The MetroWest Humane Society in Ashland is based in a bright, cheerful, three-story house with rooms full of cats. It’s a place where the “no kill” shelter movement has taken root, part of the transformation in the treatment of unwanted animals in Massachusetts and across the country.
Marlene Simmons, the shelter’s manager, said the facility euthanizes cats only if they are extremely ill, but not if they are old or have some physical problems.
Some cats have long stays. Oscar, a cat with medical and behavioral issues, was adopted after three years. Simmons estimated that about four cats had been euthanized in the past 10 months, including two who were well into their teen years and had kidney failure. About 350 are adopted each year.
“All these cats deserve a home,” she said.
Her group is part of the “no kill” movement, launched in reaction to once-common shelter practices that saw large numbers of healthy, potentially adoptable animals euthanized for space reasons, often after a short time.
Since the no-kill concept began gaining popularity, the number of euthanizations nationally has dropped dramatically — by one estimate, from about 15 million in 1970 to 3.4 million in a recent year — aided by aggressive programs to educate the public about spaying or neutering, which reduce the population of homeless cats and dogs, and sophisticated animal adoption campaigns. Most no-kill shelters say that at least 90 percent of their animals are eventually adopted.
Renewed interest in animal welfare comes as Massachusetts proclaims the success of a program that has raised about $250,000 for the spaying, neutering, and vaccinating of homeless animals by private and public organizations, and training for community animal control officers.
Michael Cahill, the director of the state’s Division of Animal Health, said the money was raised between February and June through an optional checkoff on state income tax returns for last year.
A new committee is expected to convene on Sept. 25 to begin deciding how the funds will be distributed, Cahill said.
Massachusetts has about 270 registered animal shelters, although it’s not clear how many call themselves no-kill shelters or how many animals they take in or adopt out, since the state does not collect information about their operations.
Of the approximately 41 shelters in area communities, most appear to have no-kill policies, and many are small and support themselves with donations, small grants, and fees for adoptions.
The organizations say the adoption fees, which can start at $150, do not cover all their costs, which can include vaccinations, medical care, spaying or neutering, and even a microchip to help locate the animal if it is lost.
Like other no-kill facilities, the Purr-fect Cat Shelter in Medway turns away animals if it has no room.
“If we are full, we are full,” said shelter president Donna Elbery of Millis. The 17-year-old shelter averages about 100 adoptions a year, and may top that this year, she said.
Another local animal care operation, Cat Rescue of Marlborough and Hudson, is not a physical shelter, but a group of people who provide foster care for cats awaiting adoption.
The nonprofit organization only euthanizes a cat when a veterinarian says it’s best for the animal, said Ellen Silverstein, a volunteer with the group. Its members take in injured animals, cover veterinarian fees, and then do their best to get the cats adopted.
The group has 12 to 15 foster homes caring for about 90 cats. More than 300 were adopted last year, said Silverstein.
Some tension remains between no-kill advocates and those who run what are known as “open-admission’’ shelters, which do not turn animals away but have a much higher rate of euthanasia.
Workers in open-admission shelters point out that they take in all animals, including the young and old, healthy and sick, while some no-kill shelters turn away more animals than they take in because of lack of space.
The policy can leave open-admission shelters to euthanize ill or aggressive animals that are not accepted by no-kill shelters.
But most on both sides emphasize they have common ground because they share the same goal — finding good homes for all animals.
Jean Weber, director of the animal protection division of the Boston-based Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, agrees.
“We may have different philosophies, but we’re working in the same direction,” she said. “We are working toward a goal that every animal that comes in to us finds a home.”
Last year, the MSPCA took in 10,500 animals and 8,200 were adopted, close to 80 percent, and the rate has been steadily improving, Weber said. It was about 71 percent in 2011, she said..
The organization, which is the state’s largest shelter by some measures, has facilities in Boston and Methuen, as well as the Centerville section of Barnstable.
The array of animals taken in by shelters across the state is breathtaking, with the list including rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, ferrets, horses, and other farm animals, as well as dogs and cats. Nearly 70 percent are felines.
The MSPCA does not euthanize dogs because of a lack of space, but it does euthanize cats for space and health issues, typically in the spring through early fall. “They are really challenging for us. They are prolific breeders,” Weber said.
The MSPCA is very active in spaying and neutering feral cats, which has reduced their population and led to fewer euthanizations.
The organization also has 600 foster homes that last year provided temporary care for 2,300 animals — 90 percent were cats or kittens.
Some shelters take a nuanced approach to how they describe themselves.
The Animal Rescue League, which assisted about 4,500 animals last year, considers itself a limited-admission or flexible-admission shelter, said Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore, vice president of animal welfare.
“We do euthanize” animals that are terribly sick, she said. Her organization decided not to call itself a no-kill shelter, she said, because the term seems insulting to facilities that don’t have the financial luxury to “save all the saveables.”
Shelters, if they deal with assisting adoptions for animals from within Massachusetts, are required to be an IRS nonprofit, to register with the state attorney general’s office as a charity, and to register with the state Department of Agriculture as a shelter or rescue organization, said Cahill.
No inspections are required. However, a possible new regulation would require adopted animals to be certified as healthy by a veterinarian.
Shelters did not have to register as recently as 2005, Cahill said. But that changed after complaints from people who adopted animals that turned out to be either ill or to have behavioral problems they were not aware of.
Nathan Winograd, a nationally known no-kill activist who has helped set up shelters across the country, is delighted at how the concept has spread.
“It is extremely exciting to see a movement that 15 years ago was seen as radical or fringe or hopelessly optimistic, turned into a movement that is not just gaining traction but is becoming mainstream,” said Winograd, who is the director of the nonprofit No Kill Advocacy Center in San Francisco.