October 28, 2021

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Houston animal shelters near critical capacity levels due to COVID surrenders, evictions

Many of the companion animals that quarantined Houstonians adopted last summer are being returned, overwhelming already crowded shelters.

Owner-surrenders linked to a rise in evictions — combined with a decrease in adoptions and an uptick in abandoned pets — are filling shelters again, and taking a toll on animals living there.

The summer months are typically challenging because mating season means more animals. But this summer has been especially difficult for most area shelters and officials fear it will get even worse.

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The Houston Humane Society has seen an influx in COVID-related owner surrenders, causing the shelter to reach near critical capacity, said Angelina Saucedo, marketing director. Saucedo said she commonly sees owners surrender their animals due to time constraints, mostly because they are returning to the office or traveling again.

Molly comes to mind. She is a 3-year-old tabby who was at the shelter for nearly a year before finally being adopted in July 2020.

Molly (46843145), one of longest-staying pets at the Houston Humane Society, who was recently returned after being adopted in her kennel at the Houston Humane Society, Wednesday, August 11, 2021, in Houston. Many Houston-area shelters are inundated with intakes due to COVID, evictions and abandoned animals.

Karen Warren / Staff photographer

It seemed to be a perfect match — a loving family with kids who wanted a low-maintenance animal. She was returned in March when the adopters took a road trip to visit family out of state.

“That was just devastating,” Saucedo said. “Now she is back where she started and she is a harder-to-adopt animal.”

The process of surrendering adopted pets not only takes a toll on the shelter and its staff, but also the animals.

“It affects them. They go to a home, they become comfortable with a family and have companionship and then she comes back and she’s a little more timid now, a little more scared,” Saucedo said.

Molly is not alone. Many of the pandemic puppies that were adopted last summer are being returned as full-grown dogs, which are much harder for the shelter to adopt out. The shelter had 106 adopted animals returned last summer; that number has jumped to 163 this summer.

Some shelters have strict vetting processes for adopting animals, which also sometimes delays getting them into homes. The Humane Society requires vet records of all the other animals present in the adopter’s home. It also requires a pet meet every family member living in the home; information on the adopter’s housing; shelter staff also speak with landlords to ensure the property allows animals and certain breeds; and they require the animal to be housed indoors.

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Harris County Pets, which is a municipal open-admissions shelter, mainly requires an adopter be at least 18 years old, according to Eddie Miranda, senior public information officer for Harris County Public Health, which oversees the shelter. He said some adopters openly share information, such as vet records of their other animals; the shelter does inquire about owners who have returned an animal before.

Montgomery County Animal Shelter director Aaron Johnson said many inundated shelters are aiming to make the adoption process as easy as possible so that they can get more animals into homes.

Clara, left, and Jinx, right, siblings up for adoption at the Houston Humane Society, Wednesday, August 11, 2021, in Houston. Many Houston-area shelters are inundated with intakes due to COVID, evictions and abandoned animals.

Clara, left, and Jinx, right, siblings up for adoption at the Houston Humane Society, Wednesday, August 11, 2021, in Houston. Many Houston-area shelters are inundated with intakes due to COVID, evictions and abandoned animals.

Karen Warren / Staff photographer

Saucedo worries about the impact of the return to school, a time that often leads to more intakes as families become too busy to care for their pets.

Harris County Pets has seen fewer COVID-related surrenders, according to Miranda.

But like Saucedo, he’s worried about the coming weeks. Hurricane season and storms can lead to large influxes.

“Any time we have flooding issues or storms, we are still going to see a lot of intakes.”

Harris County Pets most recently reached critical capacity in the days after the July Fourth weekend, when it reached 741 animals; it can comfortably care for 525. It is sitting at 430 as of Aug. 9.

The Montgomery County Animal Shelter is now operating at critical capacity, with staff having to triple and quadruple the number of animals per kennel.

The shelter can comfortably care for around 490 animals; in an ideal world where animals would not have to be grouped to more than one per kennel, that number is right around 330. As of early August, it had more than 650 animals in its care.

‘The worst it’s been’

On a sweltering July weekend, officials with the Pasadena Animal Shelter found a German shepherd mother tied to a tree, her puppies left free to roam next to a busy road in an area where coyote sightings are common. She was one of 14 animals abandoned outside the shelter on that weekend alone. Other shelters reported more abandoned animals as well.

“We cannot keep up with the flood of animals coming through our doors,” Marketing Communications Manager Carey O’Connor wrote in an email to the Chronicle.

She added the cruelty cases the shelter has seen have also contributed.

“In this area of the country, animals are neglected, abandoned, and abused in record numbers, and this year is the worst it’s been,” O’Connor said. “In social media forums for shelter professionals, the stress is palpable.”

Similar to many Houston-area shelters and rescues, the Pasadena shelter heavily relies on transports to send animals across the country, especially to the Northwest, where adopters are on wait lists. They are also working on creative adoption campaigns to get more animals into homes, such as its new “Doggie Date program.”

Clara, left, Jinx, and Carla, right play together in their kennel at the Houston Humane Society, Wednesday, August 11, 2021, in Houston. Many Houston-area shelters are inundated with intakes due to COVID, evictions and abandoned animals.

Clara, left, Jinx, and Carla, right play together in their kennel at the Houston Humane Society, Wednesday, August 11, 2021, in Houston. Many Houston-area shelters are inundated with intakes due to COVID, evictions and abandoned animals.

Karen Warren / Staff photographer

The pandemic’s financial toll has played a critical role in the increase of intakes, mostly due to evictions. HHS and MCAS have both seen a rise in people unable to care for their pets due to losing their homes or other financial struggles.

Johnson said another common explanation for owner surrenders these days is that residents say they aren’t home enough. He argues that especially during the summer months, those pets would most likely be better off in a home where the owners are not there often than in an overcrowded shelter, grouped with multiple animals to a kennel, where the threat of disease is present.

“Whether if it’s a shelter that has to euthanize for space, or a shelter encountering disease problems and the animal is not vaccinated and gets sick and ends up getting euthanized or something like that, they are essentially playing with their pet’s life.”

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Johnson said shelters are seeing more disease, particularly distemper. It has been especially present ever since Harvey, but “this year it’s just been hitting everybody kind of hard.”

The issue is certainly present in Houston: the city’s municipal shelter, BARC, had to close its doors in June and July due to a distemper outbreak.

Johnson added parvo has also been seen more commonly in shelters. He is pushing for a new facility that is critically needed to keep up with the county’s growth.

“We are growing so much up here that we really aren’t able to keep up,” Johnson said. “And this shelter, it’s not big enough, it’s old, it’s just falling apart.”

Johnson said he is hopeful the community becomes more mindful of the impact their actions can have. 

“It’s like getting a child. You don’t end up giving your child up because you’re moving or something like that,” Johnson said. “If they would just try, try to find a rescue or try to rehome the pet….(now) is probably the worst time of year to do it (surrender an animal).”

All of the shelters mentioned in this story are working to get pets out through adoption events, including the upcoming national Clear the Shelters event, and are in need of fosters, adopters and volunteers. For more information on the Houston Humane Society click here. For Montgomery County, click here. For Pasadena Animal shelter, click here, and for Harris County Pets, click here.