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The Rescuers: Efforts by rescue organizations have helped drive down the euthanasia rate in Merced County

Chihuahuas are the new pit bulls.

No, the tiny dogs with big ears aren't mauling children, but they are turning into one of the most common dogs found in local shelters.

The Merced County Animal Shelter is no different. And for the nonprofit rescue organizations, which send thousands of dogs to new homes every year, Chihuahuas are almost as hard to place as pit bulls.

Dana Dulaney is a volunteer with New Beginnings for Animals-Merced. She's been rescuing animals for about eight years, and every day she looks at the dogs that are at the local shelter. A lot of her work is done online, through PetHarbor, where information on shelter animals around the country is available.

"I probably know PetHarbor better than the shelter workers do," Dulaney said. "And I have lists of hundreds of rescue organizations. I match the dogs and the rescues up."

Sitting at a desk, looking at her computer, Dulaney makes life or death decisions. She decides which dogs will be rescued and which will be passed by. "If there's a purebred, I contact the purebred rescue organization," Dulaney said. "There are rescues that specialize in senior dogs, or dogs with medical issues. I look at all the information about the dogs."

Then there's the desperate list.

These are the dogs that have been at the shelter the longest, the ones that are the most likely to be euthanized. "I usually put 20 to 25 dogs on that list," Dulaney said. "I tell the rescues if they don't help these dogs, they will be euthanized."

The hardest dogs to get rescue organizations to consider are pit bulls and Chihuahuas, Dulaney said. "There are so many Chihuahuas in every shelter in California," she said. "Everybody has them, and they breed them, and then when they aren't cute little puppies anymore, they dump them at the shelters."

Dulaney said even rescues that specialize in small dogs don't want Chihuahuas. "They'll tell me, 'Pick out four dogs, but make sure they're not Chihuahuas,' " she said.

The easiest dogs to place are dogs with medical issues. "If a dog is injured, or has a disease, we can usually get it to a rescue," Dulaney said. "People feel sorry for them. The rescues know if they don't take them, more than likely they won't be adopted."

The rescue organizations have made a big difference in the euthanasia rate at the shelter. From an 80 percent euthanasia rate in 2000 to about 36 percent in 2009, the rescues find new homes for thousands of animals.

For fiscal year 2010-2011, 762 dogs were euthanized at the shelter. Compare that to the 1,208 that were sent to rescue groups in that time and the importance of the work the rescues do is slammed home.

Kristen Lucas sees both sides of the shelter/rescue situation. She volunteers at New Beginnings for Animals-Merced. Her daytime job is animal control officer for Livingston, and she has worked at the animal shelter in the past.

Lucas works with an Oregon rescue group, a nonprofit that drives to Merced every other week to pick up small dogs, those that weigh up to about 35 pounds. "This rescue isn't too picky about breed or sex, and they will take the dogs that have been at the shelter for a long time," Lucas said.

As an animal control officer, Lucas said almost all the dogs she picks up are either pit bulls or Chihuahuas. "The shelters are inundated with these breeds, and the rescues are too," Lucas said.

Making a life or death decision is tough, Lucas said, but she knows she can't save them all.

"We try very hard to have a good relationship with our shelter," Lucas said. "If we ask them to hold on to a dog a day or two longer because we think we can get the dog to a rescue, they will do it for us."

Dulaney and Lucas say the answers to overpopulation at the shelter are for people to spay and neuter their pets and be responsible owners.

"A pet is a commitment," Lucas said. "It should be considered part of the family, not something to be disposed of."

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

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