updated 8/13/2007 11:43:15 AM ET 2007-08-13T15:43:15

In the old lobby of the city-run animal shelter, a cheerful-looking sign written in neon pink, blue and yellow delivers a somber message: In a week’s time, 1,004 dogs and cats were brought in and 925 were killed.

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San Antonio’s Animal Care Services wants to turn those numbers around by converting to a “no-kill” facility, meaning all animals deemed healthy or treatable would stay at the shelter until adopted. The program is to be phased in by 2012.

Animal welfare advocates caution that the national shift toward no-kill shelters isn’t always in the best interest of the animals who never find a home.

“It sounds very good, but the reality is that it will probably leave some animals to suffer,” said Daphna Nachminovitch, director of the domestic animal department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

'Warehousing' a top concern
No-kill shelters that have worked elsewhere in the country have succeeded because they partner with other local facilities. But many no-kill shelters have no backup plan and hang onto animals for months, sometimes years, until they are adopted, causing crowding and health problems for the animals.

“I’ve been to good no-kills, and I’ve been to bad no-kills,” said Jef Hale, the San Antonio shelter’s director. “I was at a no-kill in Louisiana and basically what they did is they just put animals in a cage and they just continued to add animals to a cage. ... If we put them in a cage and we don’t interact with them, we slowly drive them crazy.”

The practice of “warehousing” is a top concern for animal organizations when a shelter decides to go no-kill. And animal advocates say they understand that killing the animals is sometimes the only humane way to ease overcrowding.

Animal Care Services has traditionally taken in 50,000 dogs and cats and euthanized 95 percent of them, Hale said. It once used a gas chamber, but switched to the more humane method of lethal injections about a year and a half ago.

Nationally, about 6 million to 8 million dogs and cats enter animal shelters each year. About half are killed.

“The problem of course is that 8 million animals are being discarded,” Nachminovitch said. “If it were as easy as simply stopping euthanasia, then that would have been done a long time ago.”

National organizations want to reduce needless killing. The ASPCA this year launched “Mission: Orange” to increase adoption and reduce euthanasia in five U.S. communities. The American Humane Association has an initiative called “Getting to Zero.”

Dog breeds“We are definitely seeing a broad movement toward no-kill,” said Richard Avanzino, president of Maddie’s Fund in Alameda, Calif., which aims for the U.S. to be no-kill by 2017. “And there are some isolated examples of horror stories where things have gone astray and people in their zeal have actually done harm. ... It’s not something that you just flip a switch and it happens immediately.”

In pursuing the no-kill label, some shelters will only take in animals they’re sure they can adopt out, said Charlene Jones, founder and director of Animals at Heart, a nonprofit in Jacksonville, Fla., that works to help people keep their pets longer. Others will adopt out potentially dangerous animals just to make space.

But no-kill shelters that don’t warehouse animals fill up quickly and are forced to stop taking in new ones.

“Now what’s their alternative?” said Kim Intino, director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States. The animal likely ends up either in an open-admission facility that does euthanize, or worse, on the streets.

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