Animal Shelters Overcrowded as New Yorkers Return Pets in Record Numbers

NYC reported a staggering increase in shelter occupation since the adoption surge during the pandemic emptied out many shelters. Now they have the opposite problem, too many pets for shelters to handle.

| 10 Jul 2024 | 05:19

Animal shelters are overwhelmed as more and more pet owners give away their formerly beloved pets. Adoption interest was at an all-time high four years ago, but the viral pet-return phenomenon has struck NYC in the midst of a housing crisis and record-high inflation —hitting shelters, and their inhabitants hard.

NYC’s shelters—and numerous animal shelters across the country — have reached crisis-level intake numbers, following the adoption surge from the COVID-19 pandemic. As more New Yorkers return their pets to city shelters, the fury former pets are now increasingly at risk for premature euthanasia as shelters struggle to handle the upsurge.

“Shelters are literally running out of space to house animals,” says Mallory Kerley of Muddy Paws Rescue in NYC. “[Rescues] are doing everything we can to help relieve that overcrowding, but we are facing the same challenges with a lack of adoption interest and a shortage of foster homes. We can only take dogs in when we have somewhere for them to go.”

Like most other rescue organizations, Kerley said, Muddy Paws saw pet adoptions rise in 2020, and are now seeing another increase in returns. Although she can’t directly connect the numbers to the pandemic, Kerley said there are a multitude of factors contributing to the return rate post-COVID including housing, scheduling and inability to work through challenging behavior.

“It would be easy to point fingers, or to try to blame someone or something, but ultimately, communities need to step up and work together to support their local shelters,” she said.

The City’s housing crisis, rent hikes and the high cost of living all lead into this ever-growing problem, said Steve Gruber of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals. He said that a nationwide vet shortage—along with the contentious economic climate—explains why owners are suddenly struggling to pay for medical care, proper food and insurance.

“People can’t afford to keep their pets,” he said. “There are more animals coming into the shelters than many of the shelters can even accommodate.”

The Mayor’s Alliance doesn’t house animals, but Gruber said that from what he’s heard, the idea of pandemic pets being returned is becoming a “big thing” for the nonprofit sector. The largest problem that he’s aware of, though, is the financial impact of pet ownership, he said.

New Yorkers are struggling to make ends meet, let alone care for their pets. To simply spay or neuter an animal can cost upwards of $1,000 he said, a financial burden which many people cannot afford.

Gruber also sees a lack of pet-friendly housing impacting NYC, causing owners to have to choose between an affordable apartment and their dog or cat. He hopes organizations like his can “take steps to make it easier for people to keep their pets with them, so that they don’t have to turn them in to a shelter.”

“When someone is having their own personal crisis and they have to give up their pet, it’s not good for the person, and it’s not good for the pet, and it’s not good for the City,” he said.

To encourage adoption, Animal Care Centers of NYC has all pets microchipped, vaccinated, spayed and neutered so fees remain low for potential owners. They also offer a “trial adoption period” where people can temporarily adopt a dog and see if it fits their lifestyle. Still, ACC Spokesperson Katy Hansen said, the organization—like many others of its kind—is enduring a crisis.

“We are so packed with dogs right now that we have crates lining the hallways,” she said.

The ACC has been working with the ASPCA, the country’s leading voice in animal rescue and protection, to support their shelters as well as New York’s most vulnerable animals.

“Many shelters are struggling with capacity challenges—not only are more animals coming into shelters, but many of those animals are also staying longer once there,” said ASPCA Spokesperson Alexander Craig. “By adopting or fostering a pet, you can save a life and help your local shelter, making an impact that ripples throughout shelters nationwide and creates space for more animals in need.”

In the last two months, Second Chance Rescue NYC took in about 25 dogs and 10 cats from the ACC to help ease burden from the hundreds of animals coming in each month.

“This crisis right now is just horrible, and every single shelter in the country is struggling, including right here in New York City,” said Jennifer Brooks, president of Second Chance. “People are really struggling financially, so the animals are really feeling that burden.”

Brooks said the level of care in her organization has declined due to an unmanageable number of animals arriving. The “post-pandemic time” we’re in now, she said, could be a reason why municipal shelters are seeing so many more returned pets than normal.

“I feel like, maybe, people didn’t fully think about the responsibilities of pet ownership,” she said.

Still, she agrees that the largest likely culprit is the economy, making it infeasible financially for many New Yorkers to raise their pets comfortably. While Second Chance has their own specific initiatives that focus more on medical cases, Brooks hopes to further help the ACC in reducing the record-high intake numbers plaguing the City.

“We’re trying to help the shelters as much as we can, but everybody’s kind of in the same boat,” she said. “With everything slowing down so much, we just don’t have any space.”

Gruber’s office at Animal Alliance works closely with the Mayor’s Office of Animal Welfare to address issues concerning animals’ quality of life. He said a solution to this problem comes with a myriad of factors impacting NYC, including more accommodating landlords and lower cost of living.

“You can’t shelter your way out of this situation,” Gruber said. “The best place for any pet is in the home, or with their caretaker.”

“When someone is having their own personal crisis and they have to give up their pet, it’s not good for the person, and it’s not good for the pet, and it’s not good for the City.” Steve Gruber, Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals