Under the green roof of the Center for Animal Health and Welfare in Williams Township, Northampton County, there are more than 500 homeless animals. The shelter's more than 400 cats churn through a ton of cat litter a week.

There isn't any more room at the inn.

The consistently high population at the no-kill shelter has pushed it to mostly close its doors to new animals. In January, it will discontinue contracts with municipalities to drop off strays collected by police departments. It will then be open to animals from anywhere in the county, but only if there happens to be room.

"It's not really fair to have contracts," said Dan Roman, who sits on the center's board of directors. "We're full. We turn people away."

Wendy Benedict, president of the center's board of directors, hopes the move gives both the shelter and local municipalities more flexibility.

The shelter has been operating at near capacity for more than a year. It takes in a dog here and there, but Benedict and Roman believe municipalities need to be more proactive. Roman said the contracts were never a big source of income for the shelter, which gets by on donations, fundraisers, grants and low-cost shots clinics.

Roman said critics who say the shelter should cull animals to make room for new strays need to realize that killing dogs and cats isn't getting at the root of a ballooning stray animal population.

"The whole answer to this is spay, neuter and shut down puppy mills," Roman said.

Benedict said the shelter hopes to back up that mind-set with a $97,000 grant from PetSmart that will allow the center to spay and neuter about 1,500 animals over the next two years. The program is aimed at Easton's West Ward and South Side.

Benedict said Easton led all municipalities in bringing animals to the shelter in 2011, the last full year of statistics. To stem the tide of strays, and avoid the cost of housing animals at the center, Easton bought several dog kennels this year.

Benedict said other municipalities should follow Easton's lead. She believes it is easier and more efficient for municipalities to reunite stray dogs and owners.

Easton administrator Glenn Steckman said the city's kennels have worked. The city has sent one dog to the shelter since it bought the kennels and either reunited others with their owners or found homes or rescue organizations for them. Steckman understands the shelter's need to draw a line in the sand and push communities to address the issue.

"As I look at it," Steckman said, "they have been telling people for 10 years this is going to happen and it's here."

Roman and Steckman said the solution lies in the county's or state's hands. Steckman sees the state dog law - a municipality with a police department must capture loose dogs if they are reported - as an unfunded mandate. But there is no short-term solution other than Easton's handful of kennels.

"A solution for tomorrow?" Roman said. "I don't think there is one."

That isn't stopping the county from trying to find one. It's using a gaming grant to pay the Lafayette College Meyner Center to search for a long-term solution to stray animals.

The study, which County Executive John Stoffa said will cost about $16,000, should be completed next year.

Stoffa said county residents should take a common-sense approach to the options. It's probably not practical to keep every animal, he said.

Roman hopes the study sheds light on the situation in the county, but believes any long-term solution is a long way off. Roman wishes pet shops would be required to spay and neuter animals for sale and that law enforcement could stem the tide of cheap puppies available on front porches and street corners. Roman said a cute puppy often turns into a large dog that owners failed to realize the costs of keeping.

Benedict said the center has seen a rise in abandoned animals and often finds dumped dogs tied to its fence or kittens stuffed in a crate on its doorstep.

Roman said until the shelter feels some relief from the crush of animals under its roof, its message will be a simple one.

"Don't bring your dog here," Roman said. "Call us first."

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