Here in Victoria County, we love our pets, whether they are the snug dog or cat sleeping at our feet or the lost and scared stray animal walking the streets alone.

That love is obvious if you know where to look.

For many years, a good number of local nonprofit animal shelters and rescue groups have worked to find loving homes for stray dogs and cats.

Adoption events throughout the community routinely attract droves of visitors looking for their next furry family member.

And on Facebook and other social media, groups aimed at rehoming or reuniting lost pets abound.

Finally, our local government officials are catching up.

The county’s Animal Services department, which changed its name last year from Victoria County Animal Control, is restructuring in a major way, beginning a new era with the aim of treating stray dogs and cats more humanely. As part of that restructuring, the Animal Services department has not only hired a new director, but also undergone a rebranding process complete with the aforementioned new name and new logos.

The department’s new director, Mark Sloat, who previously served as a program manager at the Austin Animal Center, was hired to reduce breeding and euthanasia of strays pets.

The Animal Services department also has separated itself from the Victoria County Public Health Department to “evolve and adapt,” as County Judge Ben Zeller said back in June.

All of these changes have come about within the past year or so, and it’s clear the winds of change are finally blowing in the right direction.

There’s much to be said about changing the Animal Services department’s name and feel. But it wouldn’t mean much if the department didn’t also change its practices for the better.

Thankfully, the department really seems to be instituting real, concrete changes in policy for better treatment of animals.

Just before Sloat’s arrival, the department ceased its archaic practice of mass euthanizing feral cats in cages. They also now are no longer euthanizing dogs because of their breed but are instead examining their behavior before making the difficult decision to kill.

And if last year’s euthanasia numbers are any indication of where Animal Services is going, we can celebrate. The totals for dogs and cats euthanized fell by 22.5% and 59.7%, respectively, in 2022 compared with the previous year.

These changes are important because pets are not merely objects to be used and discarded.

Dogs and cats feel pain. Stray pets suffer from cold, heat and hunger, not to mention fear and loneliness. They often die horrible, painful deaths when struck by passing vehicles.

They cannot speak up for themselves, and as such they are wholly at our mercy.

It’s obvious to many Victoria County residents that the area has a problem with stray and feral populations. All too often, we see silhouettes of stray dogs walking through the glare of our headlights on darkened roadways. In rural areas in the county, many dogs run free, potentially posing a danger to residents.

Dumpsters, derelict homes and alleyways are homes to colonies of stray and feral cats, some of which may have litters several times each year. Many, if not most, of those kittens never even survive to adulthood.

Preventing the suffering of those stray animals is about much more than a rebranding process. As some have pointed out, it will also require proactive measures like spays and neuters. Euthanasia also may be necessary for the greater good.

We hope to see more educational outreach programs from Animal Services in the near future to keep dogs and cats from being abandoned or lost to the streets in the first place.

We also hope to see more affordable options for spays and neuters, so pet owners don’t have to make a decision between buying necessities and keeping their pets from creating babies that will be cast aside. Adoption is another effective tool for Animal Services, rescues and even residents themselves.

But those measures, whatever they may be, must be done humanely. Through it all, that must remain a driving priority.

Thank goodness we now have reason to believe that Animal Services will keep that in mind. Preventing the terrible suffering of countless generations of stray cats and dogs depends on it.

It’s an important goal that could have an effect that goes beyond the stray pets who live in this community’s shadows, suffering silently.

After all, when we make it a priority to act humanely to our community’s most vulnerable creatures, we may very well find more humanity within ourselves.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate’s editorial board.