An increasing number of dogs and cats that come to Minneapolis animal control facilities are getting a new chance at life as city officials try to reduce the killing of stray and unwanted animals.

Animal control officials have implemented a number of changes to boost the placement of animals with new owners in the wake of growing criticism about the number of animals that are killed in shelters.

“[We’ve] responded to public demand — that this not just be a warehouse for animals that come in to die,” said Caroline Hairfield, Minneapolis animal control deputy director. “It’s a place for animals to come in and get the treatment or medical care that they need … [and] find a new permanent home.”

The City Council is expected to retool a number of animal control policies later this year and could define practices to avoid unnecessary euthanasia, similar to a measure St. Paul passed in November.

City rules do not explicitly require animal control workers to make an effort to find homes for well-behaved, healthy dogs and cats. Even without a city law, staffers said they are already taking steps to find homes for animals, an approach facilities are embracing across the country.

“The world of animal control has changed,” Hairfield said. “Not only are we just focused on public safety, we’re focused on what happens to this animal afterward.”

The facility killed nearly 720 animals last year, almost 400 fewer than in 2012. Staff members said the rising number of animals that find new homes is the result of more aggressive programming, volunteers’ work and new partnerships, like with farmers and dozens more rescue organizations.

Once an animal is at the facility, it is usually adopted, rescued by an animal welfare organization or returned to its owner. The decision on whether to kill the roughly 4,000 animals that come to the shelter each year vary by case. The decision on an animal’s fate rests largely on its behavior, but space or budget issues can be deciding factors, as well. Roughly one-third of the animals are deemed aggressive and likely killed.

Experts say animal control strategies nationwide have shifted in the past five years as officials focus on animals’ well-being. The concept of sheltering and killing animals to control populations and ensure public safety began decades ago, but there was less emphasis on avoiding unnecessary deaths.

Michael Moyer, PetHealth director of shelter relations, said cities across the U.S. have greatly reduced animal euthanasia.

Facilities are accepting more blame for overpopulation or an excess of aggressive animals, he said, and being more accountable for the outcome of animals that go into shelters.

A new Minneapolis program to place feral cats with farmers began last fall, following a 2013 policy change. About 35 percent fewer feral cats were killed at the shelter last year than 2012.

Elizabeth Holtz, a staff attorney for advocacy group Alley Cats Allies, said other cities around the country are moving in Minneapolis’ direction for feral cat control — almost 90 percent more cities and counties have adopted “trap, neuter and return” policies since 2013. They are also establishing similar farm-shelter partnerships.

A change to allow the adoption of Rottweilers and pit bull-type dogs passed in Minneapolis last year. Before that, only certain rescue groups could take those dogs. Half of those dogs were killed at the shelter in 2011.

Program development coordinator Jeanette Wiedemeier Bower said the change is one of the many factors that has contributed to the facility’s stronger adoption numbers.

Loosening adoption restrictions for so-called bully breeds is growing in popularity nationwide and an indicator of animal control’s changing landscape, said Joan Schaffner, an animal rights lawyer.

Hairfield, who took her post last year, is leading Minneapolis’ animal control overhaul in city code.

The proposal will be presented to a committee headed by City Council Member Cam Gordon in the upcoming months. Gordon said he expects the changes will more clearly spell out practices going forward.

St. Paul animal control supervisor Molly Lunaris said their facility already took steps to find homes for dogs and cats before the ordinance change last year. Compared with 2012, its percentage of animals that leave the facility increased by almost 40 percent last year.

“We were moving animals out the door much more quickly, whether that was to their home or to a rehoming group,” she said. “[We weren’t] just sitting passively to see if something were [to] happen.”

Hairfield said the public perception about animal control is lagging behind facilities’ practices.

“We still hear things [like], ‘Don’t give the dog to animal control, they’re just going to kill it,’ ” Lunaris said. “It’s based on an old story that we’re very happy is no longer case.”


Jessica Lee is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.