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Animal Shelters Grapple With Surge In Surrendered Animals

Meadow was surrendered to Pet Central Helps when her owner was diagnosed with terminal cancer
Meadow was surrendered to Pet Central Helps when her owner was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Animal shelters across the country are reporting a surge in surrendered animals. That's true in central Illinois, too. Shelters throughout the region have seen a significant rise in numbers, leading to overcrowding in many facilities, prompting many in the shelter industry to ask: What’s going on?

According to the American Society for the Protection of Animals (ASPCA), pet adoption soared during the pandemic, with 1 in 5 families bringing a new pet into their home. But as COVID restrictions ease and people head back to work, shelter managers have started to wonder if families are giving up their so-called pandemic pets.

Alex Knightbright, of Wish Bone Canine Rescuein Bloomington, has good reason to wonder.

“We have a dog in every kennel and a dog in every office up front,” said Knightbright, who currently shares his workspace with a dog named Roger.

Wish Bone has 32 dogs in its facility, with four more scheduled for intake. In normal times, the shelter would top out somewhere in the high 20s. While that may seem like a small increase, Knightbright said it's significant in terms of the time and resources required.

Knightbright stops short of attributing the high numbers entirely to the pandemic, but said when it comes to animals being surrendered to the shelter, many are dogs that fall within a particular age range.

“There have been community dogs that just happen to be of a certain age — between 10 months to a year and a half — that look like they got adopted out during the pandemic,” Knightbright said.

McLean County Animal Control serves as the primary intake for many of the dogs and cats that end up in area shelters. The county didn’t respond to request for comment as to whether it keeps data on the reasons for pet surrenders. But according to publicly available data, the number of dogs surrendered by owners to animal control has actually fallen over the past year and a half. Cat surrenders have increased.

Jane Kahmen, the shelter manager at the Humane Society of Central Illinois(HSCI), said she's seen a similar uptick in animals, but doesn't know where it's coming from.

“I have discussed this with a lot of my partners from different animals controls around central Illinois. And none of us can really figure it out,” she said.

While it's possible the pandemic is playing a part, Kahmen said, she cautioned that people surrender pets for a lot of reasons. One family recently had to return a dog to the HSCI when a tree fell on their home, leaving them with nowhere to stay.

There are similar stories at Pet Central Helps in Normal. Director Lisa Kitchens said the shelter recently received a pair of English Coonhounds after their owner was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Now the dogs, Meadow and Willow, sit in side-by-side kennels waiting for a new home.

Kitchens said the idea of people returning their pandemic pets in droves may be an easy narrative, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

“The national data does not bear that out at all,” she said.

According to the figures from the ASPCA, of the 23 million people that adopted pets during the pandemic, the overwhelming majority said they still have those pets in their homes. Ninety-percent of dog owners and 85% of cat owners surveyed say they intended to keep those pets. Kitchens said shelter numbers simply may be returning to pre-pandemic levels. And without hard data to support the idea that people are returning pandemic pets, she has to reject the claim.

As with many things related to this stage of the pandemic, it’s difficult to determine the root cause of what’s driving up numbers in animal shelters. But what shelter managers do agree on is the need to provide pets — and humans — with the tools they need to succeed.

“What we find is that most people don’t want to give up their pets if they access medical care, or if they can access training,” Kitchens said.

Kahmen, of HSCI, said even small interventions — like crate training a dog — can mitigate problematic behaviors and increase the likelihood of the animal staying in the home.

And pet owners should remember that pets have dealt with change and uncertainty throughout the pandemic, too, according to Knightbright. Just like their human counterparts, animals might need a little time to readjust.

“If your dog is experiencing behavioral difficulties or having trouble staying home by themselves, it’s probably because they haven’t had to do it for a little while,” he said.

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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