Talk to someone who works in pet adoption, or animal control; a pet owner or even just an animal lover, and you might hear how the Northeast is a model for animal welfare compared to “the …
Talk to someone who works in pet adoption, or animal control; a pet owner or even just an animal lover, and you might hear how the Northeast is a model for animal welfare compared to “the South.” The South is called the “wild west” where shelters euthanize for space.
It is an idea often invoked with a modifier, like “at least we don’t euthanize for space,” or “God forbid we ever have to euthanize for space.”
Over the past decade, those practices and inhumane conditions have been rare, if not unheard of. It appeared the Northeast had solved the problem of pet overpopulation through a combination of dedicated, comprehensive work in shelters, and strict controls requiring spaying and neutering of cats and dogs. Animals found safety in shelters and foster homes, from which they then found forever homes. It was a system that was stable and effective until about a year ago, when things started to change.
Liz Skrobisch, executive director of Animal Rescue Rhode Island (ARRI), says she first saw it last August. Since then, adoption numbers have dropped, animal surrenders have gone up, and the state of animal welfare has gotten increasingly tenuous. ARRI currently has as many dogs in the shelter as they can take, and a long waiting list that means it will be that way for the foreseeable future.
The Potter League for Animals, based in Middletown, has seen a 34 percent increase in intakes compared to this time last year. The Providence Animal Rescue League’s intakes from 2021 to 2022 jumped from 185 to 238. The Heart of Rhode Island Animal Rescue League in Cranston says they are down 200 adoptions from this time last year.
“We have puppies who were born in the shelter and are now four months old, and they’re still here,” says executive director Tammy Gallo.
Shelters are designed to be temporary homes, and the impact of an extended stay is immense.
“The dogs start to unravel emotionally in kennel life after so long,” says Kara Montalbano at the Potter League. That is the case even despite the attentive care of animal rescue professionals and volunteers. And for these human caretakers, the conditions are hard as well, and have only become harder as the crisis has continued, month after month.
“I’m not going to say it’s bad, because I get to do what I love every day,” Montalbano adds. “But I see my co-workers faces and we are just burnt out.”
It’s never been so bad
It’s like this across the state, in every county, in municipal shelters and in limited admission shelters alike. Skrobisch and Gallo have combined for over four decades of experience in pet rescue. They both agree with Karen Kalunian, another seasoned vet of animal rescue in the state:
“Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
“Simple answer. No,” she says
The question is why all of a sudden have conditions in Rhode Island shelters shifted so dramatically? One explanation is COVID-19.
Many Rhode Islanders adopted so-called “COVID dogs” during the pandemic. Now, with a return to in-person work and social life, those pet owners may no longer have the time or to care for their dogs prompting a bump in surrenders.
While this might be the most obvious explanation, those in the world of animal rescue seem to think it isn’t the primary cause. One clue has been that, while adoption rates have been down for all dogs, the dogs that are stuck in the kennel for the longest are often large breeds. These are dogs that are harder to take care of in general, and specifically are more expensive to own and are less likely to be allowed in rented or temporary housing.
“When the economy is challenging, people can’t afford to keep pets,” Skrobisch says.
Montalbano at the Potter League agrees. The Potter League works with those looking to surrender their pets to identify what the main impediments are, and then provide assistance to enable them to keep the pet. The number one issue, reports Montalbano, are housing costs.
The explanation goes like this: Rhode Island has a well-known housing shortage, with the lowest rate of new single-family construction in the country. Housing prices are skyrocketing, increasing the number of unhoused Rhode Islanders, reducing the number of homeowners, and forcing many to downsize. The impact is twofold: first, many rental and temporary housing units do not allow pets, much less large dogs. Second, as Rhode Islanders are forced to devote larger portions of their income to housing, they are less able to provide for the costs of a pet’s basic needs.
These costs, as well, are rising. Beyond the obvious food costs, caring for an animal means being able to deal with anything that may happen. Montalbano describes one realistic scenario for a pet owner: “Say your dog gets injured or sick, and you have to spend a night in a pet hospital. That might cost you over a thousand dollars.” What’s more, the state is going through a veterinarian shortage, and people in the industry expect veterinary costs to only continue rising.
Shelters faced with rising costs
Shelters, in place of individual owners, are currently bearing lots of these costs, particularly for pets that spend months in the shelter. The Potter League recently rescued a black pit bull in a cruelty case who needed a specialty surgery which cost $4,000. One of Heart of Rhode Island’s dogs, Penelope, just had an emergency surgery that was just over $3,000. “These things keep on going whether or not money is coming in,” Gallo says.
Between COVID, housing, a slow economy, the possibility that the state is just saturated with pets, it’s impossible to say exactly why the situation is as bad as it is. The fact that the possible factors are outside the control of those in animal welfare only makes things more difficult.
“If I had a good reason it was happening, we’d do everything in our power to correct it,” Gallo says. “But we don’t.”
While things have not been easy, the animal welfare community in the region is strong. The strength of the community was a main reason crises had been avoided in the decade leading up to this one, and it continues to be something shelters have leaned on to weather the storm.
“Even if people can’t make a big monetary donation, they do what they can” Gallo says. “We need a roll of paper towels, people come by with paper towels. They always come through.” And, while it is true that donations have not kept up with increased intakes for many shelters, all the shelters interviewed have dedicated volunteers that help with basic functions and keeping the pets in good spirits.
Jean Carlson volunteers at least twice a week at the Cranston Animal Shelter. Two year old Timmy, a pit bull, is a ball of muscle that Carlson has to dig her heels in to keep on leash as he explores the shelter yard. When Carlson takes Timmy off leash, however, he sits quietly at her feet waiting on her command. Holding out a treat, Carlson tells Timmy first to leave it, which he obeys patiently, and then to eat it, which he obeys enthusiastically. Carlson beams at Timmy, who she has trained.
“He’s the smartest dog I’ve ever met.” For Timmy, who proceeds to go sprinting around the yard before returning and calmly following Carlson out the gate for a walk, it seems like the visit – which of course includes plenty of treats – might be the best part of his week.
Volunteers like Carlson, and full time staff members, work hard to make sure animals are well cared for in the shelters. Cranston Animal Shelter Animal Control Supervisor Shelby Boudreaux says they make an effort to take the pets on car rides and field trips around town, so that they get a change of scenery and are prepared for home life when they get adopted. The work however, goes far beyond just shelter life. The model for most Rhode Island shelters looking to get pet ownership back on track is comprehensive care, including before and after pets get to a shelter.
Skrobisch from ARRI talks enthusiastically about “safety net programs” which aim to assist with problems before they force owners to surrender their pets. For instance, the Potter League maintains a clinic called Pets in Need in Riverside, which offers full service veterinary care at roughly one third of the standard cost for income qualifying Rhode Islanders.
They also have a community navigator on staff – a case worker who helps pet owners for whom outside crises have made pet ownership difficult. Clients, who for instance may be newly unhoused, often work with the case worker to find a temporary foster so that they don’t have to give up their pet. ARRI’s safety net programs include an active pet pantry that will deliver food and supplies to pet owners in need. Programs like these are much needed by the community. Unfortunately, they are usually needed far more than the programs can provide for.
Pets in Need is currently booked through December.
At the Cranston Animal Shelter with Timmy and Jean Carlson, Boudreaux is all smiles taking the dogs out into the yard, but as soon as she returns to her desk, someone comes in to report a found pet, and Boudreaux is back to coordinating who to call and where it can be kept. Later in the day the team at the shelter is interviewing someone who may adopt one of the young pit bulls who has been in the kennel since the fall.
They’re hopeful, but they also know that some of the dogs don’t show well in a kennel environment. For dogs like these, people who may be able to adopt are not always patient enough or willing to give more than one look at a dog. Karen Kalunian, who volunteers at the shelter, says this day after day work of keeping the dogs and the shelters afloat is heartbreaking.
“Those of us who work in animal welfare just don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
“I get it,” Kalunian says. “Adoption means time, commitment, love, patience, and money. But if people can’t adopt, they can still help. Volunteer just an hour a week at a local shelter, or take up a supply drive. You can even just take a moment to share a pet’s photo on Facebook, so that maybe one friend sees it who decides to adopt. All of these things help.”
So long as people keep pets, human problems will continue to become animal problems. But, while the human problems have no end in sight, and even if it’s unclear if there is any end to this particular tunnel, those in animal welfare plan to keep doing what they’ve been doing.
“There are good days and bad days” Boudreaux says. “But the animals give you unconditional love, and the good days always trump the bad.”
If you’re interested and able to adopt, reach out to your local shelter or to Karen Kalunian, who has offered to help facilitate the process for prospective dog owners, at firstname.lastname@example.org