Once the "shame of Kern County," euthanasia rates at the shelters run by Kern County Animal Services have dropped so low that the facility can be described as “no kill” for the first time on record.

At its height, the shelters euthanized up to 150 dogs a day, a testament to the pressure put on the system by the large number of strays and low adoption rates in the community. In September, however, Animal Services euthanized only 40 animals, finding live outcomes for 643 of the 683 animals that left its care during the month.

“When we kind of celebrated, we did a little happy dance, and I got choked up talking about it,” Animal Services Director Nick Cullen said of the festivities that happened at the shelter Thursday. “Just thinking about where we were in 2011, 2012, when on average we were killing almost 2,000 animals a month. And, my primary job was to make a list of the animals that were destroyed that day and then carry it out. To remember that, and then reflect on that now, it’s overwhelming.”

To be considered “no kill,” a shelter must find placement for at least 90 percent of its population. Through foster services, adoptions and rescues, Animal Services says in September, 94 percent of shelter pets left its care alive, the first time that such a benchmark has been achieved.

Euthanasia rates had been steadily falling for years thanks to a concerted effort by Animal Services to expand adoptions and rescues, and increase its spay and neuter policies, but the coronavirus pandemic supplied the shelter with an unexpected boost.

After Kern County shelters were forced to close from March to July, a call went out to the community for emergency foster homes. The response floored Animal Services staff.

“Folks that I’ve talked to have said for all the bad things the pandemic has brought, the one thing the pandemic has highlighted is animals, what they can bring to our lives,” said Cecilia Provensal, the fundraising chair and treasurer for Friends of the Kern County Animal Shelter Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for Kern County’s shelters. “Since we haven’t been able to see family and friends on a regular basis, they provide companionship. People have opened their eyes to animals as an alternative, and thank God they did.”

The surge in adoptions and fostering that took place following Animal Services’ call for help capped a steady change in how county residents viewed shelter animals, according to those who try to find homes for abandoned pets. Around 10 years ago, many in the community viewed shelter animals as damaged or even dangerous, a position that has slowly changed over the years.

Now, more and more people are willing to go to a shelter to pick out a new pet rather than purchase one from a breeder. The shift in attitudes, combined with a social media push by Animal Services and a concerted effort to spay and neuter animals so they don’t procreate further, has paid off.

“I’m really proud of our county. I just think this was something people said would never happen,” said Zach Skow, founder of Marley’s Mutts Dog Rescue, which has helped fund spay and neuter operations at the Animal Services shelter in addition to taking rescues. “My friends down in Los Angeles have always muttered under their breath that Kern County would never get to ‘no kill.’”

With one month under its belt, Animal Services hopes to continue the momentum into October. But maintaining the shelter’s “no kill” status could be a challenge, especially with limited foot traffic through its Bakersfield facility. If a large number of animals are brought in throughout the month, that could also make it harder for Animal Services to find positive outcomes for those in its care.

Cullen was quick to credit the community for its role in reducing the use of euthanasia at the shelter, especially during the time of self-isolation and quarantine. Will the increased level of support last after people go back to work and kids return to school, he wondered.

“We could very well wake up Nov. 1 and have brought in 2,000 animals in the month of October and we weren’t able to find (placements for) 94 percent,” he said. “But either way, it happened. We had a thousand animals in our care, and we succeeded in finding homes for almost 95 percent of them. We’re going to take pride in that fact.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.