Ken Passarella loves his little Aggie. She's always excited to see him and always there for him. Passarella realized that he wanted to help animals like Aggie, a Shetland sheepdog, who didn't have anyone to come home to them. He now volunteers every Saturday and about 10 hours a week at the Salt Lake County Animal Shelter, cleaning cages, walking and photographing dogs and, with other employees, trying desperately to find the animals homes.
That effort now includes transferring dogs out of state.
The county shelter, one of 11 shelters in the Salt Lake Valley and 83 in the state, transfers dogs to Boulder Humane in Boulder, Colo., in order to lighten the load and transfer dogs that are common in Utah to other areas where those breeds aren't as prevalent.
The program is especially helpful now because of a space shortage due to remodeling. The shelter is down 30 kennels for the next several months.
Transfers mostly are Labrador retrievers and pit bulls, which are popular in Utah, said shelter spokeswoman Temma Martin.
The animal transfer program began with a springer spaniel that had been found wandering Mount Nebo, obviously abandoned. The shelter was contacted by a springer spaniel rescue group that offered to take the dog and informed the shelter about the transfer program with Boulder Humane.
Still in its infancy in Salt Lake County, the transfer program is welcomed, but not particularly loved by shelter employees.
"It's embarrassing that we can't find our own solutions," Martin said.
Martin called the program "a Band-Aid" for the Salt Lake community. Martin, her co-workers and other area shelters face similar problems: too many dogs and cats with too few people willing to adopt.
Last year the Salt Lake County Animal Shelter received 5,337 live dogs and 5,154 live cats. Of those, the shelter was able to adopt out 1,059 dogs and 742 cats; 2,733 dogs were returned to their owners and only 215 cats returned to theirs. The shelter euthanized 1,315 dogs and 3,965 cats.
Euthanasia remains a topic of heated discussion among animal lovers everywhere. Shelter employees have been called murderers and inhumane.
"People blame us like we're somehow creating this (problem)," said April Harris, adoption coordinator for the county shelter. "We're dealing with a community problem."
Shelter employees see some animals two and three times.
"I've heard people say, 'I'm not going to pay (the shelter fee),' and abandon their pet," Passarella said.
One of the major problems is pet owners failing to spay and neuter their pets. "Breeding your dog is voting for euthanasia," Harris said.
Martin agreed, saying people believe that when they give their puppies away they will all have good, happy homes for a lifetime. Unfortunately, many of those dogs will be lost or abandoned by their owners, especially puppies, which can be difficult to train and become a nuisance and an inconvenience.
"When the puppies grow up people lose interest," she said.
Puppy mills also contribute to the overpopulation problem, pumping out hundreds of thousands of dogs each year. Most puppy mills are located in the Midwest where they can remain unnoticed. Owners keep thousands of dogs in small cages without much human interaction and breed them until they die.
The puppies, which often have genetic disorders because of inbreeding, are sold to brokers, on the Internet, through newspapers or directly from the mill to the public. Puppy brokers raise the price of the dogs and sell them to pet stores. The pet stores then double the price and sell them to the public.
Puppies from mills also tend to have other diseases and illnesses, such as kennel cough and behavior problems, because of the poor conditions in the mill. Many have never been outside of a kennel. Harris said she's seen dogs who are afraid of walking in the grass because they have never felt it before.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that pet stores sell about 500,000 puppies every year.
Several years ago, a Samoyed puppy mill was discovered in Utah with horrific conditions including feces and dog corpses covering the floors. Martin said the owners of the mill would leave the bodies of the dead dogs, allowing the other dogs to eat them.
Martin said puppy mills survive because the public creates the demand by purchasing dogs at pet stores, even if they buy believing they're rescuing the dog.
"If people for a year said, 'We aren't going to buy from pet stores,' (puppy mills) would stop breeding," she said.
Misconceptions hurt shelters' efforts to adopt out dogs. The main misconceptions, Martin said, are that people can't find puppies, small dogs and purebreds. A plethora of all three exist in shelters. About one-quarter of the dogs the shelter receives are purebred, and many of those dogs probably cost between $1,000 and $1,500, Martin said.
Passarella said the fallacy that bothers him the most is people believing the shelter doesn't care about the number of animals euthanized.
"We bend over backwards to find a home," he said. "But most adoption appointments fall through. ... In a perfect world we and all other animal control would go out of business."
More information on adoption is available at www.animalservices.slco.org.