The cash-strapped District of Columbia government has rejected a private animal shelter's offer to house temporarily about 4,500 unwanted dogs and cats that must be destroyed each year at the city's overcrowded pounds.

City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers, in a letter to the Washington Animal Rescue League, said District residents would be confused if they were told to take unwanted pets to a facility other than the government supported dog pound.

The nonprofit league had made an offer to Mayor Marion Barry to care for pets relinquished by their owners.

The city dog pound, at 1201 New York Ave. NE, takes in about 400 unwanted animals each month. Some are healthy and eventually could be placed in new homes, but most of these are destroyed because the pound usually lacks the space to keep them more than a few days.

The 66-year-old league each year finds new homes for about 1,200 unwanted pets whose owners leave them at the league's shelter, at 71 Oglethorpe St. NW. League President Elizabeth S. Kiernan said the league made the proposal because she and the league's 30-member board felt the District was wasting taxpayers' money by temporarily caring for the animals and then killing them.

But Ingrid Newkirk, the District's director of animal control, said little of the pound's $260,000 annual budget is spent on such animals because they are kept for only a short time, if at all.

Relinquished animals that are very old, sick, maimed or temperamental are deemed unadoptable and are put to sleep immediatley. If an unwanted animal is healthy, the pound will keep it several days, space permitting. The pound finds new homes for about 250 such dogs each year, or about 5 percent of all the unwanted pets it receives.

The D.C. government should have welcomed the league's offer, Kiernan said, since the D.C. Animal Control Act authorizes the pound only to collect and impound animals running "at large," not to take in unwanted pets.

But the city officicals, including Newkirk, disagreed.

In the July letter from the District government office, Rogers said that while the animal-control ordinance does not specifically direct the pound to take in dogs other than those deemed "at large" or "dangerous," the intent of the act is to offer shelter to any displaced animal, including unwanted pets.

(A lost or stray dog impounded by animal-control officers is kept a minimum of seven days to give its owner time to find and reclaim it.)

A final reason for rejecting the league's offer, Newkirk said, is that D.C. government officials are reluctant to release male dogs to the league, which does not have a policy of neutering male animals before adoption.

"The global problem here is that the dog world is overpopulated. I'm certainly not going to advocate a plan that would just put more dogs out on the streets to create more unwanted dogs," Newkirk said.

Rogers could not be reached for comment.

Still, Kiernan argues, the pound's unwanted dogs should be given a second chance. Though 90 percent of the 10,000 dogs the league takes in each year eventually are put to sleep, Kiernan insisted the league can handle the pound's unwanted animals better than the pound, mainly because the league can afford to keep such animals longer.

"Many of those dogs would probably be put to sleep, too," Kiernan conceded, "but at least there'd be a final chance for someone to come in and adopt them."

Kiernan said the league waits at least one week to put any unclaimed dog to sleep.

Newkirk said she doubts the league's proposed mission would succeed.

"The rescue league is kidding itself to think it has the miracle cure to finding homes," she said. "It won't be any more successful than we are. There just is a limit to the number of homes you can find."

Kiernan said if she is unable to convince the city that the rescue league should take over the city's unwanted pets, the group will step up its advertising so more District residents can be made aware of its services.