A surge in animal adoptions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic has turned into a crisis for Volusia County animal shelters, as high housing prices, inflation and a shortage of veterinarians are all contributing to record numbers of pet owners giving up their animals.
Hurricane Ian just made it worse.
Karen Spaulding, executive director of the Southeast Volusia Humane Society in New Smyrna Beach, has worked in animal welfare for 30 years. She said she has never seen an animal-housing crisis as severe as the one the county is facing now.
“Halifax is at max capacity. New Hope is at max capacity. Edgewater is almost [at] max capacity,” Spaulding said. “Even the rescues are at max capacity. I’ve never seen it where everyone is at max capacity for this duration of time.”
Combined, Halifax Humane Society, the West Volusia Humane Society, and the Southeast Volusia Humane Society can house a total of approximately 575 animals.
Spaulding cited financial constraints as the reason behind most animal surrenders.
“Many of the calls that we’re getting nowadays have to do with finances. The people are having to move, because they can’t afford to live where they’re living,” Spaulding told The Beacon. “But it seems to be at a much higher rate than prior to COVID happening. … And then, on top of that, you have so many people adopting less because of the financial constraints that they’re experiencing … all more complicated by the hurricane.”
Spaulding said people are desperate.
“One of the things that’s happening is people are dumping animals, just turning them loose, because they don’t feel like they have any other options. So we’re getting a lot more strays in,” Spaulding said. “The other option is, we’re getting a lot more requests for euthanasia. Because people have no other options, and they can’t afford to take their animals to a vet.”
Financial hardship isn’t the only problem.
According to Adam Leath, director of Public Protection for Volusia County, which includes Animal Services, lack of access to veterinary care has been one of the largest factors in the increase in surrenders.
“It is really challenging for pet owners to get access to veterinary care, and care for preventative medical problems. … There’s a veterinary shortage crisis across the country. We do not have enough veterinarians to meet the demand of the rising population and their associated ownership,” Leath said.
And, sometimes, owners who were excited to adopt during the COVID-19 pandemic have realized pet ownership wasn’t for them.
Barry KuKes, the community outreach and marketing director at Halifax Humane Society, said that some pet owners feel their jobs are finished, now that the height of the pandemic has passed.
“People really stepped up and adopted a lot during COVID. And then when COVID has to calm down now, in some people’s minds, it’s gone,” KuKes said. “They’re returning animals because they don’t need them anymore, or they can’t care for them any longer, because they’re going back to work and traveling and so on.”
More than 23 million American households — approximately one in five — adopted a dog or cat during the pandemic, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
KuKes was baffled by some owners’ reasoning for surrendering their animals.
“You wouldn’t think people would return an animal after being with it sometimes as long as two years. And then just say, ‘No, I don’t [need it].’ We’ve had people be as coarse as saying, ‘I don’t need this animal anymore.’ What’s wrong with you?” KuKes asked. “Why did you get the animal? Yeah, they just wanted some company, and now I’m going back to work and I don’t want to deal with it. Well, you adopted for the wrong reason to begin with.”
Victoria Figueroa, director of the West Volusia Humane Society, said her shelter has seen the same thing.
“We also noticed, as the prices of things were starting to go up, once that inflation went up, we noticed that there were a lot more surrendering when it came to pets that had, you know, medical needs, or that were having a little more issues, people weren’t as willing to kind of be as attentive to those needs as they were before,” Figueroa said.
The increase has taxed, not only the capacity of shelters, but the emotional capacity of workers, as well.
“Animal welfare is a really, really tough industry. In general, there’s this thing called compassion fatigue, and secondary post-traumatic stress, those kinds of things that animal shelter workers experience generally,” Southeast’s Spaulding said. “I think during this time, they’re more susceptible to it, not because of necessarily the surrenders, but because … there’s also a lot of abuse and neglect cases going on, that we’re getting way more animals coming in from seizures.”
KuKes, at Halifax, concurs.
“It takes its toll on, especially, admission staff, because they’re trying to help people. … The admission side is the sad side of the building, because it’s typically somebody who’s coming in to surrender, somebody who found a stray dog, but they don’t want that and they can’t take care of, or they’re looking for a lost pet,” KuKes said. “Well, if you add, you know, double or 30 percent more surrenders happening, that’s that many more people you are dealing with that you are trying to convince not to do something.”
Figueroa observed this in the West Volusia Humane Society staff, too.
“They get worn out, especially when having to deal with trying to be sympathetic to the public and not getting the same reception back,” Figueroa said. “It does become an emotional toll on you, because you are trying to do what you can, and when you hit a path that has that block up, that wall and you can’t get past it, it’s hard. It is hard for you as an animal care worker.”
This decline in mental health can also be seen in the veterinary field, where there is high pressure on the few available veterinarians, along with severe compassion fatigue.
“Suicide in the field of veterinary medicine is quite high. It is a huge burnout,” Leath told The Beacon. “Rarely do you see a field of study where you’re trying so hard every day to make a difference in the lives of pets. And then you’re also in the exact same position to have to be considering euthanasia.”
Animal shelters across Volusia County are urging the community to find alternatives to surrendering their animals.
“We went out there on social media and other methods and said, ‘Please don’t surrender your animals. Try to find an alternative. Try to rehome your animal. … If [somebody says], ‘I’m gonna surrender, because I can’t afford food to feed my dog.’ We’ll give you the food. Here, we’ll help you. Just don’t surrender your animal,” KuKes said.
“It’s very easy over the last couple of months to reach capacity,” Figueroa said. “Adoption has been a little slow, and the surrendering has been a little high. It’s not balancing out.”
To add to the problem, reaching max capacity has taken the shelters to their limits financially.
“An increase in intake means that the limited resources that any one shelter has available is going to be less,” Leath said. “It’s difficult for them to continue to operate.”
Now, more than ever, Volusia County’s animal shelters are relying on the help of the community, even for individual animals.
For instance, the Southeast Volusia Humane Society is seeking donations to cover the cost of amputating a dog’s leg.
Ian, named after the hurricane he was found running around in, is about a year old. He lost his leg because of a long-untreated shattered knee.
A black-and white-shorthair that may be part Boston terrier, Ian weighs about 30 pounds, and loves to have his belly rubbed. Visit the Southeast Volusia Humane Society website to find out how you can donate to help Ian and his sheltermates.
The Halifax Humane Society and West Volusia Humane Society are also looking for donations. Information can be found on their websites.
If you cannot donate monetarily, you can donate your time. All of the shelters are seeking volunteers.
“We love our volunteers. … It is a rough time for animal welfare. We surely appreciate compassionate people,” Spaulding said.
If you see an animal in need or need pet-related resources, call Volusia County Animal Services at 386-248-1790.