Karen Hirsch, LifeLine communications director, visits with one of the dogs at the Fulton County facility on Feb.18.
Karen Hirsch, LifeLine communications director, visits with one of the dogs at the Fulton County facility on Feb.18.

If you ask Rebecca Guinn, metro Atlanta has come a long way since 2002.

Twelve years ago, Guinn called county animal control officials after she noticed a dog that had gotten its paw stuck in a fence. The dog was taken to the county shelter and Guinn learned that it would only have five days before it would be killed if its owner couldn’t be located.

“I became obsessed with the dog. I called the shelter every day,” Guinn said.

On the fifth day, she decided to save the dog that had been caught in the fence. The first day she had visited, the shelter was packed. But by the time she came back, many of the animals had been euthanized.

“That empty shelter — I’ve never forgotten that moment,” Guinn said. “At that time in the Atlanta area, over 100,000 animals were being euthanized a year. I had no idea.”

Guinn knew there had to be a better way and was moved to start LifeLine Animal Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to animal welfare. Guinn now serves as the CEO of the organization.

“We started LifeLine and started looking at why is it like this in the Atlanta area — what can we do to make a difference?” Guinn said. “Today, we run that shelter.”

LifeLine Animal Project now operates the animal shelters in Fulton and DeKalb counties. LifeLine is coming up on its first anniversary of running the shelter in Fulton County, having taken over the management of the facility and county animal control services on March 15, 2013. LifeLine began managing DeKalb’s shelter July 1.

In December, both counties had record low rates of euthanasia: 25.8 percent in Fulton and 13.4 percent in DeKalb, LifeLine says.

“We’ve done a lot to promote adoptions at Fulton County. We’ve tried to raise the profile of the shelter and bring more people to the shelter,” Guinn said.

Guinn said one way LifeLine has boosted the number of adoptions is simply informing people that they can go to their county shelter to adopt a pet. LifeLine also has used several other strategies to find homes for animals in its shelters and prevent more from ending up there.

For example, Guinn said there is a “surrender counselor” in both that will talk with people about why they are turning their pets over to the shelter. Often, she said, people feel they can’t afford something their pet needs.

“We try to find resources for them, whether it’s building a fence for them, or a dog house, or veterinary care,” Guinn said.

One of LifeLine’s first initiatives was a spay/neuter clinic, Guinn said. All of the adoptable pets at the shelter are already spayed or neutered. But Guinn said the organization is continuing to emphasize the importance of getting pets fixed to prevent unwanted litters of puppies and kittens.

In DeKalb County, LifeLine is offering a program called SNIP DeKalb, to provide free spay and neuter operations and vaccinations for people who can’t afford them.

“This is a program that we raise money for, it’s not something that the counties pay for,” Guinn said.

As a nonprofit organization, LifeLine has resources such as volunteers, donations and relationships with other animal welfare groups that allow it to be more flexible than a traditional government-run shelter.

DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader said he’s been pleased with LifeLine’s work at the animal shelter.

“I think that the experiment in outsourcing shelter services has been a good success,” Rader said. “Based upon the numbers I understand coming out of shelters, we’re seeing a reduction in euthanasia and an increase in placement of animals, which is very positive.”

DeKalb commissioners have approved funding for a new animal shelter to replace the current facility, which is outdated and too small to serve the county’s needs. The new shelter is to be built on land adjacent to the DeKalb- Peachtree Airport. Rader said that facility is expected to be complete by March 2015.

Guinn said taking over county services has been a big adjustment for LifeLine. She said each shelter can take in up to 30 animals a day, which means the organization is providing services for between 25,000 and 30,000 animals a year.

But Guinn said bidding to provide the county services was a logical extension of the work LifeLine was already doing.

“We’ve always been involved in the solution and felt like if we wanted to take Atlanta to the next level, we needed to lead the way,” Guinn said. “Both counties were struggling.”

Guinn said there’s still a lot of work to do, but she’s pleased with what LifeLine has accomplished in Fulton and DeKalb.

“Where it used to be that 83 percent were dying [at the DeKalb shelter], in December, 87 percent left alive,” Guinn said. “Which just goes to show you, if you see a problem, you can fix it.”