Local shelters dig in as animals overwhelm resources

Animal shelters in Tulare and Fresno County are scrambling to feed and house strays and abandoned pets following the COVID-19 pandemic’s toll as euthanization rates climb

A look into the Tulare County Animal Services shelter. The shelter is projected to intake over 7,000 animals for the year of 2023. Photo courtesy of the Tulare County Animal Services.
Danielle Gutierrez
Published September 27, 2023  • 
9:00 am

FRESNO COUNTY – In the two years following the pandemic, shelters and rescue groups have seen an ever-increasing number of animals coming through their doors. Although shelter workers do everything they can to make do with the space they have available to them, the fallout continues to leave an impact on not just the workers, but the animals as well.

“We are drowning, and my staff pays the price daily with our mental health,” Cassie Heffington, operations manager for the Tulare County Animal Services, said. “We keep going only because the animals need us to, and deserve the best care we can possibly provide – even if they don’t end up leaving.”

Unfortunately, in conjunction with increased animal intake comes the increased number of euthanized animals, a reality shelters are forced to accept. According to data, the Tulare County Animal Services has seen a growing number of euthanizations as intake has swelled within the last few years. In 2020, the facility reported over a few hundred euthanizations; in 2021, that number climbed up to 424 before ballooning to 1,060 in 2022.

For 2023, the number of euthanized animals from Jan. 1 to July 18 is reported at 817 – already over half of the cumulative total for last year and on pace to increase by almost 40%.

The outside of the Tulare County Animal Services building, which is located at 14131 Ave. 256 in Visalia. Photo courtesy of the Tulare County Animal Services.

“No one wants to euthanize pets,” Heffington said. “Still, we take in far more than we could ever truly accommodate, and tough choices have to be made more frequently than any of us would ever want.”

For a while this wasn’t the case, according to animal services manager of Fresno Human Animal Services Tracy Crutchfield. The shelter is located at 1510 W. Dan Ronquillo Dr. in Fresno. From Crutchfield’s account, Fresno Humane, which services Fresno County and the surrounding region, saw a significant drop in euthanization rates amid the pandemic compared to the years prior.

“Euthanasia was reserved for animals with severe medical or aggression issues,” Crutchfield said, recalling the low rates during the pandemic shutdown.

In 2018, the shelter reported just over a thousand animals euthanized, which dropped to 769 euthanizations in 2019. In 2020, the number made a steep decline of nearly four hundred euthanizations. However, since 2020, the numbers for euthanized animals have begun to climb back up.

In 2021, the number tolled a little over five hundred. It then hit 754 in 2022 and now, for the first half of 2023, is at just over four hundred euthanizations; a rise from the 323 reported for the first half of 2022. 

“As a result, Fresno Humane has been forced to increase euthanasia just to maintain open kennels for incoming strays,” Crutchfield said.

A Tulare County Animal Services shelter worker who is feeding one of the shelter’s dogs a treat outside. Photo courtesy of the Tulare County Animal Services.

However, Heffington emphasized that the numbers reported in regards to euthanizations are not just reflective of the amount of healthy pets who are euthanized for spacing purposes. The growing numbers are also reflective of animals that are euthanized due to severe medical or behavioral reasons, which has also seen notable increase in addition to animal intake.

She mentioned this because, in her words, shelters are often portrayed as “terrible places where horrible people work and kill animals.” However, she explained that this is not an accurate portrayal, saying “the staff members who work in these facilities are some of the strongest and most compassionate animal-lovers I know.”

Uptick in intake

“We are projected to intake over 7,000 animals this year, which is more than even our pre-pandemic intake numbers,” Heffington said of the Tulare County shelter’s increasing animal intake. “It is likely that we will be fighting a losing battle for many years to come.”

At the Tulare County Animal Services, the shelter has seen an increase in animal intake levels since 2020. What started as approximately 4,300 intakes in 2020 and then 2021 was followed by 5,738 intakes in 2022. 

For the first half of 2023, from Jan. 1 to July 18, there were 3,576 animal intakes at the shelter. This is already over half of last year’s total.

Despite efforts like lowering adoption costs to $20 for months at a time, waiving reclaim fees and establishing no barriers, so animal rescues can pull animals from shelters, the situation is set in stone; shelters are being faced with more animals than they can host.

“Our post-COVID reality is that animals, especially large dogs and puppies, are flooding through our doors at an alarming rate no one can keep up with,” Heffington said. She added that the shelter takes in roughly 15-40 animals per day, and only has about 50 kennels to house them in.

A worker at the Tulare County Animal Services walking through rows of shelter kennels. The shelter takes in roughly 15-40 animals per day, and only has about 50 kennels to house them in. Photo courtesy of the Tulare County Animal Services.

Over at Fresno Humane, the shelter saw an intake of over 5,500 animals in 2020. In 2021, that number grew to 5,887 and hit 6,589 in 2022. For the first half of 2023, animal intakes are at 3,325, which – if doubled for the second half of the year – would also surpass last year’s total.

“It’s interesting to note, however, that we are still below pre-COVID intake levels,” Crutchfield said. In 2019, Fresno Humane saw 7,106 animal intakes, and before that, 7,396 in 2018.

“At the same time, we are finding it increasingly difficult to adopt out large breed dogs,” she added. 

This comprehensive problem isn’t just being felt at the local level. The circumstance has developed into a national crisis, as animal services across the nation are seeing notable increases in animal intake as well. As of July, the national database Shelter Animals Count (SAC) reported there has been a 4% increase in stray intake from January to May compared to last year, and an 18% increase from 2021.

“Our partnering shelters, rescues and humane societies throughout California and beyond are all seeing more intakes and few adoptions,” Crutchfield said.

Not only are shelters filling up at a faster rate than their workers can keep up with, but the fallout is impacting the shelter’s staff and volunteers alongside the animals.

“Running at maximum capacity and having to make heartbreaking euthanasia decisions is tough on both staff and volunteers, and Fresno Humane has definitely seen its share of ‘compassion fatigue’ and turnover,” Crutchfield said.

This statement was echoed by Heffington, who noted the toll this circumstance has taken on staff and volunteers over at the Tulare County Animal Services.

“They do jobs that no one else wants to do,” Heffington said. “Despite being villainized, yelled at, bitten and traumatized, they know that if we don’t do the job, someone who doesn’t care about the animals will.”

How did this happen?

According to multiple officials, there are varying reasons why shelters are likely witnessing a growing influx of animals within the last few years. A handful of them can be traced back to the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Post pandemic, we are finding that many, many pets have gone without basic care such as spay or neuter, vaccines or even proper socialization,” Heffington said.

According to Heffington, this has led to an “immense number of puppies being born and abandoned in orchards or country roads, many of whom have parvo due to lack of vaccines.” Thus, an increased population of unsocialized animals have made their way through the doors of local shelters, with not enough rescues to host them or enough people adopting them out.

According to the animal services manager from the Visalia Animal Services, Candance Harrington, this development is likely the result of a lack of access to spay and neuter services amidst the pandemic.

Candace Harrigton of Visalia Animal Services holds puppy Muffin after facilitating a play session with other dogs. Photo by Kenny Goodman.

“That service was basically shut down,” Harrington said. “Eventually, we were able to get through all those animals and get them fixed, but there were quite a few animals in the community that weren’t because the general public wasn’t able to access that service.”

According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the world’s largest library of biomedical informatics, spay-neuter surgeries were deemed “nonessential services” by various veterinary providers in the nation, with many in California included. It was noted in a 2022 NLM study that these services were suspended along with other nonessential services when pandemic lockdowns started in March 2020.

This was because, “like their human healthcare counterparts, veterinary associations developed guidelines for triaging veterinary care during the pandemic lockdown,” the study read.

This led to a significant drop in spay-neuter rates within the span of one month, according to the NLM. In March 2020, there was a 22% decrease in spay-neuter surgeries, which then plunged to 80% by April 2020. Although the numbers have ebbed and flowed their way back up since then, 190,818 fewer spay-neuter surgeries were performed by 212 spay-neuter clinics within the 24 months of observed research.

This pause in spay-neuter services meant many animals were being adopted unaltered. Pet-owners had to make separate appointments for the service when clinics were able to offer them, and although shelters were eventually able to get those animals fixed, Harrington explained there were quite a few that did not due to limited access at the time.

“So, you had an increase in the population of animals that were breeding that – I imagine – we’ll probably see repercussions for, for quite a few years to come,” she said.

Other factors

Heffington of the Tulare County Animal Services also noted that the pandemic shutdown led to a “false saturation” of the adoption market, which severely reduced the number of people looking to adopt pets today. As an example of this, she said – over the course of a five year period – 500 households in Tulare County are expected to add a new pet to their family. 

However, when the COVID pandemic hit, 450 of those homes decided to adopt right away instead of waiting another two or three years, expediting the adoption rate so only 50 homes would be left to adopt pets within that five year period; because 450 of those “spots” were filled all at once.

“If all of those ‘available’ spots are taken up at once during the lockdown, and not spread out over time, there aren’t enough homes to go around,” Heffington said.

Not only that, but Heffington noted a steep decrease in adoptions due to the current state of the economy, which according to the Consumer Price Index from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, has seen significant increases in consumer prices in the last few years. The cost of all items – consisting of food, energy, etc. – increased by 1% from July 2019 to July 2020, it went up by 5.4%, 8.5% and then 3.2% from July 2020 to July 2023.

Heffington explained that there’s also been a marked increase in animals being abandoned or surrendered to shelters after the “pandemic induced moratorium on evictions ended, and people began being evicted from their homes.”

“This, in addition to the lack of spay/neuter during the pandemic, has led to more animals in our community, but less homes for them to go into,” Heffington said. “There’s also a national shortage of veterinarians.”

Visalia Animal Services worker Lena Cooper feeding treats to two dogs, who were found together as part of a trio in open land near the shelter’s location at 29016 CA-99 in Visalia. The dogs are speculated to have been dropped off, according to staff, who are currently in the works to locate the third.

Additionally, Harrington from the Visalia shelter said she has noticed an increased population of animals coming into shelters due to the vast land space of the local region. With more orchards and dairy farms in the Tulare County area, she said there is a higher likelihood of unwanted pets being abandoned along country roads.

Live outcomes and solutions 

Despite these factors shelters are currently facing, animal service organizations are still putting in the work to see as many live animal outcomes as they can. Crutchfield said Fresno Humane has responded to this overall crisis by reducing adoption fees, expanding to new rescue partners farther north of the state and even necessitating additional animal transports.

“Through participation in the Human Animal Support Services (HASS) program, we offer pet owners assistance with veterinary care and pet food in an attempt to keep pets in their homes,” she said. 

HASS provides access to welfare solutions that are meant to act as an extension of community animal shelters, and does so by providing both private and municipal shelters with equitable access to data-driven resources, education and implementation tools. By doing this, “HASS aims to create a movement of unified support systems for pets and their people,” the HASS website reads.

“These programs have been somewhat effective – our live release rate is still consistently higher than 80% – but more help is needed,” Crutchfield said.

At Fresno Humane, the percentage rate for live outcomes compared to animal intake is around 83%, according to reports from 2020 to the first half of 2023. At Tulare County Animal Services, the shelter manages to get approximately 85% of its animals to rescue partners, gets them adopted or gets them returned to their respective homes.

In addition to getting as many live outcomes as they can, shelters are also doing what they can to address the issue overall. 

“We are looking to the future with the possibility of gene therapy injection – for sterilization – in place of surgery, veterinary telehealth programs and many innovative ways to improve access to basic veterinary and behavior care,” Heffington said.

In the meantime, Heffington urges the public to ensure they spay or neuter their animals, keep their pets safe and confined, and do their best to keep their pets in homes instead of surrendering or abandoning them.

Dog Pepper pictured with her owner after being reunited. Photo by Kenny Goodman.

“If you can’t adopt, volunteer,” Harrington from the Visalia Animal Services said. “Donate toys and treats for while the animals are here, donate blankets. We always need blankets – most animal shelters do.”

Harrington explained that donations are a big part of assisting shelters as they continue to help animals in their care. In her words, the more donations shelters can garner, the better; that way, shelters can lower their adoption prices even further – perhaps to $5 an adoption – and increase the incentive amongst the community to adopt pets.

Visalia Animal Services staff also encouraged citizens who may have lost their pets to always search for them at all local shelters in the area rather than just the one in their respective cities. Shelter worker Tracy Everett said, even though someone might find a lost animal in the city of Visalia, they might be forced to drive it to another local shelter if the Visalia shelter is at capacity – which she noted is a regular occurrence.

Another staff worker, Ali Rogriduez, said city lines also contribute to this circumstance. Even if a pet owner lives in Visalia, if the animal is found close enough to the Tulare-Visalia city line, the animal might be taken to the animal services in the city of Tulare instead of the one in Visalia.

Harrington also attributed word-of-mouth as a helpful tool in spreading awareness on shelter adoption, and encouraged residents to share Facebook and other social media posts about shelter adoptions whenever they happen to stumble upon them.

Candance Harrington, Visalia Animal Service Manager, visits with dog Leo during a group play session. Photo by Kenny Goodman.

But above all else, she asked that citizens looking for a pet companion to always adopt from local shelters.

“If you’re looking for an animal, don’t go to a backyard breeder – come to the shelter, we will give you an animal that is vaccinated, microchipped and ready to go,” Harrington said. “In those aspects, I think the community can definitely help contribute to helping the situation that we are experiencing.”

Danielle Gutierrez