Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter is justifiably proud of its distinction as a "no-kill" shelter that rehabilitates and finds homes for 94 percent of the approximately 700 unclaimed stray or homeless dogs and cats that come to us each year.

We never euthanize adoptable animals simply because the shelter is full. The FAAS staff and volunteers work hard year-round to find homes for all adoptable animals regardless of how long it takes and how cramped we are for space.

The sad reality, however, is that not all animals are adoptable. Some come to us too ill or too badly injured; others -- cats as well as dogs -- represent too great a danger to potential adopters and the community.

We do a thorough physical and behavioral assessment of every unclaimed stray animal and those surrendered to us by owners unable to care for them. We are fortunate to have the services of local veterinarians and an on-staff behavior specialist trained to determine the fitness of animals to be put up for adoption. We also have on-call behaviorists who help with assessments as needed.

The physical assessment is done as soon as the animal arrives at the shelter unless he or she is too fearful. The behavioral assessment is done after the minimum "holding period" of four business days during which a pet must by law remain in the shelter before being put up for adoption. Based on the assessments, we determine which of a number of options is best for the animal and the community:

  • Animals that are deemed healthy and of little to no behavior risk are put up for adoption as soon as the holding period is over. Fortunately, this accounts for about 70 percent of the unclaimed animals.

  • Another 20 percent are determined to be adoptable with appropriate medical care or behavior training. Our veterinarians, volunteers and paid staff work hard to rehabilitate these animals and get them ready for adoption. This may take months, especially when medical care is involved.

  • About 4 percent have physical or behavioral problems that are best handled by rescue groups, so we ask for their help. These groups (who also take adoptable animals from us so we don't get overcrowded) have resources to find a suitable environment in which the animal can live out its life.

  • In a small percentage of cases, we find that animals are simply too sick or too dangerous for any of these options to make sense. While we always consider euthanasia a last resort, over the nearly two years since FAAS started operating the shelter we have had to euthanize 6 percent of the animals brought to us -- one of the lowest rates of any municipal shelter in the Bay Area and among the lowest in the state.

    We do not reach the decision to euthanize lightly. We will only euthanize an animal after a complete assessment, an attempt at physical or behavioral rehabilitation whenever possible and a thorough review by a committee comprising the animal care coordinator (behavior specialist), operations manager, volunteer manager and executive director. The toughest decisions involve otherwise healthy animals that are simply too dangerous to exercise any option other than euthanasia. Some are animals that have bitten people or other animals; others have acted so aggressively toward people or other animals that we believe they will attack someone. They represent about 2 percent of the animals we take in during the year. We know that these severe behavioral problems are not the animals' fault and may be caused by breeding, abuse or bad ownership. That doesn't negate the danger they present to the community.

    We recognize that not everyone agrees with our policy to euthanize animals deemed to be behaviorally unsafe for the community. Recently, some FAAS volunteers were upset that we euthanized a dangerous dog named "Zeus" that bit someone. We made this decision after careful deliberation because FAAS has a legal and moral responsibility to ensure that no pets that are adopted into the community harm people or other animals. Nobody wants to see a pet euthanized, but neither does anyone want to live next-door to a dangerous pet that may injure or kill a person or another pet.

    While we are never, ever happy about euthanizing an animal, we carry out this emotionally difficult task as responsibly, compassionately and humanely as possible, knowing that we must do this for the safety of our community.

    FAAS depends not only on the financial support of the community but its moral support as well. We hope that all animal lovers will understand the tough choices we sometimes face and provide us that support, knowing that we make these decisions with a heavy heart.

    Nancy Evans is board president, and Mim Carlson is executive director of Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter, a nonprofit organization that operates the shelter for the City of Alameda.