Aurora Velazquez ran the numbers once. Then again and again and again.

Velazquez, executive director of ACCT Philly, the city’s animal care and control team, ran the shelter’s January stats seven times before she allowed herself to believe they were true.

For the first time in the organization’s history, it achieved a 92% live release rate — or save rate — in January, which means that 92% of the animals that came into the shelter were not euthanized, but instead were adopted or went to rescues.

That surpasses the 90% industry standard for being considered a no-kill shelter and ACCT Philly did it during a pandemic and with a $890,000 cut in its city contract last year.

“For me, it was equal parts excitement, shock, and disbelief because it’s such a big thing,” Velazquez said.

Marsha Perelman, cochair of ACCT Philly’s Board of Directors, said she’s “ecstatic” about the achievement and hopes it illustrates to potential adopters that they can go to ACCT Philly in North Philadelphia and not feel like any animal they don’t choose will be put down.

“That keeps people away from a shelter. For years I would not walk into ACCT, even when I first joined the board. It was a terribly painful experience because I knew there was a high probability that many of the animals I was looking at wouldn’t get out,” Perelman said. “Now it’s just about where they will go, not if they will go.”

Conceived in its current form in 2012 as a nonprofit contracted by the city to perform animal control services, ACCT Philly has long suffered from a host of problems, including a revolving door of executive directors and a disease outbreak in the spring of 2019 that forced dogs to be placed in tents outside. At its lowest point in August of 2013, ACCT Philly had a live release rate of just 50%.

Velazquez came on in November 2019, at the tail end of the disease outbreak, which had decimated and demoralized the staff, and she had to rebuild from the ground up during COVID-19, Perelman said.

The pandemic not only took a toll on the personal interactions at the shelter, from intakes to adoptions, but at the end of last year during the national surge in COVID-19 cases, ACCT Philly made the tough decision to ban its volunteers from the shelter for two months.

Then came the contract cut from the city in July — from $4.6 million to $3.7 million — in the face of COVID-19. Historically, ACCT Philly has been one of the lowest-funded animal and control organizations among major U.S. cities, and the cut — which didn’t come with any change in the services ACCT is obligated to perform, like picking up and accepting strays, taking in pets in police or death cases, and capturing wild animals — was a tough blow.

In the face of these challenges, the ACCT Philly team transitioned from being reactive to proactive. They worked with rescue groups, volunteers, and community partners to prevent intakes when possible and the organization more than doubled its foster care program. Of the 745 cats and dogs brought into the shelter in January, 116, or 16%, went into foster care, up from 7% last January. Other animals taken in by the shelter in January include a rooster, duck, ferret, parrot, turtle, rat, squirrel, bat, and a pigeon as well as nine guinea pigs, two pigs, six rabbits, seven raccoons, four birds, and six opossums.

ACCT Philly also prioritized helping people keep their pets who might have otherwise had to relinquish them by doubling down on existing initiatives like the pet food pantry, which now serves twice as many people as it used to, and by creating new programs like a help desk. Operated out of ACCT Philly with support from Citizens for a No-Kill Philadelphia, pet owners can call the help desk for advice and referrals for training, medical care, and bills.

Monica Collazo of Northeast Philly adopted her orange cat, Garfield, from ACCT Philly in early February and shortly thereafter, he became sick. Every vet Collazo called was out of her price range. She didn’t want to give up Garfield, but felt like she was out of options. ACCT Philly was able to send her to a vet and cover the costs.

“Them going out of their way to keep me and Garfield together really shows their commitment to finding these pets a new home,” Collazo said.

ACCT Philly’s board, which includes City Councilman Allan Domb, also secured a midyear transfer of $485,000 to the organization through City Council and a PPP loan for $624,000 through Republic Bank. The board also lobbied the city to finally remove its Vector Control Unit, which deals with rodents, out of ACCT Philly, which expanded its space from 19,000 square feet to 32,000 square feet.

“That space has been life-changing for animals,” Perelman said. “Now we’re able to separate the cats from the dogs, and the cats are in infinitely better psychological shape.”

In addition, ACCT Philly was able to completely renovate its dog kennel, install new plumbing, and seal the floors, work which was already underway before the budget cut hit. The facility also has a new welcome center funded by the Petco Foundation.

“Because animals are healthier and happier, we’re seeing them adopted and placed with rescues and going home,” Velazquez said.

ACCT Philly’s leaders want to strive to keep up the historic release rate but said it’s not something they can do without adopters, volunteers, rescue groups, fosters, and donors.

Intakes typically go up in spring and with the city facing a $450 million budget gap, leaders are nervous about further contract cuts this year.

“I understand the position the city is in, so I’d not be surprised if there are additional reductions to our contract,” Velazquez said. “I’m keeping all my fingers and toes crossed that it will be minimal and hopefully everybody else can, too.”