For the first time in several years, the East Baton Rouge Parish public animal shelter has empty cages.
This is a shelter that had been so swarmed with animals it was euthanizing thousands of them every year just to free up space. And when a nonprofit dedicated to lowering the kill rate took over in 2011, it was overwhelmed by so many strays that dogs and cats ended up stored in offices and closets.
But after an extremely rocky few years, marred by complaints of inhumane conditions and administrative employee turnover, Companion Animal Alliance leaders now say adoptions are up, euthanasia is down and the organization finally has found steady footing.
This year, the euthanasia rate for animals at the shelter has dropped to 36 percent, the lowest it’s ever been. CAA persuaded the Metro Council to pass a controversial policy that allows stray cats to be fixed and returned to the streets, and to approve an increase in pet registration fees to bolster its budget.
The organization, which relies heavily on donations, also is preparing to launch a campaign to raise $12 million in hopes of breaking ground on a new shelter on LSU’s campus by early 2016.
The current animal shelter was previously run by the city-parish under the Animal Control and Rescue Center, but it was heavily criticized because it had a euthanasia rate of 80 percent and was known to kill about 8,000 adoptable animals per year.
Under the auspices of CAA, the shelter this year euthanized about 2,500 animals as of November.
The Companion Animal Alliance, led by board President Christel Slaughter, began by negotiating with the city to take over the shelter and supplement the budget with donations in an effort to become a no-kill shelter.
“We were naive in the beginning, and I think what we didn’t understand was the challenge of an open community-access shelter,” Slaughter said. “I think we thought, ‘Piece of cake; give us the keys.’ ”
Shortly after the transition, animal shelter volunteers began speaking out about the decline in conditions at the shelter because of overcrowding due to the sudden halt in euthanizing animals.
The organization lost its first executive director, Laura Hinze, within two months. It burned through two more executive directors within the next year and a half. The most recent departed director, Kim Sherlaw, left after employees alleged she was a poor manager who directed staff to violate veterinary protocols.
The bad press led to a decline in donations, leaders said.
“People want to give to something that succeeds,” said Beth Brewster, CAA’s executive director for the past two years. She said they had to earn back the public’s trust.
The organization has an annual budget of about $1.2 million, from a combination of city-parish funds, pet registration fees, grants and donations. It received about $271,000 in grants and donations in 2014 for the operating budget.
It’s down a bit from previous years, Slaughter said, because CAA has been in its “quiet phase” for its capital fundraiser campaign for a new shelter.
The shelter is near the Parish Prison on Progress Road. The proposed location for a new shelter is at the corner of Gourrier Lane and River Road on LSU’s campus. The new facility would give CAA better amenities, more space and visibility, and a closer working relationship with the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine.
Plans for the new facility have been stalled in recent years while the LSU college system has transitioned to a new chancellor and a new vet school dean.
Slaughter said CAA has received verbal commitments for about “40 to 50 percent” of the funds needed to build the new complex.
The organization also is expected to boost its budget because of an increase in license fees passed by the Metro Council earlier this year. The fees are collected via animal-owner trips to the vet for pet rabies shots.
It’s unclear how much the fees will generate for the shelter, but officials estimate they would receive about $45,000 in additional revenue from July through November.
But the most significant measurement of success for the shelter is the number of animals being saved every year.
In addition to promoting adoptions, the staff has focused on ramping up efforts to return lost pets to their owners and on fostering relationships with animal rescue groups that can assist with finding homes for strays.
As an open-access shelter, it cannot turn animals away and has to deal with strays picked up by Animal Control, so working with other groups helps ensure the shelter isn’t overcrowded to the point it has to euthanize to free up space.
As of November of this year, more than 7,200 animals were brought to the shelter.
The agency has dramatically reduced its kill rate for stray cats because of the controversial “trap, neuter, release” policy passed this year by the council. The policy allows the agency to fix, vaccinate and return stray cats to the streets.
The policy was heavily lobbied against by entities such as the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, with opponents arguing the policy would be ineffective and would contribute to the decline of wild birds.
But it’s already paying off for felines, Brewster said. The save rate for cats this year is 76 percent, which is the first time it’s been higher than the save rate for dogs. Adult cats are typically euthanized at the highest rates because people prefer to adopt kittens.
This year, CAA also implemented a name-your-price policy for adult cat adoptions, allowing people to adopt a cat for whatever they can contribute. Adopting a dog, in comparison, can cost between $90 and $200.
Slaughter said when CAA first took over the shelter, leaders didn’t realize it would have to gradually build its way toward becoming no-kill.
“We were boisterous about doing it in such a short period of time, but it’s a complex process,” she said.
But she said they are consistently getting stronger and could achieve no-kill status within the next two or three years.
“Before, it was a vision, and we didn’t understand what it takes,” she said. “Now, more than ever, we can see how we can get there.”