By: Nate Rau and Bobby Allyn, The Tennessean
Nashville may have grown into a welcoming place to live for creative types, entrepreneurs, students and others, but less so, critics say, for stray dogs.
Last year, 78 percent of the animals - mostly dogs and cats - impounded by Metro Animal Care and Control were put to death, or more than 8,000 animals.
That figure is strikingly higher than a number of cities to which Nashville is often compared, adding fuel to the argument by activists that change is sorely needed.
A petition calling for the city to reform its animal control program has more than 3,500 supporters online. They say Metro has failed to follow the lead of other cities that have better-funded programs and lower euthanasia rates.
"There is much to be proud of in our city," the petition reads. But the city's animal control practices do not "reflect our compassion or aspirations as a city."
Yet Billy Briggs with the city's animal control department says there are not enough homes for all the animals they bring in. "We try our best to find homes for the ones that are adoptable," he said.
A spokesman with the Metro Health Department, which oversees the city's animal control program, said though its euthanasia rate is high, it is improving.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Metro impounded 10,290 animals, of which 8,058 were euthanized, a 78 percent death rate. The previous year, though, the percentage was even higher, with 10,933 animals impounded and 8,867 were killed - a rate of 81 percent.
East Nashville resident Sarah Martin and other activists say that lackluster funding is part of the culprit.
Petition supporters are calling for increased funding for the city's $1.8 million animal control program to shore up the program's workforce and space.
"There are steps that can be taken that could lower the euthanasia rate immediately," Martin said.
Nashville lags behind other cities
Metro officials say the city has more than a dozen partnerships with area nonprofits to help tick up its adoption rate. Activists have been long calling for more partnerships with nonprofits, but they also say the city does not go far enough in making the partnerships formal and long term.
Doing so will increase the number of adoptable animals that find owners, both sides say. For the previous year, 75 percent of the dogs deemed "adoptable" found homes, according to Metro. The remaining 25 percent were put down.
Still, Nashville lags behind many cities.
For instance, the animal control program in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, which includes Charlotte, had a kill rate of 57 percent last year.
Denver's rate was 16 percent.
Austin, Texas, is widely regarded among animal advocates as the standard-bearer. There, just 9 percent of the animals it took in last year were put down. Austin's animal control program has an annual budget of $8.1 million, which is more than four times as much as Nashville's.
In 2011, Austin implemented a plan to keep its euthanasia rate below 10 percent, which advocates define as "no-kill" status. Achieving that cost the city an additional $1.3 million to bolster its program staff and create several initiatives.
In particular, Austin Animal Services enhanced its foster care program, provided more low-cost spay and neuter services, increased adoption marketing efforts and implanted microchips in every animal leaving the shelter.
Last year, Austin housed 23,000 pets at its new $12 million animal care facility.
Health officials say the best way to improve animal care in Nashville is to boost the number of animals that are spayed or neutered to reduce the number of unwanted pets.
Bonna Johnson, spokeswoman for Mayor Karl Dean, said the city has made notable strides given its resource constraints.
"No one can be proud of high numbers of animals that are euthanized, but we know that adoptions are a priority for Metro Animal Control," Johnson said. "We always want Metro departments to look for ways to improve city services within their available resources."
'The hardest job here by far'
Animals are held for several days at the control facility on Harding Place before officials administer a health screening and temperament test, which includes sticking a prosthetic hand in the vicinity of an animal to test its aggression.
The result of the test often determines the animal's fate. Advocates have called into question the test as not fully capturing the animal's true nature.
Once, and if, a dog or cat clears those hurdles, it is placed in the public adoption room. Depending on the area's capacity at any given time, Biggs said, animals typically stay in the adoption area about three weeks, at which point they are either sent to a rescue shelter or killed by injection.
"It tolls on us," Biggs said about putting animals down. "It's the hardest job here by far."
The city uses PetHarbor.com, in addition to some posts on PetFinder.com, to advertise adoptable animals online. Metro also partners with local media outlets, including The Tennessean.
With those efforts, the city's adoption numbers are improving. In 2009, 47 percent of adoptable dogs and cats found homes. Last year, that number grew to 75 percent. Still, most animals at the shelter never find homes and are killed because they are not even deemed eligible to be adopted. In 2012, for example, 1,693 of 10,290 animals were determined adoptable. Of those, 1,266 were adopted and 427 put down.
Pit bull varieties and dogs of unknown backgrounds with fighting scars, or any animal that has bitten someone, are not available for adoption, said Health Department spokesman Brian Todd.
One cost-effective alternative to killing the animals is finding area nonprofit groups that can take an animal once its time is up at the Metro facility. The Metro board of health last month partnered with Crossroads Campus, a nonprofit group that pairs animals with disadvantaged youths to teach teenagers about responsibility.
Next month, Crossroads Campus will open a new store in Germantown. Starting in April, Crossroads will take up to 10 dogs and cats at a time from Metro and put them up for adoption.
The animals will be cared for by the teenagers in the Crossroads program, which was co-founded by country music star Emmylou Harris.
However it is accomplished, activist Martin said the city's euthanasia rate needs to drop.
"In a city like Nashville that's praised for being vibrant, and progressive, and a great place to live, and a great place for families, it's too high."
Contact Nate Rau at 615-259-8094 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Bobby Allyn
at 615-726-5990 or email@example.com.