Two impossibly big brown eyes sparkled with a silent plea. "Please don’t leave me," they seemed to beg. For Ashlyn Frix, coming in to volunteer was the easy part — it was leaving that was always the hardest.
Frix, a philosophy pre-law junior, fosters dogs through local rescue agencies and has volunteered at the Norman Animal Welfare Center since her freshman year. Many of her friends assume working with shelter animals must be emotionally difficult, but for Frix, the payoff makes it all worthwhile.
"It’s hard to leave them there at the end of the day, but to me it’s worth that feeling of, ‘Ugh I hate to leave you,’ if I know I’m the reason they got to go outside that day," Frix said. "It’s worth the little tug at your heart because you know it’s making their lives so much better."
The Norman Animal Welfare Center is classified as a no-kill shelter, meaning animals are put down only in instances where the animal has severe behavioral or health problems, not just because the shelter is overcrowded or because the animal has been there too long. A typical no-kill shelter saves more than 90 percent of the animals it brings in, according to Best Friends Animal Society.
When she goes to volunteer at the shelter, Frix usually tries to convince friends to join her. She reassures them that the nature of no-kill shelters will help ease the sadness of having to leave sweet, loving dogs in desperate need of a home.
“It’s hard emotionally, but it would be harder for me if I went to the shelter and knew there was a chance that next time I came back those dogs wouldn’t be there because they would’ve been put down,” Frix said. “In this case, fortunately, I know that if some of the dogs I’ve grown attached to are gone, it’s because they have homes now.”
Each year, an estimated 6.5 million cats and dogs enter animal shelters nationwide, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Approximately 1.5 million of those are euthanized, often due to overcrowding or a lack of resources. In recent years, shelters such as the Norman Animal Welfare Center have enacted no-kill policies that prevent healthy, adoptable animals from being euthanized.
Mark Bechtel, animal welfare manager at the Norman Animal Welfare Center, has spent the entirety of his career interacting with animals — in zoos, shelters and on the primate team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Over the course of his career, Bechtel has witnessed an evolution in the mindsets and knowledge influencing shelter euthanasia policies, he said.
When Bechtel started working with animals, euthanasia was widely viewed as the only means available to aid overcrowding and prevent feral cat colonies from growing.
“On paper, that makes logical sense, but you enact that policy and you look back one year, 10 years, 30 years, and you see absolutely no progress,” Bechtel said. “It doesn’t stop this endless conveyor belt of animals coming out to be euthanized.”
Pioneering scientific research has shown the best way to eliminate feral cat populations is to enact a policy called TNR, which stands for trap, neuter, return. This policy advocates for the neutering of stray and feral cats as the best means for humanely and effectively decreasing colonies in the long-term.
“States like Colorado started a lot of these progressive policies and programs back 20 to 30 years ago, and they’re seeing the benefits, but those ideas and strategies haven’t come to Oklahoma yet,” Bechtel said.
Organizations like No Kill Colorado strive to “improve the lives of cats, address community concerns and stop the breeding cycle” through TNR, as well as increase awareness and education about humane animal management policies. States like Colorado, Washington and Oregon that have widely adopted progressive TNR policies now don’t have enough dogs to meet consumer demand, so states like Oklahoma ship excess shelter animals to them, Bechtel said.
“They basically just manage those colonies into extinction, so that’s better (than euthanization). These animals are wild — they’re not going to be adopted out, they’re not going to be house pets. So it both manages that colony over the long-term, extinguishes that colony and provides better welfare for each and every one of those animals,” Bechtel said.
In 2017, the Norman Animal Welfare Center had a live release rate of 91.9 percent. The Association of Shelter Veterinarians defines a live release rate as “the number of animals leaving a facility by means other than euthanasia or in‐shelter death.” The live release rate at the Norman Animal Welfare Center has increased steadily in recent years.
Live Release Rate
Dog Live Release Rate
Cat Live Release Rate
Total Live Release Rate
Norman Animal Welfare Annual Activity Overview
Shelters can euthanize up to 10 percent of their animals for health and behavior issues and still meet the standards to identify as a no-kill shelter. Trey Amrein, animal welfare officer supervisor, has worked at the Norman Animal Welfare Center for 15 years and remembers when the shelter euthanized 20 or more animals per day.
"Things have changed drastically over the years in how we do things," Amrein said. "In the old days, we would have a five-day stray hold, and once it was up, we would euthanize animals just to make space for the ones coming in. Now, through education and training, we are able to contact the right people to be able to move animals so they are not euthanized."
Amrein credits much of the shelter’s success to community partnerships. When the shelter starts to get overcrowded, its workers now have the resources to call local pet foster families, rescue agencies and nonprofit organizations to help move animals out. The shelter also has different adoption events where they decrease or waive the $60 pet adoption fee to encourage more families to adopt.
Madison Hoven, microbiology biotechnology senior, adopted her German shepherd, Duke, from a traditional Norman shelter after being told he had extended his time limit and would be put down in two days.
Duke, a healthy 5-year-old dog, would not have been eligible for euthanization at a no-kill shelter. Since adopting Duke, Hoven has urged friends to take on the “adopt, don’t shop” mentality and consider adopting adult dogs.
“I feel like college students get puppies because they’re cute and fuzzy, but they’re a lot of work. They need constant love and attention and have to be taken out every two hours. I think it would work better for a lot of college students to adopt adult dogs who need a home and won’t take as much time, effort and work to train and take care of,” Hoven said.
Another way to help shelter animals without taking on the responsibility of adopting is to volunteer.
“We have a very strong volunteer program, and we’re constantly looking for volunteers," Bechtel said. "We’re really well-supported by the city, especially in comparison to a lot of shelters, but we still don’t have enough staff to walk every dog every day, so we rely on volunteers for that."
Information on how to get involved and volunteer at the Norman Animal Welfare Center is available on the Norman Police Department’s website. Volunteers are able to do different activities such as working the front desk, helping socialize cats or walking dogs.
The adoption fee for cats and dogs is $60 and includes spaying or neutering, vaccinations, deworming and testing for heartworm, Lyme disease and ehrlichia, as well as a Norman city pet license. The Norman Animal Welfare Center is located at 3426 Jenkins Ave. Information about adoptable animals and special adoption days is available on the shelter’s Facebook page.