Changes in how the shelter accepts animals have helped cut those numbers in recent years, and staff are confident they can make their goal and become a no-kill shelter by 2025.
In the meantime, putting cats down is still part of the shelter’s daily routine. It’s difficult work for animal lovers.
Each of the shelter’s three certified euthanasia technicians performs an average of 700 euthanasia’s a year.
There’s a room where animal shelter employees bring shelter animals to be put down. It’s different from the one where pet owners can have their ill or injured pets euthanized. The employees only room lacks the information posters meant to create a relaxing environment for the owner, but it has all the equipment and medicine employees need for the job.
Harker said many of the animals she has euthanized are healthy, gentle, and occasionally pregnant.
After the animal has died, there are two incinerators for disposing of their remains, one for shelter animals and a smaller one that allows shelter staff to collect the ashes if the owner wishes to keep them.
It’s a dirty job that Harker didn’t expect when she first volunteered at the shelter. She estimates that she has had to do it 4,900 times, averaging about two animals every day.
“I knew what I was signing up for because I had assisted in my part-time days, before I got the full time (job),” Harker said. “I knew what was going to happen and how it was going to go, but it was tough being the one to actually push the drugs in and end a life.”
Two animals stick out in Harker’s memory; Uno the pit bull, who was euthanized for space despite her efforts to find another shelter, and Cherokee, a cat who was also euthanized for space.
Harker said she wasn’t sure why those two stayed with her.
“They all get to you,” Harker said. “It’s just those two, for some reason have stuck out to me over the years.”
Harker first volunteered at the shelter because she was a pit bull lover, a breed that is often the last to be adopted and the first to be euthanized.
All three full-time employees at Idaho Falls Animal Shelter are certified euthanasia technicians. Certification training is provided by the Idaho Board of Veterinary Medicine. Trainees are required to perform euthanasia on an animal before receiving their certification, and must attend a training session every three years.
Changes in Animal Service policy has helped reduce the number of animals that are euthanized. Idaho Falls Animal Shelter no longer terminates healthy dogs to make space, only dogs that are aggressive, severely injured or ill.
Because there are more regulations around owning a dog, owners are more likely to neuter them and less likely to let them roam freely. Coordination with nearby animal shelters also helps reduce euthanasia, allowing overwhelmed shelters to send animals to shelters with more space.
Cats are another story. Feral cats can have two or three litters in a year. They’re common on the numbered streets and county streets in Idaho Falls, according to animal shelter personnel.
Feral cats can produce an incredible amount of offspring. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals reports that in seven years, a pair of breeding cats and their offspring can produce an 370,000 kittens. The Humane Society of the United States reports that the 30 to 40 million feral and stray cats in the U.S. produce around 80 percent of the kittens born in the U.S. each year.
In 2016 the Idaho Falls Animal Shelter euthanized 62 percent of the cats brought in, primarily because the shelter did not have the space and resources to care for those animals. Today that number is down to 41 percent, and Animal Services Supervisor Irene Brown is confident the shelter can achieve a no-kill status by 2025.
“I think it’s possible,” Brown said. “We’re going to do it, but we need the community’s help.”
The biggest change driving down cat euthanasia has been the introduction of a trap, neuter and return policy in Bonneville County. The program allows feral cats to be released back to the area they were found after they were neutered. By releasing these cats into their old territory, the animal shelter can prevent new cats from moving in, preventing the territory from becoming a breeding ground.
Feral cats are not used to interacting with humans and cannot adjust to life as a pet, meaning the only option before the trap, neuter and return program was to euthanize them.
“If they used to come in here, it was a death sentence,” Harker said. “Nobody wants to adopt a feral cat. That’s where a majority of our euthanized cats came from.”
Closing the drop boxes in February has also reduced euthanasia. The boxes were meant to allow pet owners to drop off their animals when the shelter was closed, but have become unpopular with animal rights activists. They were built with the expectation that owners would leave behind information about the animal’s health, but animals were often found with no information. This made it difficult for staff to determine the animal’s health needs, adding to the cost and time needed for each animal.
Brown, Harker and the other certified euthanasia technicians look forward to the day when healthy animals looking for a home do not have to be euthanized.
“We want the public to know that we don’t enjoy this part of the job,” Harker said. “Sometimes people will say ‘you must not love animals very much if you work there,’ or ‘I couldn’t do your job because I love animals too much,’ but that’s why we do the job, because we want to be here and we want to help make a difference.”