Nonprofit is sought to help run Baltimore County animal shelter

At Baltimore County's animal shelter this week, dozens of animals were waiting for someone to adopt them. Among them were Cisco, a year-old pit bull terrier, a bulldog named Ivan and Sugar Pie, a tricolor cat.

But judging by shelter statistics, potential pets are more likely to be put down than placed in a home.

Now, under pressure from animal advocates and some lawmakers, county officials are looking for an animal-oriented nonprofit to take over the shelter.

"Much like most animal-control agencies, their focus is really on protecting people from animals," said Ron Lambert, a board member of the Maryland Feline Society. "The rescue community has a different perspective. Their job is to help animals — and protect them from people sometimes. So they have more of an incentive to save lives."

Lambert and others say private groups are better equipped than the county to care for animals and have more expertise in marketing pets to potential owners.

County officials, meanwhile, say finding the right organization to run the shelter would free county workers to focus on animal control. The county issued a request for proposals last month, and recently relaxed requirements and extended the deadline to May.

"The goal was to see how we could create a partnership that would allow the county do what it does best, which is to take care of public safety aspects and dangerous animals," said Don Mohler, chief of staff for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "And then allow the advocacy groups to do what they do best, which is to provide long-term care."

Baltimore made a similar move eight years ago, when the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter was formed to take over the city shelter.

"Similar to the county, there was a lot of public pressure," said Jen Brause, BARCS' executive director. "The conditions of the shelter were poor, and the euthanasia rate was 98 percent."

Under BARCS, Brause said, the shelter has a euthanasia rate of 32 percent. It employs more than 50 workers and has attracted a corps of 300 volunteers.

The city gives BARCS an annual grant that covers about half its $2 million budget, Brause said. The organization raises the rest of its money through adoption fees and private donations.

Brause said operating as a nonprofit gives BARCS flexibility in areas such as fundraising and recruiting volunteers. In tight times, she said, when local agencies are vying for the same limited dollars, "the government's going to choose human causes over animal causes."

Howard and Anne Arundel counties run their own shelters.

The Baltimore County shelter sits at the end of a long driveway off Manor Road in Baldwin, deep in horse country. It is the county's only such facility.

The shelter took in 5,775 animals last year, according to the county Health Department, which oversees the facility. Of those, 3,642 were destroyed, a euthanasia rate of more than 63 percent.

The Humane Society of the United States said there are no accurate statistics on euthanasia rates nationwide.

Baltimore County law requires the shelter to keep animals for at least four business days, said Health Department spokeswoman Monique Lyle. Animals that can be adopted are kept as long as possible, she said.

But the county destroys animals too quickly, critics say, and adopted dogs and cats are not spayed or neutered before leaving. Some say adoption hours — ending at 3 p.m. five days out of six — make it difficult for people to visit. They say the shelter's management is ill-equipped to work with animal advocacy groups and volunteers, and hasn't made use of technology to find homes for animals.

"They don't have a website that has accurate information," said Darla Feeheley of the dog-rescue group Tails of Hope.

Lyle said the shelter began posting descriptions of adoptable pets on the county website in 2011. Before that, she said, the county posted to the website Petfinder.