Sometimes, food and shelter just aren’t enough.
A bill at Colorado’s Capitol says dogs and cats deserve more when they’re lost or abandoned — they need mental and emotional care, too.
Lawmakers want to discourage shelters from killing animals because of lack of space and ensure that dogs and cats are adopted, returned to their owners or transferred to another shelter.
Senate Bill 164 establishes a standard of care for dogs and cats and says they must receive appropriate food, water, shelter, medical care and enrichment. It says “a dog’s or cat’s quality of life and health includes mental and emotional well-being as well as physical health.”
“It’s about caring for our animals … people love their pets,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who is championing the measure.
“This bill creates a standard of care, which most shelters already operate under, but we are making it very clear in our statute that we want to protect animals that find themselves in shelters.”
The legislation — which passed the Senate and is now heading to the House — would still allow an animal to be euthanized if it is terminally ill, injured or aggressive, but not because of a lack of space or length of time spent at a shelter.
Colorado’s shelters and rescues are licensed and inspected by the state’s Department of Agriculture, through the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act program.
In 2018, 184,293 animals — everything from goats to snakes — ended up in animal shelters. And approximately 89% of them were adopted, returned to their owners or transferred to another shelter, according to data collected by the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
“This (bill) wouldn’t have too much impact for us because we are already operating on those standards, and I don’t know many that are not,” said Chris Nelson, director of animal services for the La Plata County Humane Society.
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“If the animal is a danger of causing harm or death to an animal or a person, then we will euthanize. Or if they have an illness or disease that’s not curable and they will have a poor quality of life,” Nelson said.
But he said the bill might create challenges for shelters that struggle with overcrowding. He said the La Plata County Humane Society used to euthanize for space, but not anymore.
“We used to euthanize 30% of our dogs and cats before I started. Right now, we euthanize about 2% to 3%, and that’s for health reasons,” Nelson said. “We even hospice out some of our dogs and cats.”
Part of the reason the shelter has been able to decrease euthanasia rates is because of the practice of trap, neuter, release, which is when a shelter collects feral cats, spays or neuters them, then releases them back into the wild. But the practice doesn’t immediately lower population and it doesn’t help get more animals placed in a home. It just helps reduce future populations.
Nelson said they’ve come a long way, and that the dog population in southwestern Colorado is under control. But cats are a different story.
“There is a long way to go with cats. Our dog population is fairly balanced, I know it is here. The states directly to the south of us have extreme population problems in places like New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. They still euthanize for space,” Nelson said.
Jennifer Crouse, shelter supervisor for the City of Cortez’s animal shelter, says that her facility also used to struggle with overcrowding.
“Since we’ve significantly increased our transports to other shelters in the last few years, our overcrowding has gone way down,” Crouse said. “It’s not really a problem anymore. And our euthanasia has gone down by about 60% as well.”
She says her shelter relies on grant money from the Animal Assistance Foundation to help bolster their small medical budget.
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The bill received pushback from a handful of Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Don Coram of Montrose, who worried that it will cause shelter overcrowding.
“In the western part of Colorado, there’s just not as much of a demand for pet adoption,” Coram said, adding that overcrowding is in part due to Colorado shelters accepting so many animals from out of state.
Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican who opposed the measure, said it is merely “feel-good legislation.”
“This bill doesn’t create a standard of care. The standard of care already exists,” Gardner said. “It won’t help the pet that was improperly euthanized. If this was a bill that would do that I wouldn’t be standing up here and saying that this bill doesn’t do anything.”
Gardner criticized the measure for neglecting to protect other critters.
“It does choose dogs and cats over hedgehogs, and as you recall on second reading I told you that my daughter has a hedgehog. And I don’t think it’s going to escape, but if it did, he would go to the animal shelter. There’s no standard of care in here for the hedgehog,” he said.
The legislation is part of a movement that’s pushing for a “socially conscious shelter” model instead of a “no-kill” model.
“The socially conscious animal community movement strives to create the best outcomes for all animals by treating them respectfully and alleviating suffering – two key commitments all veterinarians take upon entering veterinary school,” Katherine Wessels, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, said in a written statement.
It’s the model used by the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region.
“We will never euthanize for time or space,” said Kate Aviv, community relations specialist for the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region in Pueblo. “As a socially conscious shelter, we don’t turn away any animals in need.”
“If we see they’ve been here too long, we will transfer to another place. Or we will transfer them into foster care so they can be in homes while they wait,” Aviv said. “A lot of no-kill shelters can pick and choose which ones they take into the shelters. But socially conscious shelters have to take in every animal.”
If a pet is found, Aviv’s shelter holds it for five to six days and tries to find the owner by posting in lost-and-found boards, checking micro chips and scanning Facebook posts.
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She says their organization — which includes shelters in Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Centennial and Douglas County — has an extensive network of shelters that work together to house animals with specific needs. But they don’t transfer animals outside of their jurisdiction.
In 2018, 6,199 animals came through the Pueblo location, with 1,603 of them being adopted and 1,312 being reunited with their owners.
Approximately 666 animals were euthanized in the shelter, and another 385 were euthanized at owners request. The remainder of the animals were either transferred to other facilities or died of natural causes. Between all four shelters, the organization euthanized approximately 10% of their animals.
Aviv said she’s excited to see legislators discussing how to care for animals in shelters in the most ethical way possible.
“I do believe it’s the best approach to sheltering. It allows us to look at them as individuals. I don’t see any negatives to moving to that approach. It’s the way to ensure that we are making the best decisions for every animal,” Aviv said.
For Rep. Monica Duran, a Wheat Ridge Democrat who is helping bring the bill, it’s about giving animals a second chance. “We need to be caring for our animals,” said Duran, who owns two Pomeranians.
In early February, Duran brought a measure that would have put more regulations on puppy mills, but it did not make it out of committee. She said it failed because small pet stores were worried the changes would cost their businesses too much money.
“With legislation like this, it’s all about changing mindsets,” she said.
The animal shelter bill is also being led by Sen. Joann Ginal, a Fort Collins Democrat, and Rep. Alex Valdez, a Denver Democrat.
If enacted into law, the legislation would take effect in August.
This story was updated at 10:26 a.m. on June 11, 2020, to correct that Duran lives in Wheat Ridge, not Denver.