NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - Two million dogs are euthanized in shelters across the United States each year. The Humane Society of the United States says it's a disturbingly high statistic that most people are unaware of.
Now, consider the flip side: about two million dogs are brought into existence each year and sold by commercial breeders, competing against otherwise adoptable, existing animals waiting in shelters but unable to find homes.
"There is a direct correlation, a very obvious correlation, that this industry is directly participating in the pet overpopulation problem," Erica Geppi, the North Carolina Director for the US Humane Society, explained to WECT of puppy mills. She says there are some reputable breeders, but far too many are breeding litter after litter in inhumane conditions, putting profit over animal welfare.
Repeated efforts to regulate breeders in North Carolina have failed in part because of stanch lobbying efforts. The American Kennel Club opposes some of the proposed regulations. Some lawmakers also fear that putting rules in place for dog breeders could open up a slippery slope that ultimately infringes on the state's lucrative pork and poultry industry.
"The fact that we have a lack of any oversight or regulations on the [dog breeding] industry as a whole further perpetuates that cruelty," Geppi told WECT, noting they are simply asking for some basic standards for dog breeders to provide their animals' access to things like clean food and water. "As other states pass strong legislation and safeguards, those breeders and bad actors who were operating in other states are now coming to North Carolina and setting up shop."
Of the 237,000 dogs and cats brought into North Carolina shelters in 2016, the most recent statistics available, about 100,000 were euthanized. Those are just the ones we know about since 25 percent of shelters across the state failed to report their numbers to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture as required by law.
Geppi says North Carolina's euthanasia rates are some of the worst in the country, although the Southeast in general has high numbers compared to other states.
Some of the animals put down here are sick or injured. But New Hanover County Animal Control Director Nancy Ryan, who also sits on the state animal control board, says far too many animals euthanized in North Carolina are perfectly adoptable. It's just a supply and demand problem.
"If you choose to leave it [at the shelter], we're not going to guarantee you anything," Ryan explained of the harsh reality of limited shelter space. "No matter how nice the dog is. We do a really good job. Our adoption rates are going up. Our euthanasia rates dropped, but again, there's just not enough people looking for pets."
In North Carolina, the problem is bigger for cats than dogs. While cats and dogs come into the shelters in roughly equal numbers, dogs are much more likely to be reclaimed by their owners or adopted by a new owner. State shelters adopted out 56,000 dogs in 2016 and euthanized about 30,000. The same year, they adopted out 37,000 cats, but euthanized at least 60,000.
Cats are less likely to be bred in mills, but they rapidly reproduce on their own. An average female cat can have three litters of kittens every year, typically with 4-6 kittens per litter. Cheri McLain, who founded Rescue Animals Community Effort Inc. (RACE), says cats waiting for homes in public shelters face tough odds.
"It's so easy to find people giving away free kittens," she said. Craigslist is a common place people advertise cats for free.
By contrast, if you adopt a cat or kitten from New Hanover County Animal Control, it costs $70. That covers having the cat spayed or neutered, vaccinated for rabies, and registered with the county. You will easily pay that much to have those services performed on your own with a free kitten, so the $70 price tag is a relative bargain, but many people don't have their free cats spayed or neutered at all, perpetuating the overpopulation problem.
In addition to domestic cats, a significant number of cats brought into state shelters each year are feral. In many cases, those cats are euthanized automatically because they are essentially wild animals and not suitable to be kept in a home.
There are dramatic differences from shelter to shelter when it comes to the likelihood of an animal being adopted or euthanized.
Locally, the 2016 Public Animal Shelter Report shows that the Columbus County Animal Shelter had one of the lowest kill rates in the state, with just 3 percent (79 animals) of the 2,600 dogs and cats brought in that year ultimately being euthanized. Bladen County also had a relatively low number, with 17 percent (315 animals) of the 1,800 animals brought in to the shelter that year being put down.
Duplin County reported a 30 percent (770 animals) kill rate for its 2,580 shelter dogs and cats. Pender came in at 36 percent (954 animals) for the 2,673 it handled. Brunswick put down 44 percent (1956 animals) of the 4,430 animals in its care, and New Hanover euthanized 44 percent (1,147 animals) of the 2,597 cats and dogs brought into the shelter.
At some shelters, the odds of euthanasia are much higher. Randolph and Stanley counties in the center part of the state, and Tyrrell, Bertie and Stanly counties in Eastern North Carolina, all had kill rates over 70 percent.
"If you have a small shelter, if you have 10 times as many animals as going out, what are you going to do with them? Just building more kennels doesn't solve the problem," Ryan said.
In fairness to those shelters with higher euthanasia rates, they at least reported their numbers. A quarter of North Carolina county shelters never turned in their adoption and euthanasia statistics, so we don't know how many animals they put down.
"[The data] is self-reported by the shelters," Heather Overton, a spokeswoman for the NC Department of Agriculture, said when we asked why dozens of counties were not listed in the annual report. "While it is a statutory requirement that shelters in receipt of local or state funds (i.e. public shelters) submit an annual shelter report, the only consequence for not submitting is that they will not be eligible to receive spay and neuter funds the next calendar year. Though most of the facilities that routinely fail to submit a shelter report do not participate in [spay/neuter], so there really isn't any consequence for failing to submit a report form."
Overton added that her agency does not have the resources to verify the accuracy of the data from shelters that do turn in reports.
Spaying and Neutering Obstacles
Animal rescue groups providing discounted spaying and neutering services say they have made inroads bringing down the number of unwanted animals in local shelters.
The Fix a Friend clinic in Brunswick County spayed and neutered 10,000 animals last year, up from 7,700 the year before, and 5,400 the previous year. They provide relatively affordable procedures for animals in shelters and for pet owners in the general public. A spay/neuter procedure there costs $35-$50 for cats, and $80-$100 for dogs. The same procedure at a private veterinary office could easily cost hundreds of dollars.
Cape Fear Spay & Neuter is providing similar discount services here, and experts say the more affordable access is starting to cut down on the overpopulation problem locally. But not all parts of the state have these types of clinics available.
Additionally, Nancy Ryan says some people are fundamentally opposed to having their animals spayed and neutered. Some cite religious reasons, equating the procedure to abortion, which she finds frustrating when that same pet owner later brings in a litter of kittens to the shelter that may ultimately have to be euthanized.
More are scared off by the cost, unaware of newer, more affordable options, and others just don't like the idea of the procedure.
"Guys, I hate to say this but a lot of guys are really opposed to having their dogs neutered," Ryan said. "It's like they take it personally. We joke around, we're like, 'We're not neutering you. We're neutering your dog.'"
In 2014, state senators, including Brunswick County's Bill Rabon, worked to block passage of House Bill 930, which would have required large commercial breeders to meet basic standards of humane treatment of the dogs in their care. That bill passed the state House and had vocal support from then-Governor Pat McCrory and his wife, Ann, but it died in the Senate.
During the 2015/2016 legislative session, the House passed another bill, HB 159, to require the humane treatment of dogs by breeders. Like HB 930, HB 159 was co-sponsored by then-New Hanover County Representative Rick Catlin, who has a puppy mill rescue dog that he said lived in a cage for three years before he adopted it. Catlin said the dog struggled to walk and could not navigate stairs because he'd been confined for so long.
HB 159 easily passed the House with bipartisan support in an 87-27 vote, but died in the Senate. Catlin says he suspects heavy lobbying by groups who do not want puppy mills to be regulated effectively killed the bill.
"The bill wasn't to take away business, just to make sure the animals [breeders] have are treated well," Catlin says of the intent of the bills, and his surprise over the opposition to them. He added that he was never approached by any lobbyists opposed to his bills, but believes lobbyists did influence the outcome of the vote in the Senate.
Senator Trudy Wade, a Guilford County Republican, joined Senator Rabon in vocal opposition to legislation to regulate dog breeders. She and Rabon are both veterinarians, and critics from animal rescue groups speculate that some veterinarians want breeding to continue because more animals mean more business for their industry.
Geppi noted the American Kennel Club's national operations center is based in North Carolina, and said the group contributes heavily to some state lawmakers while lobbying against regulations on dog breeders.
In addition, she said lobbyists for the state's lucrative pork and poultry industry oppose regulation on any type of animal breeding for fear of a slippery slope that could eventually affect them.
Instead, Wade and Rabon introduced and passed a bill to create an animal cruelty reporting hotline managed by the Attorney General's Office. Animal rights advocates say the hotline was mostly for appearances, and falls short of a real solution to solve the puppy mill problem.
We reached out to Wade and Rabon for comment on their opposition to this legislation requiring minimum standards for breeders. Neither of them responded.
While there is still plenty of work to do, there are some encouraging trends in the shelter data that is available.
Since the Department of Agriculture took over as the monitoring agency for public shelters in 2010 — shelters were previously supervised by the Department of Health and Human Services — the number of animals being brought into the shelters, and the percentage of those animals that have to be euthanized, has dropped.
But the number of private rescue groups has grown in recent years, and the outside housing they have provided for animals that used to be kept in shelters may be making the public shelter population numbers look artificially low.
Private rescue groups tell WECT the situation is still urgent, and they are regularly being told about animals that will be put down within 24 hours if they can't find a home.
"Adopt, don't Shop"
For anyone shopping for a pet, animal rights groups encourage you to "adopt, don't shop." Would-be pet owners looking for a purebred animal may be surprised to know they are often available at public shelters. The shelters also coordinate with breed specific rescue groups.
"You will find any breed at one time or another in a shelter. And I don't care what you think they cost. Somebody's gonna get rid of that dog or it's going to get away. We've had everything in here at one time or another," Ryan said of the wide selection available through the shelters.
She also noted the idea of a purebred animal is often better than the reality, and other animals in their shelters without a pedigree can still make great pets.
"[People] think they want one, but a lot of purebreds come with very definitive issues. Once you mix it with something, it seems to wash it down a little bit so mutts are great dogs," Ryan said.
While they work to find homes for the animals in kennels at the shelter, rescue advocates remain hopeful they will someday see North Carolina lawmakers pass stronger laws to crack down on excessive breeding they say is going on every day in North Carolina.
"Year over year, it's absolutely heartbreaking to see, because there is strong support amongst a lot of legislators [for puppy mill regulation] and then there's such strong opposition by others," Geppi said. "It's just heartbreaking to me that as humans we can see that kind of cruelty happening, and not doing anything about it. It's a moral issue. It really is."