Saving animals from euthanasia has been the goal of Maricopa County Animal Care and Control, but for years lack of funding has left the department running on fumes.
That may change.
A group of volunteers, who last year formed the nonprofit Friends of Animal Care and Control, plans to launch a campaign to raise $15 million to $20 million for new facilities the department desperately needs, said Susana Della Maddalena, president of the nonprofit's board of directors. Details of the campaign will be worked out in a feasibility study that could start by the end of the year.
"The reality of the county having the budget to make this a priority in the near future is slim, so we've decided this is something we need to push as a community," said Della Maddalena. "Every day we don't do something is just another day animals lose their lives."
The money would fund more shelter space and additional pet adoption centers, which could help reduce euthanasia. As more dogs and cats cram shelters in Mesa and Phoenix, the county often must kill animals simply to make room for more. With more space to hold and showcase cats and dogs for adoption, animals have a better chance of finding a home, she said.
The formation of the nonprofit and its upcoming capital campaign were fueled by the goal of Animal Care and Control: To become the nation's first municipal no-kill shelter.
But the goal, which the department developed in 1999 under the leadership of Ed Boks, is still a long way off. For the last five years, Animal Care and Control has killed nearly half of the animals brought in — a grim statistic that Boks is slowly changing.
"One of the first things I did is determine what we could do within our existing budget because of antiquated facilities, but the fiscal reality is the county can't provide for these shelters at this time," said Boks. Instead, the department implemented several programs designed to save animals from euthanasia.
The Big Fix program, which provides free spaying and neutering services for the pets of needy families four times a year.
Project Safety Net, which works with people to prevent them from surrendering their pets to animal control.
The Special Treatment and Recovery program, which treats injured animals and places them in foster care.
The Pet Adoption Center in Phoenix, and a pet adoption and spay/neuter vehicle, which brings the department's animals and services to the community. This month, a donation provided the department a second vehicle for spay/neuter surgeries.
An online service at www.pets911.com that allows owners to search for lost pets or find new ones.
The New Hope program, which alerts animal welfare organizations weekly with electronic messages describing animals available for adoption.
Department officials credit the programs for increased adoption rates and fewer animals put to death. Adoptions have steadily increased since 1998, and last year, Animal Care and Control had its largest drop in euthanasia in five years, with 27,800 animals killed, a decrease of 4,023 compared with 2001.
"We truly believe we've done a better job with public programs and adoption efforts," said Julie Bank, a spokeswoman for Animal Care and Control. "We run on fumes a lot, but we've been able to do a whole lot on fumes."
The department's $7 million budget has remained flat for many years, as has the number of field officers, said Nancy Harris, a controller for the department. Animal Care and Control, which funds itself through animal licensing fees and service contracts with municipalities, has 30 field officers covering a county that spans more than 9,200 square miles. The east shelter is at 2630 W. Eighth St. in Mesa. The other is at 2323 S. 35th Avenue in Phoenix.
County leaders said tight financial times have made it difficult to pay for improved Animal Care and Control facilities. The department, however, was designed to be self-sustaining.
"The truth is, we don't have the structural governance ability to do much more than we're doing," said Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley, R-District 2 of Mesa.
Boks said that for about 20 years, the department dug itself into a financial hole because its contracts with municipalities did not cover the cost of services. In 1999, the department negotiated new contracts and is digging itself out of that hole, he said.
In the meantime, the county's human and pet population grows.
Last year, the number of animals brought to county shelters dropped for the first time in five years. The department logged 57,116 animals in 2002, down from 61,985 in 2001— a decrease county officials attribute to efforts such as their spay/neuter program.
Nonetheless, the county's shelters are packed, with 150 to 200 animals arriving each day. Last year, animal care and control euthanized more than 5,800 animals simply because there was not space for them.
"We need the space, we need the programs and we need the community's involvement," Boks said. "The success that we're having suggests we're on the right track."
Della Maddalena said the money her nonprofit group plans to raise may come from private donations or through a bond initiative next year. Ultimately, however, the group hopes to involve the county in efforts to add and improve Animal Care and Control facilities.
"By getting the community involved, we think we can motivate the county to step up and contribute," said Della Maddalena.