Updated: Oct 21, 2022
Read the Napa Valley Register article.
The scene is always heartbreaking – a sobbing pet owner, cradling a beloved animal companion, comes into an animal shelter to surrender a pet. But it’s happening every day now at some shelters, where the number of surrendered dogs and cats has doubled. The numbers are even higher for rabbits.
This isn’t the long-anticipated, never-materialized COVID-19 bounce that predicted the record number of pandemic-era adoptions would fall apart once people returned to the office or resumed regular life. Most surrenders, according to Oakland Animal Shelter director Ann Dunn, stem more from the rapidly rising cost of living, a pandemic-driven veterinary care crisis that has seen fewer vets and shorter hours, and a housing shortage that allows landlords to be more selective, preferring tenants without pets.
“Part of it is people not being able to afford vet care,” Dunn said. “The bigger issue is the lack of affordable housing. People are often unable to find housing or to find rentals that allow pets. Specifically in Oakland, a lot of what landlords call ‘pet-friendly’ really isn’t. Many that allow pets, don’t allow large dogs or specific breeds.”
Last year, Dunn said, the Oakland shelter took in 282 surrendered dogs and 158 cats. This year, the shelter had taken in 473 dogs and 328 cats by July.
“It’s a situation we see all the time,” said Dunn. “The landlord tells them they are going to be evicted if they don’t get rid of the animal. Many people don’t have the flexibility to move or to find a place that does accept pets. They come in heartbroken. These are people who are surrendering animals who have no other choice.”
The twin problems of full shelters and a fall-off in adoptions are plaguing animal shelters across the state, including in Napa County, according to a local county manager.
“This year will be hard; we have not been able to take surrenders because our shelter is full,” Katie Ribardiere of the Napa County Animal Shelter said Thursday. “It’s been a crisis up and down California; other places are having this same issue where the adoptions are at an all-time low.”
“Top of the list is that adoptions are stagnant, and the rescue (centers) are completely full as well,” said Ribardiere. And with other Bay Area helters similarly strapped for space, she added, “having accessibility to transfer animals to different places has gotten extremely difficult.”
It’s not just cats and dogs flooding into the shelters. Returns may have held fairly steady at the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA, but there’s one major exception. “It’s been pretty steady, except for small animals – rabbits and guinea pigs,” says communications director Buffy Martin Tarbox. “We’ve got 64 rabbits, almost quadruple what we normally have, and 27 guinea pigs where we usually have about three. It’s been a huge increase.”
At Napa County’s shelter on Hartle Court, what little free space has been available in recent months has usually been set aside for housing newly recovered stray animals, which the county seeks to keep open so it fulfills that duty, according to Ribardiere.
As of Friday, the Napa shelter was housing 202 animals, including 127 cats, 47 dogs and 13 rabbits.
Meanwhile, a shortage of veterinarians and reduced office hours – what Ribardiere of Napa County called “a nationwide supply crisis” – that began during the pandemic meant pet owners were scrambling for appointments.
The result, Tarbox believes, is that people weren’t able to spay or neuter their rabbits, and breeding got out of hand.
East Bay Rabbit Rescue works closely with the Oakland Animal Shelter, which has more than 40 rabbits in its menagerie. Richmond’s House of Rabbits, another rescue group, has 76.
Joan Wegner, president of East Bay Rabbit Rescue, says they’ve never seen anything like it.
“Our adoptions aren’t making a dent,” Wegner says. “For every rabbit adopted, there are three taking their place. Adoption interest has suddenly waned. Instead of emails from potential adopters, we are flooded with people who want to surrender their pets or need placement for a stray they rescued running loose in their neighborhood.”
Calls to help capture strays also are increasing, Wegner says.
“People think their best option is to set their rabbit ‘free,’ not realizing rabbits cannot survive in the wild,” she says. “Rabbits are being hit by cars, starving and falling victim to predators. We’ve seen an uptick of stray rabbits arriving at shelters with health issues and injuries. It’s illegal to set any pet free.”
A website called Home-to-Home allows people to list their pets for free, then sort through the offers to find a match they’re comfortable with, avoiding the trauma of having pets brought into the shelter system, where they could stay for quite a while.
“If we can keep them out of the shelter, it’s better all the way round and less stressful for the pet,” says Kelly Miott, director of Fremont’s Tri-City Animal Shelter.
Now shelters and rescues across the nation are banding together as they see more animals entering than leaving, and the increase in surrenders contributing to overall crowding at animal shelters. To help combat the trend, more than 100 shelters and rescues have joined together to launch “Share the Care,” a national campaign that encourages the general public contribute to the care of shelter pets.
“The Share the Care campaign is hoping to educate the public that by adopting, fostering, volunteering, donating or even sharing adoptable animal profiles on social media, they can help give incredible animals a second chance at a wonderful life,” says Jeffrey Zerwekh, Berkeley Humane’s executive director.
Several shelters have opened or expanded pet food banks to assist residents in their service area, offering pet food and, sometimes, discounted vet care.
“The first thing we ask,” Dunn says, when people say they want to surrender their pet, “is if there is anything we can do to help: food, supplies, medical care. From the perspective of animal shelters, it’s better for everybody if we put resources into keeping our pets. People will often say they have to surrender, but not many ask if there’s help.”
Napa Valley Register city editor Howard Yune contributed to this report.