aspects of its work. For example, the Oakland-based Home at Last Rescue places almost all of the Berkeley Animal Care Shelter’s kittens, a number that has already reached 160 this year. 

“We do work with the humane societies and the Oakland and San Francisco SPCAs (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals),” Funghi said. It’s the partnerships that allow us to get more animals adopted and fewer euthanized.”