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In this file, puppies held by Kern County Animal Services look out of their cage.

After a year in which Kern County Animal Services achieved a long-held goal of successfully finding homes for 90 percent of the animals who came through its doors, the rate of euthanasia has crept back up.

From June 2020 to June 2021, Animal Services saved 91 percent of all animals that were delivered to the department, a ratio which allowed the shelter to be considered “no-kill.”

But difficulty hiring a full-time veterinarian and higher rates of distemper and parvo have led to euthanasia being used more and more often at the shelter.

“The pandemic threw us for a loop as far as statistics,” said Animal Services Director Nick Cullen. “Now I think we’re coming back to the mean.”

In 2021, the shelter euthanized 739 dogs and 433 cats, or 14.5 percent of all the animals.

That’s a sharp increase from the 564 dogs and 398 cats that were euthanized in 2020. Still, Cullen said a lower number of animals was dropped off at the county shelter in 2020. To illustrate, he said that the rate of euthanasia in 2020 was the same as 2021.

Still, he said progress is being made. In 2019, the county euthanized 1,774 dogs and 1,309 cats, with a 74 percent “save rate.”

It’s a sensitive subject for the county, which has been working to reduce its euthanasia rate for years. About a decade ago, the county killed an average of 2,000 animals a month and came under significant community pressure to reduce the number.

Great strides have been taken to reduce the number of animals that are killed upon entering the shelter, and Cullen believes progress is still being made.

“The amount of animals that we saved in the calendar year 2021 is probably where it should be in relation to progress from 2019,” he added. “Rarely do you see an organization that suddenly goes from saving 76 percent of animals in their shelter to a shelter that goes to a no-kill save rate.”

But potential trouble has appeared on the horizon. Puppies have begun reappearing in the shelter, a signal that spay and neuter programs are losing ground. A countywide shortage of veterinary services means owners are finding it difficult to set up appointments for their pets.

The lack of space in the shelter means that even healthy dogs have been set for euthanization. If a dog is considered aggressive, it may be killed to make space for one that is more moderate.

“It’s a dire situation and these dogs — even cats — they are suffering needlessly down there,” said shelter volunteer Carrie Zaninovich. “It’s a very, very, dark time for the county.”

She said stricter breeding policies are needed in order to reduce the number of dogs that enter the shelter, particularly among the popular pit bull, chihuahua, German shepherd and husky breeds. She urged the county to direct more money to animal control to better prevent the conditions that are leading to high shelter intakes.

Under the current county ordinances, any person who breeds more than one liter of dogs or cats per year must obtain a permit. The lack of veterinary availability is also reducing the number of animals that are vaccinated against common illnesses.

“The problem is getting much, much, worse very quickly and we feel like there needs to be a change,” said Ryan Zaninovich, Carrie’s husband, who also occasionally volunteers at the shelter. “It would be a shame for all these dogs to be put down and nobody really know about it.”

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