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VALPARAISO | When Judy Bonaventura took over as director of the Porter County Animal Shelter 18 month ago, she said she was charged with swapping out euthanasia with spay and neutering programs to control the local pet population.

While the effort has already resulted in a noticeable decrease in the number of cats at the shelter, she predicted the problem will really start coming under control within the next five years.

"It was obvious euthanasia didn't work," Bonaventura said. "We felt they were just pruning the problem."

Veterinarian Mary Ann Sheller, who was replaced on the shelter board as part of last year's change in operations, disagreed with the rosy assessment, saying she continues to hear about animals being turned away or dumped because the shelter is full.

"In essence, what they have done is exchange a rational euthanasia policy for a warehouse policy," Sheller said.

Bonaventura said the shelter does a pretty good job keeping its dog population down by relying on the help of various rescue programs and through efforts to better promote the facility and get the animals out into the community.

There are a lot more cats, however, and the shelter does occasionally have to turn away felines, particularly during the spring mating season, she said. When cats are turned away, she said it is usually just a few days before space again becomes available.

The shelter can house up to 41 dogs and up to 180 cats using portable cages, Bonaventura said.

The aggressive spay and neuter program under way is beginning to make a dent in the feline population problem, she said. The shelter offers three low-cost spay and neuter programs each month.

Sheller said there was a strong spay and neuter program in place before the change in operations last year. She said the shelter has been unable to provide her with records detailing the actual numbers of adopted animals and those spayed and neutered.

Despite these challenges, the shelter in neighboring Lake County has been operating six years with a policy of not euthanizing adoptable animals, said Director Matt Lubarski.

The Sheriff's Department implemented the policy in response to the wishes of the public when it took over the shelter, he said.

The only animals that are euthanized these days are those with severe health issues or behavioral problems, he said.

"If I don't want a (problem) dog living next door to me, I don't want them living next door to anybody," Lubarski said.

The shelter does reach is limit of 130 animals at times, he said, but it has found some creative ways to avoid that situation. Those efforts include offering up to a year of free food for pet owners on government aid, who are considering giving up their animals solely for financial reasons.