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Visalia Shelter Finds Homes!

By Bethany Clough (The Fresno Bee)

(Updated Sunday, February 15, 2004, 7:15 AM)

VISALIA -- Juneau, a stray Siberian husky biding time last week at the Valley Oak Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was probably headed for euthanasia.

Despite his eyes -- one blue and one brown -- and a coat smooth enough for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, finding a home for Juneau is tough. The large, active dog has more energy than many owners can handle.

But volunteers with a program called Rescue Railroad soon will drive Juneau to Siberians Needing Owners, a rescue center for purebred huskies where he'll have an almost 100% chance of finding a happy home.

Visalia has one of the highest animal kill rates in the nation. Last year, 6,993 animals were euthanized by lethal injection at the shelter -- 61% of all of the animals that came through its doors.

Among those that survived were 624 animals -- purebreds, mutts and a handful of cats -- that Valley Oak volunteers drove to other rescue shelters with enough space to house them and the ability to find them suitable homes.

On Tuesday, volunteers hauled 21 dogs -- including Agnes Lupe, a 6-pound Chihuahua, and Milo, an 80-pound black Labrador retriever -- to the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego.

The dogs traveled in the back of an "animobile" -- a van equipped with built-in cages, but sometimes volunteers take several smaller loads in their own cars.

"If we weren't able to place them, we'd have to euthanize," said B.J. Motko, volunteer rescue coordinator.

Valley Oak workers say their kill rate is so high because the community does not always hear their message about the importance of spaying and neutering pets.

Sometimes it's the language barrier.

"A neuter-your-dog sign does no good if you can't read it," Motko said.

And sometimes it's a cultural difference.

"If you moved here from Mexico, there isn't a spay/neuter program there to speak of," she said.

And there are no rescue shelters that accept pit bulls, the breed that seems to fill shelters in high numbers.

Communities with high kill rates also tend to have high poverty rates, according to at least two studies.

Contrast that with the Southern California communities surrounding the Helen Woodward Animal Center, which has been educating locals about spaying and neutering since 1972.

There just aren't very many strays wandering the streets of Rancho Santa Fe, one of the wealthiest communities in the United States, said the center's spokesman, John Van Zante.

But volunteers with the Rescue Railroad program say they're putting a dent in the number of euthanized animals. Between 2002 and 2003, the number of animals sent to rescue centers increased 4.5%, and the number euthanized decreased 4%.

On Wednesday, the day after 21 dogs left the shelter for Rancho Santa Fe, a group of volunteers and workers stood outside the kennels and celebrated. They euthanized only three dogs that day -- all of them because of major health or aggression problems.

It was a marked change from the days when 20 to 30 animals were euthanized.

"Not one dog had to be put down because of space," said kennel supervisor Lena Cooper.

As Motko strolled along a row of kennels, she pointed out Reno, a golden retriever that could go to Nor-Cal Golden Retriever Rescue in Porterville, and Lucy, a basset hound with a birth defect -- a bent paw -- that would easily be accepted at a basset rescue center called Daphnyland in Southern California.

Some volunteers are "foster parents" for certain breeds. One man picks up basset hounds brought to the shelter and keeps them at his home until he makes arrangements to drop them off at the basset rescue center.

Animals have a much better chance of finding a good home via those specialized shelters.

"They will interview probably numbers and numbers of families," Motko said.

They also will inspect the potential owner's home before approving the adoption.

As for Juneau, the stray husky, she said: "I would guess he'd be the lead dog on a sled team. If he could choose, he'd choose to work somewhere."

The reporter can be reached at bclough@fresnobee.com or 622-2421