Zeus barely hesitated before lunging at another dog in a fit of playful roughhousing.
A few years ago, the well-mannered pit bull mix, still adjusting to life inside the Indianapolis Animal Care and Control shelter, likely would have faced a death sentence because of his breed.
But not so now. Dropped off in early March by owners who were moving, he would leave less than two months later for a new home.
• PHOTO GALLERY: Animal Care and Control
These days, more dogs and cats are leaving the shelter alive, though many — too many, animal-welfare advocates say — still aren't as lucky as Zeus.
Thousands of animals that the city's shelter would have euthanized a decade ago now routinely find new homes. The live-release rate has increased from 39 percent in 2008 to nearly 49 percent last year; in recent months, it has shot even higher.
In addition to a 2009 decision abandoning a policy of euthanizing unclaimed pit bulls and pit bull mixes — dogs sometimes mistreated by their owners or used in fighting — the shelter and animal advocacy groups have promoted adoptions more aggressively in the community.
There is other evidence of progress for the shelter, a division of the Department of Public Safety that has weathered a series of leadership changes over a decade and still grapples with bare-bones funding from the city.
With City-County Council members and the mayor paying attention, advocates are implementing parts of a plan they drafted in 2009. Its aim: to cut the volume of unwanted and stray cats and dogs in Indianapolis.
Strays drive the steady intake at the shelter on the city's Southside. Even today, the sheer load of animals coming in requires putting many down when space runs out.
There were 8,147 animals euthanized last year because of space or other reasons, including sickness or age.
Efforts to lower that number are developing in three areas:
In coming weeks, the shelter will begin charging residents of other counties $40 to drop off unwanted animals. The money will help promote spay and neuter programs. But the main goal is to end the free abandonment option for those who live outside Marion County and have bypassed their own county shelters to avoid paying fees there.
The council recently passed an ordinance creating the outside-resident fee, and Mayor Greg Ballard signed off on it.
The Humane Society of Indianapolis is aiming for July to open a low-cost vaccinations clinic inside the new Animal Welfare Center, 460 N. Holmes Ave. on the Westside, expanding access to basic shots that keep pets healthy.
If fundraising efforts succeed, the same center later could add low-cost spay and neutering services. The Humane Society's goal is to perform 10,000 such sterilization surgeries a year within the first three years if it can raise $750,000 in start-up costs.
That last item is the one that advocates say offers the most meaningful opportunity to reduce pet overpopulation and lessen the city shelter's load.
John Aleshire, the Humane Society's chief executive officer, said the new center's spay/neuter program would be targeted to residents of the 10 ZIP codes — mostly east, southeast and west of Downtown — who contribute more than half of the unwanted or stray animals taken in by the shelter, as well as a large share of nuisance and stray reports.
The cost will be based on an owner's income. Advocates have high hopes that such a program could put a dent in overpopulation.
"The biggest challenge is to get people to be responsible for their animals and spay and neuter them," said Susan Hobbs, an Animal Care and Control advisory board member. She is also vice president of the Indianapolis Animal Welfare Alliance, which brings together several advocacy groups, and she volunteers at Cat's Haven, a no-kill feline shelter on the Northside.
Amid such challenges outside its walls, the shelter has had a decade of administrative churn, low morale and high staff turnover.
Amber Myers, who was promoted to chief of Animal Care and Control late last year, says turnover is improving as more stable leadership takes hold. She is working to fill five positions that remain vacant.
Among the most recent employees is Jessica Swickard, an animal control officer for nine months who changed careers from accounting. She is working on a master's degree so she can work in public safety management.
For now, though, she calls herself "an animal cop" — one of 16 — and she says she loves the animals as well as interacting with the public. She often comes back from the field with bags of dog or cat food that were handed to her.
"The hardest part of my job is trying to stay closed off," said Swickard, 30, who has a pit bull at home.
"My husband told me I could take the job as long as I don't bring my work home," she added.
Hobbs, Aleshire and other advocates agree that stability is taking hold at the shelter after so many short-lived directors have come and gone.
The most recent high-profile exit came in 2009, when Ballard fired then-Director Douglas Rae after nine months. He had been criticized for diverting animal control officers from the street and failing to focus enough on protecting the public from aggressive strays.
But Rae also reversed the policy of routinely euthanizing unclaimed pit bulls, though many still are euthanized if they aren't adopted because of space constraints.
Then-City Prosecutor Teri Kendrick took his place. She stepped down without controversy late last year after two years, making way for Myers, her former deputy chief, who had followed Kendrick from the city's legal office.
The city this spring released figures showing a large improvement on the enforcement side over the past two years, with a 12.3 percent decrease in total animal complaints to the Mayor's Action Center.
Decade of gains
The shelter and its drab kennel rooms, lined with rows of cages, sit in a low-profile industrial part of the city, off Harding Street on the Southside.
Intake figures have decreased slightly, to about 17,100 animals last year, but the shelter has made marked progress from a decade ago, when it was considered a killing factory.
In 2003, the city shelter euthanized 13,110 animals, 61 percent more than it put down last year.
Since then, efforts to spay and neuter cats and dogs have ramped up. The FACE clinic on the Near Eastside for more than a decade has performed thousands of low-cost surgeries each year, and advocates see the service as playing a role in the falling figures.
The shelter's live-release rate reached 71 percent in February and 65 percent in March, though Zach Adamson, a Democratic at-large council member who has become an advocate for the shelter, cautions against reading too much into those hopeful numbers.
"I think they're still in dire straits," Adamson said. "They've still got more animals than they can deal with. We're in the middle of spring right now, when the population begins to spike," so he'll be optimistic if the live-release rate stays high during summer.
The shelter's progress has come despite big challenges. Four years ago, the Humane Society, which operates its own shelter on the Northwestside, stopped taking in more animals than money and space allowed. That has diverted more unwanted and more difficult-to-adopt animals to the larger city shelter.
And Animal Care and Control's $3.8 million budget this year isn't even covering all the basics.
It leaves out money to repair damaged ceiling tiles and expand the heating and cooling system.
The shelter relies heavily on volunteers and completely on donated food. Its dogs consume food filling two 55-gallon trash cans per day. The cats eat more than 100 pounds a day.
A charitable arm augments the supplies and veterinary care budgets. Lately, a $61,000 gift is paying for several part-time employees who are helping to speed up veterinary evaluations and adoptions.
"They don't have enough staff to provide the level of care that one would like," said Kendrick, the former chief. "Yes, the euthanasia rate has decreased, but it's still too high. I'm very happy at the progress that's been made, but there's still too much to be done.
"This isn't a time for any complacency."
Still unclear is how the shelter and the agency that runs it will fare in next year's budget, which will be tighter than ever for the city and Marion County.
"As a bare minimum, I think we need to preserve what ACC has right now," said John Barth, an at-large Democratic council member. He is planning to devote upcoming Community Affairs Committee meetings to animal welfare issues.
Marc Lotter, Ballard's spokesman, said the mayor "obviously wants to continue to see the trends going in the right direction with Animal Care and Control" and supports partnerships with the Humane Society and other nonprofit groups on spay/neuter efforts.
Advocates' 2009 report — called "Saving Money, Saving Lives" — was produced at the request of then-Public Safety Director Scott Newman.
Besides increasing the spay/neuter options in the city, its recommendations included revising ordinances and exploring a revival of pet licensing, potentially charging a lower fee for owners of spayed or neutered animals.
But that could prove politically trickier to achieve.
The city abandoned licensing in 1995, in part because so few owners complied. Advocates know politicians are wary of creating a new fee applying to so many people.
For now, licensing is not high on the agenda, though Lotter said Ballard is open to a discussion.
Aleshire and other advocates are focusing instead on increasing the availability of cheap spay/neuter services, if the fundraising campaign for the new Animal Welfare Center succeeds.
They point to Kansas City, Mo., where an eight-year effort has similarly targeted areas where the most shelter animals originate. Spay & Neuter Kansas City says it has provided more than 30,000 surgeries over that time; in the past three years, there has been a 35 percent reduction in intake at the Kansas City shelter.
In Indianapolis, advocates first are opening the new center's vaccinations clinic, similar to a low-cost service offered at the Humane Society's shelter.
That will produce profit that they hope to use later partly to underwrite the more costly spay/neuter service.
Follow Star reporter Jon Murray at twitter.com/ IndyJonMurray. Call him at (317) 444-2752.