It would be easier for Robin Small if she could simply give away cats from time to time. Or birds. Or dogs. Or ferrets.
Or anything else adoptable that finds its way into Anne Arundel County Animal Control.
"We, unfortunately, sometimes have to perform euthanasia," said Small, who runs the county shelter. She nuzzled a gray short-hair cat named Chile, a five-month resident of a small room crammed with 50 cat cages that seem to be constantly full.
"There's no limit to how long she can stay," Small said, even though the shelter is again at capacity. "As long as she's one of our most adoptable animals, we'll keep trying."
Animal Control completes about 1,500 adoptions a year at a cost of up to $56 per pet, but county law does not allow Small to waive those fees for any reason. Not as a promotion, not when people leave all the black animals behind, and not when the cages have become so crowded, the less-adoptable animals have to be euthanized.
A bill pending before the County Council would grant Small authority to waive adoption fees when she sees fit. Council Chairman Derek Fink said he expects it to pass unanimously at Tuesday night's meeting.
Experts say Animal Control faces the same problems that confront shelters across the country: Too many cats and black animals are overlooked by adoptive owners. And, experts said, Small is seeking the right tool if she hopes to clear out the shelter.
"We're in competition with other shelters around us, and we want to make our animals as appealing as possible," Small told lawmakers this week.
The SPCA of Anne Arundel County, for example, is offering half off on pit bulls in September. For
, their "Meowster Mash" promotion features adult cats on sale, SPCA President Kelly Brown said.
To help encourage the adoption of black animals, the SPCA has held "Black Friday" sales the day after Thanksgiving.
While there are no hard statistics, shelter experts say there is ample anecdotal evidence of what's become known as the "black dog syndrome." Black pets, they say, are more difficult to place in new homes than other animals.
Possible explanations include superstition, an overabundance of black pets and the notion that black animals simply present a marketing challenge.
"A lot of animal shelters are painted in subdued colors," said Inga Fricke, director of sheltering and pet care issues for the
. "And in poor lighting, it's hard to make them stand out."
Only about 30 percent of pets in the U.S. come from shelters, she said, making shelters struggle within an already small market share.
Shelters also tend to be overwhelmed by cats because their owners often let the animals wander, and few lost cats — fewer than 2 percent, Fricke said — are recovered at shelters.
"When shelters waive the adoption fee for cats, adoptions can skyrocket," said Dr. Emily Weiss, vice president of shelter research and development for the
Weiss has studied ways to boost adult cat adoptions, as well as whether pet owners love their cats less if they get them for free. She concluded they do not.
The Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland in Oregon, for example, raised cat adoptions by 12 percent by waiving fees for three months in 2006. At the ASPCA in Charleston, S.C., cat adoptions jumped from about two per weekend to 108 during a three-day promotion.
Weiss said crowded shelters create a self-fulfilling prophecy, since potential adoptive owners become less likely to go home with a pet.
"It's another concept in marketing," Weiss said. "If there's too many to choose from, people just don't make a choice."