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All good strays go to heaven

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Like authentic-looking stuffed animals, 11 cats lay on operating tables, lifeless and cold. Each cat, with a thick syringe protruding from its heart, was enough to change my previous pet label from dog-person to dog and- cat-person. I paid a much-dreaded visit to Animal Care Services’ killing room last week: 10 dead, one barely alive (the syringe moving back and forth indicated its heart was still beating), and three adorable orange kittens — obviously next in line — meowing in a nearby cage.

“I don’t like to call this the euthanasia room,” Animal Care Services interim director Craig Brestrup said. “Euthanasia is something you do when there is no alternative to saving the animals’ life. I call this the killing room.”

The dog days of summer are here and the number of canines and cats roaming the city is soaring with the temperature. It’s no secret that San Antonio (ranked number- one in cats and dogs killed per capita) has a stray-animal problem, but with spring and summer dubbed “baby seasons” the number of strays is at an all-time high. Summertime also brings about more escape (and romance) opportunities for playful pets as kids leave gates open or bring their furry companions leash-free outside to play.

A visit to the ACS facility is the unhappy conclusion. I stood with Brestrup just outside of Kennel 2, where dogs are kept for 48 hours until they are either adopted or killed. Over the rowdy, continuous barking, I heard a worker tell Brestrup they may have to call another 48-hour suspension on accepting strays. Just a few days after my visit, the shelter had exceeded capacity, with approximately 600 animals housed in the 250- kennel facility, and called a two-day moratorium.

Inside, a playful, dark-brown dog was being released from his cage. He bounded out, excited and playful, the way dogs act when they’ve done something great and are about to be rewarded with Pupperoni or a rub on the belly. I watched in dismay, knowing this seemingly healthy dog was about to be killed because there was no room for him to live.

Continuing efforts have been made to improve this situation, with changes to the facility and the introduction of a possible no-kill plan, but beyond space issues, a continuing theme arises: This problem goes far beyond city efforts and falls into the hands of the community.

“The spotlight needs to turn outward,” says Brestrup, referring to the media attention ACS has received recently. “We could be the best facility in the world, but if we are still killing 40,000 animals per year there is something terribly wrong with the community.”

There are many animal-advocacy groups tending to the rising problem. The trap-neuter-return, or TNR, method is one solution that many say is effective in keeping stray and feral cats from reproducing. Using anything from Kentucky Fried Chicken to sardines, members of the San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition trap feral cats, have them spayed and neutered, foster them through recovery, and return them to their natural way of life. But, as with ACS, a lone organization cannot save all of the city’s animals.

“What we need is for people to step forward and realize this is a community problem and say we are going to solve it,” says Chris Montgomery, president of the SAFCC, who is currently fostering nine cats. “It’s not a short-term solution, it’s a long-term solution.”

TNR may keep felines away from the pound, but dogs don’t have nine lives. When Stephanie Sepaugh noticed a pack of stray dogs living under the Martinez Creek Bridge near her home, she immediately contacted ACS and asked for assistance in finding the dogs a place to stay. Sepaugh was told that if the dogs were brought to ACS, they would be probably be killed. (Many advocates dissuade San Antonians from turning to ACS since they are not yet a no-kill facility.)

Organizations like the Animal Defense League, Animal Friends Humane Society, and Southern Animal Rescue Association take in animals and provide them with medical treatment, food, shelter, and safety, but it’s that same old refrain: only if room permits.

“It comes down to the next five years,” says Brestrup. “If people don’t decide to get on board, you can say forevermore that San Antonio will keep killing its animals.”

Until the city takes its kill-rate seriously (City Council is expected to increase the shelter’s budget by $620,000, and a no-kill policy is expected by 2010), and until the people of San Antonio start fixing their pets, I will rest on the childhood notion that all dogs (and cats) go to heaven.

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