Every shelter tour is hard, amazing, inspiring, heartbreaking, and exhausting, but I always learn more about the crisis of so many unwanted dogs in our country. This time we made 12 shelter visits in four states, bringing our total shelter visits to 95!
Over the next few months, I will share the stories of the incredible women and men (and dogs) we met on this trip. Their challenges are bigger than ever; we witnessed how the pandemic has affected our shelters, the people working so hard to save the dogs, and the number and kind of dogs crowding the kennels.
A few general observations:
The numbers are up EVERYWHERE. Pretty much every shelter we visited was maxed out. In some places dogs were doubled up in kennels or living in crates.
Rescues are not pulling as many dogs. Some are not pulling any dogs, and a few are closing down.
More dogs are being euthanized for space and length of stay. Numbers are creeping up and places that have not had to euthanize in years are forced to.
At its base, the problem is a simple equation – too many intakes, not enough outtakes. Supply is far exceeding demand. This post-pandemic situation is happening in businesses also as warehouses that had been emptied by the pandemic are now overflowing and people are not buying as they were. It’s one thing for a TV or appliance to sit idle for months, it’s something completely different when it is a living creature.
I have a few theories about why there are so many dogs in the shelters now – more than I’ve ever seen on any of our previous visits.
During the pandemic a record number of puppies were adopted – from shelters and from breeders (who scrambled to create more puppies, some irresponsible breeders making some bad matches in their rush to capitalize on the huge demand.)
The most common age of a dog in a shelter is between 1 and 2 years old. Why? Because teenagers are hard to deal with.
Puppies are too often adopted in a romantic rush, rather than a calculated decision. That first year is fun, so much cuteness and love. But if people don’t put in the hard work of raising a good puppy—socializing, consistent training, routines, and good management—that puppy soon morphs into a much larger animal with no manners, impulsive behavior, and too much energy.
So, it makes sense, doesn’t it? The tens of thousands of puppies adopted during the pandemic are teenagers now. People are back to work or maybe they’ve had to move (or been evicted). There is no time and possibly no place for this overgrown, unmannered puppy.
And if that isn’t enough, during the pandemic, many veterinarians ceased doing spay/neuter surgeries because they were deemed elective. That meant that more dogs (and a bazillion cats) were reproducing. And even when those surgeries started back up, the shelter was the last to be given appointments because vets need to pay their bills too and prioritize full-price paying customers.
Most of the shelters we visited had puppies. More than one director told me that finding rescue to pull puppies used to be easy, but now whole litters of puppies crowd their kennels, at risk for parvo every moment they are there.
I don’t expect this influx of too many dogs to lessen any time soon. Much like a lump of fresh food in the snake, we’ll have to wait this out.
Nancy and I talked a lot about what can be done in this moment. More foster homes would have a huge impact. If fostering is something you’ve ever considered, now would be a great time to step up. More volunteers in the shelters working with the dogs to help them survive the longer stays would save lives. And of course, more adoptions, but that is simply not happening.
Despite the historic challenge of this moment, shelter workers are rising to it. They are working insane hours for very little pay. They are driving transports, finding creative housing solutions, taking home foster dogs, and saving lives.
Everywhere we went, it was clear that leadership makes all the difference. A good leader empowers volunteers to help lighten the load of employees and relieve stress on the dogs. A good leader is willing to get their hands (and boots) dirty, doing what it takes to be sure every dog is taken care of and gets his best chance. A good leader engages their community, challenging them to get involved and take ownership in the quality of care and the outcomes for the animals. A good leader is constantly looking for ways to increase rescue partnerships, find outside sources of income like grants and donors, lessen stress on their animals, motivate and reward their employees, and educate everyone around them.
It was inspiring to see what people are willing to do to save animals, especially those places where the lives of hundreds of animals are left in the hands and heart of just one person or a handful. Those situations haunt me as I worry for the animals, but I worry more for the ACO or shelter worker who cannot possibly keep up the pace. They are taking on an impossible task, without enough resources or support to do it, and eventually that fact will have to become reality, and that reality could crush a spirit.
It is a precarious time in animal sheltering and rescue. During the pandemic so many people were looking out for each other, but in this post-pandemic time we need to support each other even more—especially the people caring for the most vulnerable animals.
Every trip we visit shelters that have to ‘euthanize for space or length of stay’ (meaning they simply run out of room or a dog stays in a shelter so long it deteriorates and has no hope of being rescued or adopted). I always ask about the numbers and sometimes those numbers can be as much as 30%, which is hard. But on this trip, we had several experiences where we not only heard the number but we met the actual dogs who were next to go, and that is not only hard but haunting.
Those dogs are here with me now, in my mind and heart. I wonder and wish for a miracle for them. Their faces are the ones that will keep driving me to work harder to tell this story because I continue to believe that we can fix this problem, but first, we have to see it, understand it, acknowledge it, and take responsibility for it.
You can say it’s just a dog, but we made dogs dependent on us long ago, so they are our responsibility. More than that, everyone who has ever had a dog in their life knows their potential and power to save the very life that saved them. Our world is richer for their presence. We must solve this very solvable problem. There are solutions – I’ve seen them. That’s why we will continue to work to raise awareness and resources for these vulnerable beings and the heroes who are working so hard to save them.
I hope you’ll join us on this journey. Subscribe to this blog, share it with others, follow us on social media, and if you’ve got a little bandwidth to spare, volunteer with us–we have projects large and small, ongoing and one-time, that you could help us with. Apply here to help.
Until each one has a home,
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Learn more about what is happening in our southern shelters and rescues in the book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, 2020). It’s the story of a challenging foster dog who inspired me to travel south to find out where all the dogs were coming from. It tells the story of how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. Find it anywhere books are sold. A portion of the proceeds of every book sold go to help unwanted animals in the south.
Watch our 30-minute documentary about rescue in western Tennessee here.