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Pet Adoption Soared During The Pandemic. But Now, Shelters Report Overcrowding


Remember, at the beginning of this pandemic, how many of us rushed to adopt pets, so much so that animal shelters almost emptied? Well, now there may be too many dogs and cats with too few forever homes. Here's one of those shelters in Ithaca, New York.

JIM BOUDREAU: Hey there. This is Jim Bouderau, the executive director of the Tompkins County SPCA. Today, we have 128 animals in our care - 62 kittens, 27 dogs available for adoption, and 101 cats.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's going on? Dr. Elizabeth Berliner is an associate clinical professor and the director of the Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University. And she joins us now. Welcome.

ELIZABETH BERLINER: Thank you, Lulu. I'm thrilled to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're hearing lots of reports from shelters in different places around the country that as the COVID crisis appears to be waning, people might be giving back their pandemic puppies and kittens. But are they?

BERLINER: I have to say that if we look at the actual data, it does not support that trend. What seems to be happening is that the intake levels that were present prior to the pandemic - so if we look at the data from 2019, for instance, for April and May, shelters are returning to that level of intake. I think it feels potentially more overwhelming because there's also so many other challenges at this point. But similar to other industries, recovering from the pandemic is impacting animal shelters, as well. So it's impacting animal shelters in terms of their staffing and volunteer support, which - they're heavily reliant on volunteers. It's impacting them in terms of funding. The vast majority of animal shelters are funded through philanthropy, and they fundraise for their operations. There are no federal and state dollars that support shelter operations. And so the economic insecurity that is impacting so many industries is also weighing heavily on animal shelters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So they're struggling with capacity, essentially. They don't have the money, and they don't have the people to be able to really help the same number of dogs because of what's happened during the pandemic.

BERLINER: In our ideal world, we always manage shelters at our level of capacity for care. And that is a term we use in shelter medicine to say we only want to intake the number of animals that we can provide efficient, effective, humane care.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's also been a mention that because we saw so many people adopting pets during the pandemic that there isn't also a capacity of forever homes. A lot of that just got saturated because people became first-time pet owners.

BERLINER: There's some statistics that represent that 1 in 5 pet owning homes adopted a new pet during the pandemic. And so we do have concerns about what this adoption season will look like in 2021. Having said that, the early indicators are that we are placing animals. Certainly, pet owners seem to have ever-broadening capacity to take home companion animals. I myself acquired pets during the pandemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do you think needs to happen now to help some of this overcrowding? Because I will say that just a cursory look - I saw call-outs in Houston, Indianapolis and Kentucky, I mean, shelters saying, we need help. We need people to adopt pets. We have too many animals.

BERLINER: Absolutely. And so that is first and foremost one of the ways that people can help their local shelter. If they are in a position to adopt a new pet, then, please, this is a good time to do it. Likewise, we need foster care providers. So the way that animal shelters got through the pandemic, both in terms of taking care of their people, their staff, and the animals in their care was through foster care. But we hope to see that sort of level be maintained.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is veterinarian and teacher of shelter medicine at Cornell University, Dr. Elizabeth Berliner. Thank you very much.

BERLINER: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.