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Michigan animal shelter blames economy for rising dog surrenders

Orion the dog
Orion, a surrendered young dog, jumps on his cage to greet Lori Beard, the adoption and foster coordinator at Shiawassee Humane Society on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. Orion has been at the shelter for a few months. (Bridge Michigan photo by Makayla Coffee)

Loud barks and rustling cages erupt as a visitor enters the Shiawassee Humane Society

The mid-Michigan animal shelter in Owosso is rapidly filling, its kennels teetering on the edge of its capacity with dogs ready for adoption — in many cases after owners had to give them up because they couldn’t afford to care for them.

The coronavirus pandemic inspired people nationwide to get new pets, with 1 in 5 households acquiring a dog or a cat from March 2020 to May 2021, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Many animals came from shelters, clearing them out.

In Owosso, though, shelter workers say they’re now seeing an increase in dog surrenders by people who faced job disruptions and can no longer afford their pets.

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“It is due to people having to relocate because they have either lost their job or their unemployment ran out and they weren’t able to get a similar pay scale,” said Patrice Martin, executive director of the Shiawassee Humane Society.

Martin described a recent experience, involving a young owner who’d adopted an older dog — “a real sweetheart —  in winter 2020.

“(The owner) was excited that it was, by all measures, a successful adoption,” Martin said. “Well, she lost her job, lost her housing and was on the brink of becoming homeless. She brought (her dog) back just in tears and it was devastating that she had to do that.”

Unemployment in Shiawassee County was 5.4 percent in June 2021, according to statewide data, compared to 5 percent across the state. Yet the Salvation Army Owosso Citadel is assisting more people dealing with economic hardship, and some worried that would increase when the federal eviction moratorium was to end July 31. It now has been extended through October 3.

“We are getting dozens of calls each day from people who are homeless,” said Salvation Army Lt. Justin Steckbauer. “... I’m not surprised you are seeing dog surrenders and animals being given up.”

Martin and Lori Beard, adoption and foster coordinator at Shiawassee Humane Society,  said they also are experiencing an increase in stray dogs coming to their shelter.

Lori Beard with  Luke, a Golden Retriever and Coonhound mixed dog
Lori Beard, adoption coordinator, puts Luke, a Golden Retriever and Coonhound mixed dog, on a leash to take him back to his kennel. Luke has been in and out of Shiawassee Humane Society seven times since 2012. (Bridge Michigan photo by Makayla Coffee)

Martin wonders if it, too, could be a direct result of the economic issues she has seen from owners recently.

“If this were a loved and wanted animal, everybody knows where we are. If you really were concerned that your dog was missing,  it would not be hard to find that animal had it been found,” Martin said. “This is an assumption on my part, but it causes me to wonder if people are just giving up.”

Despite fears that owners would be returning their pandemic pets once they returned to work and were not home all day with them, Shiawassee Humane Society has seen no evidence of that.

Nationally, ASPCA reports that in 90 percent of the dog adoptions they studied the pet remains in their new home and the owners are not considering rehoming it.

“When people have to do a return, the reasons we are being given seem to be more economic hardship reasons and not frivolous reasons,” Martin said.

Returning a pet is “rarely the first choice,” Martin said.

Finding homes for pets

So far, other shelters in Michigan say, most are not seeing a similar increase in surrenders.

However, the increase — compounded by the number of strays and kitten season — makes for a full house at the Shiawassee County shelter.

Cages on a recent day were filled with 29 dogs, a handful fewer than capacity.  There also were 31 cats, with room for 14 more.

The shelter’s team of eight staff members work alongside volunteers to care for all of the animals in the facility, especially the surrendered animals that enter and are not ready for immediate adoption.

dog barks
Dogs bark and jump on the cage of their kennels. As of July 29,2021, Shiawassee Humane Society had 29 dogs in their care. (Bridge Michigan photo by Makayla Coffee)

One 4-year-old brown pit bull mix dog sat in her kennel last week, but since she is heartworm positive she has to be treated before finding a new home.

“The biggest problem that we are having right now, other than we are crowded, is (that) most of these animals that are surrendered are not coming to us in adoptable conditions,” Beard said.

“... They are heartworm positive, they’re not fixed, they require several hundred dollars of vet and dental work (and) they have tumors that need to be removed.”

As numbers in the shelter grow, the staff has to evaluate what they can realistically handle. This means that sometimes animals must be put on a waitlist before they can be accepted into the no-kill shelter.  If someone cannot wait for that list, then the group will offer resources for bigger facilities.

“(For the) majority of these dogs, being here is better than where they came from and the next step is going to be even better than here,” Beard said. “That’s what keeps us going.”

Adoption rates decline

Meanwhile, adoption rates for the shelter are still slightly lower than in 2019 before the pandemic, but the staff is hopeful that they’ll get back to normal.

When thinking about adopting an animal, Shiawassee Humane Society wants those interested to understand what they are getting into so that their next pet can find its forever home.

“Be honest and take us seriously. People think that if they come in and they admit to what their flaws are that we are going to deny them. That’s not true,” Beard said. “We are going to work harder to make sure they get a good match.”

That includes helping an adopter understand the commitment that comes with pet adoption.

“It’s super fun to get a new pet, but that dog or that cat is going to be there for the next 10,12,15 years,” Beard said. “...  Even the most perfect dog (or cat) in the world is work.”

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