The Albuquerque Animal Welfare Agency expects that 21,500 pets will have passed through its two city shelters by the end of the year. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Albuquerque shelters housed 17,000 to 18,000 pets annually.
Animal shelters across the country continue to be in crisis. In the early days of the pandemic, more people than usual were visiting their local emergency shelters, both in New Mexico and across the country.
People adopted pets in response to stay-at-home orders, remote work and schooling, and, some have said, out of compassion for the animals when the world seemed upside down.
But in the early days of the pandemic, veterinary services, including spaying and neutering, were curtailed, leading to an explosion in the pet population. By 2021, shelters in New Mexico and elsewhere began reporting crisis-level admissions, with adopters declining and availability encouraged. Some said the decline in adopters and fosters could be due to increases in adoptions and fosters in 2020 creating a leveling phase in 2021.
But now, in late 2022, shelters are reporting the crisis is ongoing, with a surge in pet adoptions and a decline in adopters and foster children. Carolyn Ortega, director of animal welfare at the Albuquerque Department of Animal Welfare, said some pets have been at the Albuquerque shelter for 6 to 12 months.
The reasons for the increase in intake vary. Ortega named high inflation as the main cause.
“Our capitulations have really gone up significantly. When they do, we ask why, and so many people have said it’s because of the economy. They downsize, move from home to an apartment or move in with family members, or become homeless. We’re seeing more and more people who really care about their pets who don’t have the financial means to care for them,” Ortega said.
Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society chief executive officer Jack Hagerman said another problem is that the Santa Fe shelter “has a lot of large, undersocialized animals that aren’t as desirable.”
“Larger dogs are more difficult to place. Housing is very difficult in Santa Fe. Much of what we need to place would do well with a yard. Some people don’t have a yard and can’t walk a dog three or four times a day. Part of the crisis is that those who need homes aren’t easily marketed to the Santa Fe community. Their length of stay is increasing,” he said.
The longer an animal, especially a dog, stays in a shelter environment, the more likely they are to develop emotional and behavioral problems. This can reduce their chances of adoption and retention after adoption. Hagerman told NM Political Report that the Santa Fe shelter recently had a pet resident who had been at the shelter for two years.
“We had a long term resident for two years who we finally left recently. Everyone is keeping their fingers crossed that it sticks. Even if we finally get a unicorn adopter, nobody is quite sure that he will be really successful. The longer the length of stay, the greater the return,” Hagerman said.
Hagerman said most adopters expect a short-term adjustment period, but some shelter animals have deep-rooted psychological issues and “take a good six to nine months to address those issues.”
Hagerman said, “We spend a lot of time painting a picture of the wonderful care the animals receive at the shelter.”
“It’s true. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re institutionalized. For animals, it’s a traumatic event, even if just for a day. If they’re in a heightened state of arousal long enough, the behavior will change. Just like people, if you lock a person up long enough and then bring them into the world and expect them to be successful, it doesn’t really work,” he said.
Although both the Santa Fe and Albuquerque shelters are defined as no-kill, the shelters typically kill 5% and 10%, respectively, of their animal population in a normal year. A no-kill shelter is defined as a shelter where 90% of the animals are adopted. But Ortega said the euthanasia rate has increased because of the crisis.
Ortega said the Albuquerque shelter now has about an 85% release rate.
“We’re not proud of that. We know other shelters have had a much larger drop (as a percentage of live release). We have maintained how we get to this point because of our process; that kept us at a reasonable difference. Others have seen a big increase,” she said.
Hagerman said the Santa Fe shelter has maintained its 95% release rate in live animals, but he doesn’t know how long that will remain the case.
We care about the animals in our care. We want the very best for them. Sometimes it’s best for them if they’re away from our shelter for a very long time,” he said.
Hagerman said he would like to reconsider how shelters are viewed as a way to combat the problem.
“What we know through research is that 75% of people don’t give up because of a behavior problem or because they don’t want the pet. They have acute resource problems and can no longer take care of their pet responsibly,” he said.
The model Hagerman is trying to transition to is one where people giving away a pet talk to the shelter about the issue. If the individual surrenders due to lack of resources, the shelter can help through a pet feed bank, veterinary services, low-cost or free spaying or neutering, or vaccinations. Hagerman said he hopes to cut pet donations in half by helping individuals and families keep their pets. Hagerman estimates that with resource aid, 50% of the animals would not have to be abandoned.
“Then the animals come to the shelter, which absolutely have to be there,” he said.
Animal shelters are also in crisis in 2022
Another crisis, occurring in part in response to the pandemic, is a shortage of veterinarians, which Hagerman and Ortega said is acute. Hagerman said the problem is multifaceted as the baby boomer generation is retiring and not enough people are replacing them in the field, in addition to the pandemic affecting those who are still in the workforce and don’t want to work much longer.
Veterinarians have the highest suicide rates of any industry, Hagerman said. “It’s a really tough job,” he said.
Hagerman said the crisis in this area is also affecting adoptions. He said he’s seeing an increase in pets that are injured or have chronic health issues being surrendered.
“During the pandemic, interest in adoption surged when everyone was at home. A lot of animals are going into shelters, that’s really good news for us. The community has really stood up to give us this challenge. Now many more animals need primary veterinary care and there aren’t that many vets. People struggle to get an appointment, and care costs are skyrocketing. Now they might not be able to pay for this really expensive orthopedic procedure, so they give up at the shelter because they can’t afford to pay for it,” Hagerman said.
Inflation also affects accommodation. Hagerman said he had to raise an additional million dollars because his budget had increased. He’s trying to get public money for the shelter. He also said he had to raise workers’ salaries to keep up with retail jobs, which pay more and are easier to do.
Ortega also cited a labor shortage as another issue plaguing the Albuquerque shelter and its ability to provide quality care to the animals. She said shelter staff are experiencing what she called “compassion fatigue” because they see no end in sight to surrender while the shelter is overcrowded. She said the Albuquerque shelter currently has about 950 pets waiting to be found loving homes.
“New employees have never experienced housing on this scale,” Ortega said.
This article originally appeared in NM Political Report and has been republished with permission.