We can’t adopt our way out of this animal shelter crisis | Opinion

Editor’s note: The writer spent more than 20 years running animal shelters in North Carolina and Minnesota.

Prior to the pandemic, animal shelter leaders and advocates had come to believe that pet adoptions could not solve the problem of pet overpopulation. They worked with community partners and policymakers to shape proactive programs that could attack the root causes of overpopulation.

Accessible and affordable spay and neuter is only the best known of these programs. Others include pet food assistance, support for pets belonging to people undergoing various housing transitions, and subsidized and community-oriented veterinary care.

To address the post-pandemic shelter overcrowding crisis we face, shelter leaders and advocates must make these approaches a priority.

Bob Marotto
Bob Marotto

Adoptions and adoption specials certainly save some lives, but they are simply not sufficient to address the overcrowding caused by powerful systemic forces that both increase the number of animals needing to be sheltered and limit the capacity of our communities to find homes for these animals.

Foremost among these forces is inflation and a much higher cost of living, which includes increasingly prohibitive “pet-flation.” But they also include the end of pandemic financial assistance from the federal government and the end of many forms of rental assistance and eviction moratoriums.

In these circumstances, focusing only on adoptions, as far too often still happens, means that shelters will continue to be stretched well beyond their operating capacity. Whether or not so-called “space euthanasia” is being performed, it will certainly be a concern in managing shelter numbers.

This is why more proactive approaches must be made a basic part of shelter programming and operations — even though doing so is a tall order.

Shelter leaders and advocates must intentionally mobilize social and financial support for proactive programs. They must get the ear of policymakers and administrators, educate the general public as well as potential donors, and strengthen their collaboration with other groups concerned about pets and their people.

In all of these endeavors, they should underscore that shelters are trying to recover from the dire impacts of the global pandemic as well as struggling with economic stresses and strains.

A prime example is community oriented spay and neuter, which was quite literally halted during the height of the pandemic to preserve surgical supplies and then only slowly resumed. As a result, there is much lost ground to make up in reducing the number of unwanted litters of cats and dogs in our communities.

Similarly, most shelters had no choice during the pandemic but to reduce their numbers by diverting or delaying animal intakes. Because admission was managed this way, many pets ended up in a precarious status. Eventually, some were relinquished or even abandoned as households coped with inflationary pressures and a challenging housing market.

In addition, many adoptions that were encouraged to assist shelters at the peak of the pandemic have not lasted. As people return to their workplace — a transition that is far from complete — and contend with economic pressure, some have decided they need to give up adopted pets. The experience of these “pandemic pets” highlights the problem of relying too much on adoptions to relieve population pressures.

It is imperative that shelter leaders and advocates consistently and vigorously make the case for much more robust proactive programs. Programs that help pet owners retain their pets and that reduce the number of unwanted litters can actually stem the overcrowding shelters are experiencing and address the roots of pet overpopulation.

Bob Marotto lives in Rougemont, N.C. From 2005-2021 he directed Orange County Animal Services in North Carolina. Prior to that, he managed the City of Minneapolis Animal Care and Control Program.