Two men sitting and petting a large dog.
Kansas Humane Society’s Jordan Bani-Younes (left) and Wichita Animal Shelter’s Ron Walton help Keeper stay comfortable while he waits for his family to pick him up. The dog was picked up by animal control but returned to his family. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Wichita Beacon)

In 2012, nearly half the stray cats and dogs picked up by Wichita’s animal control were staring down a death sentence. 

The Wichita Animal Shelter euthanized 4,476 dogs and cats that year, with a majority of those being cats. That represented 45 percent of animals that came to the facility that year, according to its own records. 

That earned the shelter a bad reputation as a “high-kill” shelter, a reputation that has not kept pace with reality. In 2022, the Wichita Animal Shelter euthanized just 233 animals — 3% of the number coming through its doors, a rate that meets the standard of a “no-kill” shelter, which is 10% or less.

 “There is more of a focus now on saving every animal that is possible,” said Elaine Stephen, a member of the Wichita Animal Services Advisory Board, a citizen oversight board tasked with regulating animal welfare in Wichita.

The Wichita Animal Shelter is run by the city and serves all of Sedgwick County. This includes contracting with the cities of Clearwater, Derby, Park City, Maize and Valley Center for animal control services such as stray animal pickup and animal cruelty investigations.

The shelter is currently located on the Murfin Animal Care Campus, adjacent to Kansas Humane Society. The joint campus was completed in 2009. Around this time, Stephen says, the “high-kill shelter” reputation was arguably deserved. 

Stephen, who moved to Wichita in 2008, remembers hearing horror stories about the shelter when she got here. The shelter needed to be avoided because “they euthanize most of the animals they get.”  

“When you look at the numbers from the past, it’s easy to see why someone might have that idea,” Stephen said. 

A shift at the Wichita Animal Shelter

However, the shelter’s leadership made a shift in strategy, focusing on developing community partners to keep lowering that euthanasia rate. And slowly over time, the shelter’s euthanasia rates began to improve. By 2017, only 15 percent of animals that came to the Wichita Animal Shelter were euthanized. Five years later, they achieved just 3%.

“We transfer out a lot more now,” said Wichita Police Lt. Derek Purcell, the shelter’s current director. He’s been in the job for a year. According to him, moving Wichita’s animal control onto the same campus as the Kansas Humane Society allowed for the two to get close and start working together. 

Due to that partnership, animals that come to the Wichita shelter can be transferred to other rescues and foster homes quicker, meaning more space for intakes. 

“A lot of [the reduced euthanasia rate] has to do with local rescues who help take in and place the animals,” Stephen said.

By last year, the euthanasia rate was just 3%. 

While there is no centralized definition of what a high-kill shelter is, there is a generally used way to describe a no-kill shelter. A no-kill shelter is generally recognized as an animal shelter or rescue that euthanizes less than 10 percent of the animals that come into its care, a label that the Wichita Animal Shelter easily meets. 

The bad reputation continues

Though the transfer rate of the shelter to rescues has increased significantly, the reputation of Wichita’s shelter has not improved. On Google in the past month, 12 reviews have been left; only one review was positive.  

“It’s frustrating,” Purcell said. “The people that work here are great people and when they see those comments, it kind of beats them down.” 

Stephen agrees.  

“My concern is that the public does not understand the progress that has been made,” Stephen said. “I don’t want to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, when it comes to understanding what animal services does and helping them with their work.” 

Stephen explains that while there are things to criticize about the animal shelter such as a poor return-to-owner rate for cats — only 2% of cats brought in are returned to owners — the shelter’s euthanasia rate is not one of them.  

Stephen says that the shelter will need the community’s help to make sure more animals do not end up on the street. 

“We need to spay and neuter our animals, keep them on a leash, make sure yards are fixed up,” Stephen said. Decreasing the number of animals on the street means fewer animals that the shelter will have to take in. “And importantly, get your animal microchipped and keep that chip updated,” because the shelter relies on scanning those chips to find pet owners. 

Stephen hopes that soon, more people will trust the Wichita Animal Shelter so more animals can be helped.

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Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.