Animal lovers adopted 29 dogs and cats Saturday at the Maryland SPCA in Hampden -- a one-day record.
That's encouraging, says Executive Director Deborah L. Thomas, provided the new pet owners take care of their animals. The trouble is that many Baltimore area owners don't, she said, or they allow their pets to reproduce unwanted offspring by failing to fix them.
Although the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was able to place in adoptive homes 2,600 dogs and cats last year -- the same as in 1995 -- the number of animals surrendered to the SPCA increased from 6,100 in 1995 to 7,500 in 1996. All pets adopted from the SPCA are first neutered or spayed.
It was the third year that the number of unwanted animals rose. It meant the private nonprofit agency had to put to death more animals last year -- almost 5,000, a 40 percent increase from the year before. Many were old and sick, but some were healthy and adoptable.
Other area agencies also put to death thousands of animals, though they didn't report such a one-year jump in "surrenders of animals."
Experience says three or four of Saturday's adopted pets will be returned to the SPCA kennel at 3300 Falls Road. The reasons may be legitimate, such as an owner moving out of town to an unsettled situation or a bad match with a family.
A cat treating its litter box as foreign territory is typical of the many spurious reasons for giving up animals, Thomas said.
"Many people don't understand what's at stake in getting a pet," said Thomas. "They often blame the animals when things go wrong: 'They're too stupid' or 'They make a mess' or 'They chew on everything' or 'They don't like my children.'
"Then they ask, 'What have I done?'
"Or they have excuses, whether they admit it or not: They can't be bothered with dog obedience classes. They don't have time to teach pets manners. They let them outdoors and are surprised when they get in trouble."
A sampling of public and private kennels handling strays recorded a uniform picture of unwanted animals, a feature faced daily by their workers.
The Bureau of Animal Control in Baltimore said it recorded about the same number of surrenders and pickups of animals, many "sick and old," in 1996 as in 1995, 12,306 and 12,621. Its adoptions were also about the same, 452 in the year ending June 30, 1996, and 249 since then. Some animals were reclaimed by owners but most of the others were destroyed.
Jerry Welch, its director since August, suggested that a bureau canvass of the city, checking animals for required rabies shots and city dog licenses, may be resulting in some owners who want to give up animals turning to the SPCA because its adoption rate is higher than the city's pounds.
Animal Control of Howard County, directed by the Police Department, said adoptions were up 17 percent and incoming )) pets were up 7 percent. In 1996, it took in 4,091 pets, including 447 returned to owners, and recorded 1,304 adoptions.
The Humane Society of Baltimore County, a nonprofit agency similar to the SPCA, reported surrenders and adoptions were about the same in 1996 as in 1995 when 2,540 animals were given up and 1,202 placed in adoptions.
Ann Joly, executive director of the society in Reisterstown, decried owners' lack of time and patience for their pets in this "disposable society."
"We are all in the business of cleaning up other people's problems. We like people to have pets, but we say, 'Think before you get a pet. Be ready. It's a commitment for life. Couples divorce and apartments, jobs, friends change. But the animal expects you to keep him forever.' "
The SPCA's Thomas, 42, and her staff of 14 are troubled by the increase in additional arrivals, many of them kittens and puppies from unwanted litters.
"That can only mean people aren't getting the message about fixing their pets, neutering the males and spaying the females," Thomas said. "It's surprising how so many people don't understand how important this is."
There are no homes for the animals, no money to keep them indefinitely and no one interested in adopting them. SPCA's capacity of 160 animals is often full and new arrivals don't stop. Conditions are similar at other agencies, with differences in some procedures.
Painless euthanasia is a regular activity at the SPCA site on a hillside above the Jones Falls Valley. Staffers give animals a sedative followed by an injection, followed by cremation.
"What a twist," said Thomas. "People work here because they love animals. We have to put them down. It can be 50 or 60 a day. We get down in the dumps. People get mad at us for doing this. 'We're not killing them,' we tell them, 'You are.'
But, Thomas adds: "Killing them is a whole lot better than having them suffer, starve, get hit by cars, be diseased, lonely, unwanted, without companions."