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Hancock County grapples with dog euthanasia

NEW MANCHESTER, W.Va. — A proposed contract for the operation of the Hancock County Animal Shelter is getting some pushback because of a provision on euthanasia.

The contract cites a section of West Virginia Code that requires the sale or euthanizing of a dog after five days of the dog being received at the shelter. The code section does not mention cats.

Shelter officials say that provision will lead to a dramatic increase in the number of animals that are euthanized there.

“It would go back to where it was 20 years ago, where they line them up every Friday, those that do not have homes. That’s not how good shelters operate today,” said Tom Goff, president of the Hancock County Animal Shelter Foundation.

The 25-year-old foundation operates the shelter, 715 Gas Valley Road, under a lease agreement with the Hancock County Commission that is set to expire at the end of the month.

In February, commissioners authorized their attorney, Michael Lucas III, to revise and negotiate a new contract because the old one had not been updated since 1997. Commissioners are soliciting bids for the shelter’s operation but, so far, the foundation has been the only bidder. The bid deadline is Friday.

Goff said he received a copy of the new 17-page lease and operating agreement last week and was surprised by the inclusion of a section that seemingly would accelerate the use of euthanasia at the shelter.

The policy says euthanasia shall be performed in a timely manner and in accordance with state code, including the five-day requirement.

“The lessor (Hancock County Commission) maintains that euthanasia plays an important role in controlling the stray animal population, in the protection of people and other animals, in the control of expense to taxpayers, and ultimately in the humane treatment of impounded animals,” the agreement says. “The lessee … acknowledges the lessor’s position concerning euthanasia and agrees to provide euthanasia in accordance with this agreement and West Virginia law.”

The policy also gives the county the right to euthanize animals on its own and makes failure to timely euthanize animals grounds for immediate termination of the agreement.

The policy defines humane euthanasia as euthanasia by direct injection of sodium pentobarbital, unless the Humane Society of the United States determines another method that is more efficient and humane.

What’s more, the policy has provisions on funding and record keeping, audits and inspections, and other obligations of the shelter operator.

Goff maintains that the euthanasia section is new and more aggressive than the language in the old contract, which usually was renewed every year with no revisions.

“What is in the (new) contract is unacceptable. … We will not run this facility under those terms,” he said. “We would have to put down animals needlessly.”

While the Hancock County Animal Shelter is not a “no kill” facility, it strives to be a “low kill” facility – meaning animals are euthanized only when they are very sick or very aggressive, he said.

Last year, 5 percent of the animals brought to the shelter were euthanized, Goff said. The shelter found adoptive homes for 310 dogs and 420 cats, he said.

“The push now at county animal shelters is to minimize and reduce euthanasia to the least amount possible, or 3 percent,” he said. “When you go back to euthanasia, it costs more money in the end. The folks stop giving, stop volunteering. They don’t want to be affiliated with places that don’t do their very best to help the animals.”

Goff said Hancock County residents showed their support for the shelter when they passed its renewal levy on May 10 by a margin of 72.5 percent. That support, he said, extends to the way the shelter is currently operated.

“Our whole levy campaign was based on low euthanasia rates, people being actively involved in our programs, adoption events, and our ability to get animals adopted,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, people support a humane shelter – and not one that takes in animals and no one ever exits.”

Hancock County Commissioner Mike Swartzmiller that while shelter operations could use some improvement, especially in the area of intake waiting lists, he believes the foundation has done a good job.

“Their philosophy is: Do everything we can to save the animals. I have no problem with that. They go out of their way to make that happen. The animals are well cared for out there,” Swartzmiller said. “As a pet lover myself, I applaud their efforts.”

As for the euthanasia issue, Swartzmiller said the new contract simply reflects what is in the West Virginia Code. “As we all know, interpretation of state code is not an easy task. It can be interpreted in several ways, including ways that may not be considered pro-animal,” he said.

Swartzmiller said overcrowding does not seem to be an issue at the animal shelter and is not driving the discussion on euthanasia.

The foundation’s bid on the animal shelter contract includes the $100,000 that is generated annually by the levy and the $88,000 that is in the 2016-2017 budget for the shelter. The latter amount constitutes a $42,000 cut in what the shelter received from the county last year, Goff said.

Commissioners expect to vote on the new contract at their June 23 meeting.

Despite his misgivings, Goff said he is optimistic that the parties can reach an agreement and “move forward to run a humane shelter.”

(Huba can be contacted at [email protected])

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