Jonah was having a whale of a time. The homeless puppy collected head pats, snuggles and lipstick smudging kisses from well-wishers in the city's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Control parking lot.
Then it was time to hit the road.
Jonah, 50 other dogs and four cats filled two vans bound for Colorado, where the demand for pets is as high as the Rocky Mountains. And with Houston’s homeless pet population exceeding 800,000 by BARC estimates, the city has plenty to spare.
BARC and Rescued Pet Movement, Inc., a nonprofit animal rescue group, launched a new program this fall that transports animals like Jonah to no-kill rescue groups, adopters and fosterers in Colorado.
“Believe it or not, there are a lot of places that don’t have enough dogs,” said Greg Damianoff, director of BARC. “So when they get there, people are waiting. We’re working on all kinds of things. We have new stuff going on at BARC.”
And the “new stuff” isn’t just feel-good window dressing. The programs are game changers that will not only help control the homeless animal population but will give many a second chance, said BARC representatives.
Working in a pack
Solving Houston's homeless pet problem won't be easy. And BARC can't do it alone. In 2013 BARC took in 24,200 homeless dogs and cats. Successful current programs like adoption events, returns to owners, and transfers have increased BARC’s live release numbers. Still, with a shelter capacity of about 550 animals, BARC has been forced to euthanize just under half of the animals it takes in.
So, new programs that involve organizations like Rescued Pets Movement keep BARC’s live release rates climbing by freeing more space and putting animals in places where the demand is high. Groups like Spay-Neuter Assistance Program, Inc. and Friends for Life are key players in BARC's spay and neuter efforts.
"One of the things that we’re going to continue to work toward is the development of additional external partners that can help us do things, like the Rescued Pet Movement," said Christopher Newport, chief of staff in the Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. "Because if you look at Austin and the success they’ve had in increasing their live release rate, that's what happened there."
Newport said RPM’s weekly pet transports to Colorado reduce the number of animals under BARC’s care by 10 percent.
Cindy Perini, RPM's president and co-founder, said her group plans to take at least 50 animals a week from BARC. Colorado is an ideal destination because longstanding spay and neuter laws and the colder climate keep the dog population low, and the demand high. In the first three months of the animal transport program, 648 animals, including Jonah, have been moved.
"We can make a huge, huge dent (in Houston's homeless pet population)," Perini said. "I’m super excited about it. BARC’s been critical too because they stepped in and partnered with us."
And the partnership is a two-way street. Perini said BARC not only gives them access to the animals, but it helps find corporate donors, provides health certificates and supplies bedding.
Establishing a beachhead
Spay and neuter efforts to control overpopulation are nothing new. But BARC's strategy is. The Healthy Pets, Healthy Streets program started in July 2013 is what Newport calls "a geographically targeted spay and neuter effort."
Rather than spread a thin layer of resources across the entire city, BARC is targeting one problem area at a time. Once success is achieved in an area, the efforts expand to neighboring ones.
"People have been trying to do broad-based spay-neuter campaigns in a region or city for a long time," Newport said. "And God bless everyone doing it. It just really hasn’t had an impact. We still have an overpopulation problem, right? We try to create a beachhead where you try to gain control over one area and then you expand."
First, BARC reviewed cases for stray animal complaints to identify areas with the most acute problems, Newport said. Then they researched outreach infrastructure like churches, civic associations, and schools, organizations that could help them.
An area just north of downtown with 300 houses was the first target.
"We drew a boundary around it and said, 'OK, we’re going to try to get every animal inside the boundary either spayed or neutered,'" Newport said. "It’s going really, really well. We’ve been in the first target area since July and we’ve spayed or neutered over 160 dogs and cats. "
Each pet that participates receives a rabies vaccination, a 1-year city license, a microchip with lifetime registration and flea treatment.
A bright future for puppy love
As the new programs take hold, BARC is taking note of the results, Newport said. Proof that the programs are making a difference will let them proceed on a bigger scale.
The programs also require money. So donations and increased funding are an important part of the equation. For example, each Colorado trip that RPM makes costs $2,500. This covers pet supplies, veterinary services and the transportation.
"These are programs that work, so let’s support them," Newport said.
Jonah already knows they work. A family living just outside of Colorado Springs adopted him only two weeks after his Houston departure. With two dogs already in the family, 10-year-old Dana Randolph had to plead with her parents for the puppy.
“I explained he was like me,” Randolph said. “I had been in foster care and adopted too when I was very small. I just knew we belonged together.”
In addition to a caring family, Jonah also got a new name.
“I re-named him Webster, because he’s so smart,” Randolph said. “I am doing everything I promised — he is all mine. I feed him. I clean up after him. He is almost completely potty trained, too. Webster is playful, happy and loved very much. He has a forever home like me, and he is my soul mate!”
To help BARC continue these new programs, support the BARC Foundation, Rescued Pets Movement, SNAP, Friends for Life. City employees can also donate to some of these groups through CMC contributions. Visit the CMC website to find out how.