When Master Cpl. Kyle Webb pulled up to a Port Penn house recently, he got a pleasant surprise.
The stray beagle that Donna Price had seen roaming around her rural home for two weeks was now on a leash, wagging his tail and sniffing everything. The dog appeared old but healthy.
"We took him to get a bath because he stunk so bad," Price said when Webb got out of his Delaware Animal Control truck.
Webb scratched the beagle under the chin before scanning the dog to see if he had an identification microchip — he didn't — and then carrying him to a blanket-lined crate in the back of his truck. If someone doesn't claim him within a week, the dog will be available for adoption at the Kent County SPCA's shelter near Camden. Beagles are a popular breed, Webb said, and he expects this one will find a home soon.
"There's no obvious reason he should be euthanized," Webb said.
The Kent County SPCA, which handles animal control for all three counties in Delaware, is the only animal-welfare group in the state that will euthanize a healthy but unadopted animal to make space in its shelter. In 2010, it did so with 25 dogs and 310 cats; 753 animals with treatable illnesses, injuries or behavior problems also were euthanized.
Acknowledging the policy's critics, Kent County SPCA Executive Director Kevin Usilton said with resignation, "We're the bad guys."
Usilton said euthanasia is a sad necessity in the face of an animal overpopulation problem in Delaware. The unpleasant task falls on the group because it must take in every animal, including those that are sick, injured or aggressive, he said.
But other animal advocates say animal-control programs can keep their focus on public safety while still embracing the "no kill" philosophy that's become a nationwide trend in recent years.
"All shelters in the country should be 'no kill,' " said Jane Pierantozzi, executive director of Faithful Friends, a nonprofit shelter in Wilmington.
It's a question facing Wilmington as the city begins looking for a new animal-control contractor for the first time in 120 years. The Delaware SPCA, which moved to a "no kill" model a few years ago, told the city last month it would drop its contract June 30 to focus its resources on animal adoption and cruelty prevention.
Wilmington is seeking another company or group interested in running the program, said John Rago, the city's director of communications and policy development.
"Beyond that, a municipal animal-control program is certainly an option," Rago said. "If the city were to be forced into the animal-shelter business, our goal would be 'no kill' also."
Many animal-welfare groups nationwide also are dropping their municipal contracts and the stigma that can come with them, said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.
"You can save money and shed this albatross of euthanasia," Pacelle said.
An estimated 3 million to 4 million healthy or treatable animals are euthanized nationwide annually because of a lack of shelter space, Pacelle said. That's down significantly from 12 million to 20 million in the 1970s, he said, and the figure will continue coming down because of the popularity of the "no kill" movement.
"In the last four or five years, the movement has really taken off," said Nathan Winograd, director of the nonprofit No Kill Advocacy Center in Oakland, Calif.
"As more and more communities are ending the killing, the SPCA is looking at what its true mission is," Winograd said. "It was never the role of a private SPCA to kill animals on behalf of government."
Winograd said there are now about 30 communities that have reached what he and many other advocates consider to be "no kill" status, which is to euthanize fewer than 10 percent of the animals that come into a shelter and only those with untreatable illness, injury or behavior problems.
In 2010, Kent County SPCA euthanized 35 percent of the animals it took in, most of which were considered unhealthy and untreatable.
The city of Austin, Texas, reached no-kill status a few years ago through widespread community support and cooperation among the city and more than 90 rescue groups, said Lisa Starr, spokeswoman for the Austin Humane Society. "Any one shelter can be no-kill, but you have to look at the whole community," Starr said. "It's about what everybody is doing."
Austin organizations also got about $1 million in grants from national animal advocacy groups for spay/neuter programs, shelter care, behavior training, advice for new pet owners and other services, she said.
The city of 790,000 people also is increasing its animal-control budget by about $2 million over three years to add officers, veterinarians, medical care and a larger shelter, said Abigail Smith, chief animal services officer.
"You can't increase your live outcomes by 30 to 40 percent and not spend some money," Smith said. "It was definitely, absolutely, unequivocally a community effort."
Usilton said he, too, would love to see Delaware become a no-kill state, but that requires more money for larger shelters and low-cost spay/neuter programs. "There has to be some kind of plan put into place to make that happen," Usilton said.