CHAPEL HILL - Jeanne Painter has seen what happens to unwanted pets.
The Efland woman studies animal management at Alamance Community College. On a field trip to an animal shelter, students saw two dogs in crates loaded into a gas chamber to be killed.
"I'm looking at the dog in the eyes; I wanted to just go in and grab it," she said.
"It really makes you mad."
Painter, 51, knows spaying and neutering prevents unwanted animals. Still, she might not have sterilized her own three dogs last week if not for Orange County's making the procedures free for people who qualify.
"The job I have, I work full time, but it doesn't pay much," she said. Her day starts at 4 a.m. and includes work, school and caring for her elderly father. "I'd been wanting to do this. I just hadn't found anything."
Now, more people are finding help, and Orange County officials say their outreach is paying off as the number of animals both coming into the shelter on Eubanks Road and the number being killed is going down.
Last year, 3,396 animals entered the shelter, down from 3,613 in 2010 and an average of 4,315 from 2005-09.
The number of animals euthanized by lethal injection, 1,353, also dropped, down from 1,460 in 2010 and an average of 1,886 from 2005-09.
More effective sterilization targeting the pets of Department of Social Services clients and others with incomes below 300 percent of the poverty level has contributed to the decline, Animal Services Director Bob Marotto said.
So have rescue groups that take adoptable animals from the shelter and new policies such as charging non-county residents who bring their animals in, and making traps available to the public instead of sending county workers out to trap any and all nuisance cats, he said.
Marotto is most excited, though, about the department's targeted sterilization program.
"The real achievement is that we're lowing those rates of reproduction as the human population increases," he said.How it works
In a windowless office barely bigger than a closet, Sarah Fallin lifts a box of fliers off the shelf.
Inside are some of the 500 pamphlets she prepares monthly to publicize programs that enable social services clients and others to get their dogs and cats sterilized for free.
It's called "The $20 Fix" because in most participating counties, the procedure costs pet owners just $20 if they receive Medicaid or food stamps or their income meets guidelines that start at $17,000 a year for a single- person household.
In Orange County, however, the Animal Services department picks up even that $20 for those who qualify. It's the only county that picks up the copay in the program's five-county service area, Fallin said.
It can do this because the county has a dedicated funding stream for targeted sterilization.
First, the county charges pet owners whose animals are not sterilized an extra $20 a year to license their animals.
Second, the county fully documents all procedures to qualify for reimbursement dollars from the state (See sidebar).
The spay/neuter fund is a keystone of the Animal Services department's five-year strategic plan, itself an innovation that humane experts say many counties lack.
State public health veterinarian Dr. Lee Hunter praised Orange County's success.
"It is unusual to see numbers dropping down like that," he said Thursday. "One of the things we know is that you cannot euthanize your way out of an overpopulation problem."
The $20 Fix is one of three spay/neuter programs the county uses to help people sterilize their pets.
Beth Livingstone runs AnimalKind, the Raleigh-based organization that runs the $20 Fix in Caswell, Durham, Orange, Person and Wake counties.
She said Orange County is a model for other counties.
"They have brought a level of professionalism to animal services that I think is going to be necessary to meet the public's (rising) expectations," she said.'All sorts of stuff'
Marotto and Fallin, program coordinator, spoke about their collaboration with social services at a Spay Neuter Industry Professionals conference last year in Asheville.
Fallin, who also runs the department's volunteer program and rabies clinics, said it helps that DSS puts fliers in its mailings and even more that social workers talk up the program.
But some people need a little more convincing.
"You get all sorts of stuff," Fallin said. "They say, 'Why should I have my animal fixed?' One of them told me if Bubba had all his parts, Bubbette better have all her parts. A lot of them think it's going to make a male dog fat and lazy. That doesn't happen, but people think that."
One woman called to have her dogs fixed, and when Fallin went to get the dogs, "her husband had taken them out of the house and she met us on the front porch crying." The man later said he wanted to ride to the clinic, watch the surgery and have them drive him and his dogs back home, which Fallin said was impossible. She doesn't think he ever really intended to let his animals be sterilized, she said.
Others have a different concern.
To qualify and for the county to get reimbursed, Fallin has to see proof of social services eligibility or household income. She says she is able to reassure many of these callers their private information will stay private.
"I think a lot of it is (that) I grew up here," she explained. "Oh, where are you from? Cedar Grove? My mother grew up in Cedar Grove. Oh, Hurdle Mills? My aunt grew up in Hurdle Mills."
Often, people are relieved, she said.
"When we met with DSS they said sometimes even $20 is too much," Fallin said. "A lot of clients will hug me because they say I saved them money."The next goal
The staff at the POP-NC (Pet Overpopulation Patrol) mobile clinic parked outside the animal shelter sterilized 17 pets - including Painter's three dogs - out of 23 or 24 that had been scheduled for Tuesday's "Spay Neuter Day" event, Marotto said. That happens, as even with phone call reminders, some people don't show up.
But Marotto said he hopes to increase the number of such events.
The department helped sterilize 520 cats and dogs last year, 355 of them the pets of DSS clients.
Next year he hopes to sterilize between 650 and 700 animals. Some experts believe if a county can sterilize five or six animals per 1,000 people - about 780 animals in Orange County's case, Marotto said - it will begin to see sustained decreases in the numbers of unwanted animals being turned in to shelters.
And that, Marotto said, can help a county refocus on other issues, including improving the experience of the animals in its care.
On Wednesday, a day after their surgeries, Painter said her dogs Barney, 3, Betsy, "probably 2," and Keto had "slept good last night."
She learned about the $20 fix in a newspaper ad, but didn't call right away because she wasn't getting Medicaid or food stamps. Then she learned Orange County had money to pick up the copay for people like her.
"If other shelters could do more of this I think a lot of people would have their animals fixed too," she said.
As part of her college program, she works part-time now in the shelter where she saw the two dogs gassed to death during her field trip. She said she doesn't go in the part of the shelter where the euthanasia occurs.