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SC News

Animal shelters in SC swamped with strays, surrendered pets

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ABBEVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Not all pandemic victims walk on two legs. Four-legged victims are flooding area animal shelters.

The impact goes beyond finding homes for dogs. Staff at shelters in Abbeville and Greenwood are squeezed for time to work with animals to assure they remain adoptable.

Finding homes for humans is part of the problem. Eviction moratoriums started expiring in August.

People are being evicted now and often they have to surrender their pets, said Samantha Brooks, director of operations at the Humane Society of Greenwood. Up to 75% of the surrenders at the shelter are from evictions, she said last Monday.

The Abbeville shelter faces a similar situation.

In some cases, landlords opt to sell their buildings and tenants are being forced to find pet-friendly housing. Jessica Bridges, director of the Abbeville County Animal Services, has firsthand experience.

It happened to her during the summer. Bridges said she was fortunate to find pet-friendly housing. She also was fortunate that her dog is a chihuahua, so she didn't face restrictions concerning dog breeds, which some landlords require because of insurance.

Shelter staff follow Facebook and other social media sites and regularly see posts regarding pet-friendly housing, she said. With no other options, people surrender their pets.

A better option is for people to contact the shelter before they get to the point where they run out of options, Bridges said. Shelter staff can help with pet food if a pet owner has lost a job.

The shelter is a small facility, with 30 dog runs, 22 of them for large dogs, Bridges said. So far this year, the shelter has taken in more than 300 dogs. During a three-week period in September, the shelter got calls for 60 stray dogs. Staff members could have filled the shelter three times over. That is not a singular incident.

Greenwood's facility housed 98 dogs and 59 cats as of Oct. 11, Brooks said. In one hallway, up to six crates, each containing a dog, lined the wall.

Recently, the shelter was over capacity by 16 dogs. Adoptions and fosters freed up three kennels over the week, Brooks said. Then on the weekend, surrenders filled the shelter again.

In addition to dogs and cats, the shelter has cared for rabbits, guinea pigs and even turkeys. Four rabbits were taken from a shelter in Charleston that was flooded by deliveries of more than 50 rabbits and had called other shelters across the state for help. Last Monday, one rabbit hopped inside a cage in a meeting room.

WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS?

Nov. 8-14 is National Adoption Week at PetSmart. The shelter also is considering a Halloween-themed adoption event. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. Brooks said the shelter is having several promotions. They include:

— Tuesday: Early bird special for seniors. If an adopter is older than 50, they get 50% off adoptions.

— Weigh-in Wednesday: Animals' weight reduces the adoption fee. That helps with adoption of big dogs, Brooks said.

— Thriller Thursday: Adoption fees for black and white animals are waived.

— Foster Fail Friday: Any foster who wants to keep their foster animal gets 50% off the adoption fee.

— Saturday Caturday: Cat adopters get 50% off adoption fees.

Legal action is another tool for overpopulation issues. Brooks said the city and county governments are pushing ordinances to get pets spayed and neutered.

If a pet is captured, the owner will have to pay to get it back or to get it neutered. The owner can pay for spay or pay a fine. Owners have to show proof of rabies vaccination or pay for a vaccination; they have to agree to have their animal microchipped before leaving the facility; fees for boarding must be paid before the pet is released; no pet may be redeemed without having been surgically sterilized, unless the owner pays the appropriate redemption fee.

If owners opt not to sterilize the pet, they must pay a $200 fee to get the animal back, she said. If the animal is captured again within the fiscal year, the redemption fee will be $400.

So far, the choice between paying the redemption fee and getting the animal sterilized runs about 50%, Brooks said.

"I firmly believe that these kinds of ordinances eventually will prevent us from being overcrowded in the future," said Connie Mawyer, executive director of the shelter. She estimated the ordinances may take two to three years to have effect.

Another COVID-19-related concern shelter staff have faced is reduced turnout for events, such as fundraisers and adoption programs. People have been afraid to attend such events, Brooks said. Concerns arose when the pandemic first hit. It returned with a second round of the pandemic.

Any fear people might have hasn't curtailed support, Mawyer said. The community has helped by providing food and fulfilling various needs. It's a collaborative effort that's helped the shelter get through.

Brooks added that fostering and foster adoptions have increased. Both she and Bridges encourage people to foster animals to get them out of a shelter setting, even if it's only for a day or two.

Education is another part of the solution. Bridges said part of the job of shelter staff is to educate people on pet ownership responsibilities, such as spay/neuter, medical care and training.

A tabletop in the front room of the shelter is loaded down with papers providing information on pet behaviors and training. "It's a help yourself pet health desk," she said.

It's going to take a lot of effort to fix the situation on proper feeding, vaccinations, housing and medical care, Bridges said.

It's really the owners' responsibility at the end of the day, Bridges said.

Communities in the South do not have strict animal control laws, as in northern states. As a result, the South has many strays.

People rarely call about just one dog, she said. Shelter staff have dealt with calls about packs of up to 10 dogs that roam neighborhoods.

Pets that are on chains are trapped and if an aggressive dog comes, they can get hurt, she said. People might say they don't see other dogs in the neighborhood and a few months later, their female dog who was left outside starts getting fat.

"We hear a lot of people say 'We live in the country. Dogs aren't meant to live in pens; they're meant to be free,'" she said.

Abbeville officials have talked with Laurens County animal control officials regarding educational workshops for residents, Bridges said.

The shelter also works with Animal Allies and Speak for Animals, both groups that help provide access to spay and neutering services and offer discounts on procedures, she said.

HOW TO REACT

No matter how difficult things get, shelter staff always have a goal. For Bridges the light at the end of the tunnel is simple: "Every shelter worker's dream is to not be needed."

It's so overwhelming sometimes, Brooks said. Each day you leave and hope you do everything you can possibly do for every animal and you hope that you have met all of their needs.

"We can't just want to provide food and water and safety; we want to make sure they have human touch and affection," she said.

"Everyone I talk to is stressed, stressed, stressed — overcrowded with animals, staffing problems, donations. All those little things come together."

How does she keep from pulling out her hair?

"Because I love the animals. No matter how stressed you get, you just want to love them," Brooks said. "Sometimes you look at it as 'you need them just as much as they need you.'"

When she is stressed, she knows she'll feel better after taking care of the babies. The shelter even does music therapy with animals and staff listening to calming music.

"It's all about that inner peace and healing. it gives you a calm moment to regroup," she said.