Can South Carolina become ‘no-kill’ for shelter animals?

April is a pocket pit bull mix available for adoption at the Frances R. Willis SPCA in Summerville. The shelter is overcrowded and has no air conditioning for dogs.

When Kay Hyman started volunteering at the Charleston Animal Society 25 years ago, it had a gas chamber to euthanize animals.

Hyman, who now is employed as the group’s director of community engagement, said even as recently as 2007, 63 percent of the animals that came through the doors — thousands of dogs, cats and other animals — were euthanized.

But the organization made a commitment and became a “no-kill community,” which means no healthy or treatable animals are killed. In 2015, only 6 percent of the 8,738 animals that the shelter took in were put down.

“Now there’s hope,” Hyman said.

The Charleston Animal Society now is part of a movement to spread that hope statewide, said Joe Elmore, the group’s chief executive officer. There’s no deadline yet for becoming “No Kill South Carolina,” but his group has landed a $250,000 grant from the Petco Foundation to launch the effort.

Step one is establishing “key resource centers” throughout the state.

Within two years, Elmore said, no animal organization in South Carolina should be more than an hour’s drive from one of these centers, usually larger, better-funded shelters that can offer assistance to other groups who want to reduce euthanasia rates. That assistance could include: providing information on best practices for shelters; taking in some animals when smaller shelters are overcrowded; helping with writing grants and other fundraising strategies; and even encouraging some of a center’s key donors to help a cash-strapped smaller organizations in a crisis.

Advocates for shelter animals say that becoming “no-kill” involves reducing the number of animals that come into shelters, treating the animals in those facilities and finding permanent homes for them. All of that takes money, more than most shelters currently have.

So far, in addition to the Charleston Animal Society, Palmetto Lifeline, Columbia Animal Services and the Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Columbia, Greenville County Animal Care in Greenville and the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare in Aiken have signed on as resource centers.

“We’re setting up the infrastructure,” Elmore said.

He said his group dramatically decreased the rate at which it euthanizes animals with a lot of hard work and by keeping an open mind to strategies that might be effective. Some of those strategies include: offering pay incentives to employees who get more training; holding large and reduced-rate adoption events; and unusual fundraising efforts, such as a wildly popular annual firefighter calendar. The calendar features monthly photos of buff and beefy local firefighters with shelter animals. It’s a little risque while still being in good taste, Elmore said, and it’s just a lot of fun. Last year the group’s net profit from selling the calendars was $350,000, he said.

Leaders of shelters in Dorchester and Berkeley counties, which like the Charleston Animal Society have to accept all animals brought in by animal control services and community members, said it’s heartbreaking to have to euthanize animals. And, they said, it already is the goal of any animal organization to put down as few animals as possible. But becoming “no-kill” will take resources and other assistance, especially for smaller organizations with lower budgets.

While the Charleston Animal Society’s 2015 budget was $6.2 million, the Frances R. Willis SPCA in Dorchester County operated on only $631,287. And the Doc Williams SPCA in Berkeley County ran on $685,783.

On a sweltering afternoon last week, the dogs were panting to cool themselves at the Francis R. Willis SPCA in Summerville.

The outdated Dorchester County shelter doesn’t have any air conditioning, said manager Christine Brugge, so employees have been reaching out to the community for donations of fans and misters to keep them cool. The heat stresses animals that already are in a stressful environment.

The building was constructed in 1972, when the prevailing attitude was “a dog’s a dog,” Brugge said.

Each group needs different things to go “no-kill,” she said. And hers is in need of a new building.

The current one simply is too small, she said. Animals in crates often line the hallways because there isn’t enough space.

And newer facilities are designed to limit the spread of diseases, so more animals remain healthy and have a better chance of being adopted.

Dorchester County has given the group $5,000 to get started on a new building, she said. And she hopes a new shelter can be built in a more visible location than the current facility, where it can have a larger presence in the community.

Brugge said she’s only been on the job for two months, but she has talked with people from Charleston Animal Society about “No Kill South Carolina,” and her group wants to be part of it.

Last year, 70 percent of the 3,223 animals the shelter took in were adopted, rescued or reclaimed by their owners; the remaining 30 percent were euthanized or died in the shelter’s care. In 2013, just over half the animals the shelter took in were released alive.

She’s certain Dorchester County can become a no-kill community, she said.

“The Charleston Animal Society started the same way,” Brugge said.

Marcia Atkinson, executive director of the Doc Williams SPCA in Moncks Corner, said her group also wants to become part of a statewide no-kill movement. Her group took in 9,295 animals last year, more than any other local shelter, and 64 percent of them were released alive.

Her organization needs more resources, but animal owners can also help to reduce the number of animals that come into the shelter, she said.

“You can’t adopt your way out of this,” said Atkinson.

Reducing the number of unwanted animals is an important part of the puzzle. Last year, Doc Williams SPCA performed more than 4,500 spay and neuter surgeries to reduce the number of unwanted animals being born.

Atkinson would like to start a trap, neuter, release program for free-roaming cats, as Charleston County did. She thinks that would reduce the number of cats that come to the shelter and have to be euthanized.

Residents can also help, said Atkinson, by making sure to vaccinate their animals. The shelter has to euthanize many cats with feline leukemia, a preventable disease.

“I hear so much chatter and concern about no-kill, but how many of those people are taking personal responsibility for animals,” she asked. “I believe we, as a community, need to step up.”

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.