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Animal shelters fill with cats and dogs across South Carolina

dogs in cage at animal shelter
Neon Tommy

Too many animals, not enough space — that's been the mantra of humane societies and shelters throughout South Carolina for months.

The Charleston Animal Society on Sept. 1 called the situation a state of emergency, saying that almost every shelter in the state is "at the breaking point."

Dorchester Paws took in 21 cats and kittens on Aug. 27 after a home burned down in Summerville, maxing out the already at-capacity shelter. In nearby Moncks Corner, Berkeley Animal Center has been in their new, larger building for a little over a year, but has so many animals it has resorted to using pop-up cages.

The Horry County Animal Care Center in Conway has had to temporarily close to treat animals after taking in over 170 animals in August.

Shelters all over are experiencing overwhelming numbers of animals making it difficult to keep up to give them homes.

In the Upstate, Greenville County Animal Care has so many animals it is euthanizing some for space — something they hate doing, said Paula Church, the shelter's community relations coordinator.

She said they look at animals with behavioral issues — for example, if a dog had bitten a child — and severe medical issues that would require lots of time and expense.

"If we had the time, we could find placement for them," Church said. "But we don't have months and months to find space for animals that have behavior and medical issues."

Part of the problem was caused by the winding down of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, which at first took the burden off shelters as more people adopted pets to keep families busy or to be company for employees working from home.

Joe Elmore, president and CEO of Charleston Animal Society, said shelters had been anticipating intake numbers to increase after that initial adoption surge. When lockdowns first began in 2020, the American Veterinary Medical Association recommended all veterinarians in the country pull back from elective procedures, such as spaying and neutering, so it would not tax the healthcare system.

"We usually do about 10,000 surgeries a year," Elmore said. "But in the spring of 2020, when hospitals were overwhelmed, we stopped doing those elective type of procedures. We only did what was necessary and pulled back the number of public spay-neutering."

Elmore said shelters are now seeing the results of putting off those surgeries, with more animals being born than there are people who can keep them.

Other factors also are at play. Of the 75 animal shelters in South Carolina, 75 percent of them do not have a veterinarian on staff, according to Elmore. This makes adoption harder because state law mandates the animals cannot be adopted unless they are fixed.

State law also says an animal that is brought to a shelter must be held for five days before being treated.

As people move in, animals move out

In areas like Charleston County, growth and development are also a factor in overcrowding. As more people and buildings push strays and feral animals out of their natural habitat, more of those animals are surrendered to shelters.

"We get calls from time to time here with people saying, 'I've gotten deer in my yard, and I've never had deer in my yard.' It's because they're being flushed out from the development," Elmore said. "The same thing will happen with feral cats and dogs. Folks will then start calling animal control, animal control will go out and start bringing more and more of these animals in."

Dorchester Paws, which has been operating over maximum capacity and been "in crisis mode" all summer, understands that growth and development in the Summerville area is having a huge impact on animals. Danielle Zuck, marketing and development director, said there are plans for Dorchester Paws to get a new, bigger building.

"Our building was designed to be a holding facility 50 years ago," Zuck said. "It was not designed to have taken 4,000 animals a year, and that's the number that we're anticipating taking this year, if not more."

Usually, Dorchester Paws takes in about 10 to 15 animals per day on average, Zuck said. Recently, it has been taking in 15 to 35 animals per day. That, combined with slower adoptions, is playing a big part in the overcrowding of the shelter.

"We're constantly playing this jigsaw game of animals," Zuck said.

Not only is the building old and too small to accommodate all of those pets, it also is in a flood zone. Every time it rains, Dorchester Paws is flooded and the animals in kennels are stuck standing in water, Zuck said. The staff has to take buckets to try and empty the shelter of floodwater.

In December, Dorchester Paws purchased land along Highway 17A — not in a flood zone. Now they're in the midst of a financial campaign to help fund a new building on the property, one that will include a spay and neuter clinic. They are still in the process of figuring out the cost of building, but it's estimated to cost somewhere between $3 and $8 million.

Zuck said Dorchester Paws is excited the new location will be in a growing neighborhood, right by the Palms and Summer's Corner.

"Summerville is one of the fastest growing cities," Zuck said. "We need the shelter badly in order to provide for the new population that's coming in."

A new building will also help Dorchester Paws elevate its status as a shelter, she added.

"A lot of people still don't know that Dorchester Paws exists. They either call us the pound, or they don't know where we're located," Zuck said. "A new shelter will just bring this brand up and elevate our mission for the animals."

Right now, Dorchester Paws has over 400 animals in their care, with almost half of them living in a kennel or pop-up in the shelter.

Zuck said the shelter has made Dorchester Paws' adoption process simple over the past year to try and incentivize people to adopt: just a one-page application, reduced fees and a conversation with an adoption counselor.

"We have removed all barriers from the adoption process," Zuck said. "We want animals to be placed in loving homes."

Zuck said it is hard to say why adoptions have been slow, but there could be several reasons: summer vacation, back-to-school, current world affairs.

One thing that isn't a factor is a significant uptick in pets adopted in 2020 going back to shelters. Elmore said it is a myth that people surrendered their animals as soon as they returned to work.

"We saw some people who were returning to work actually coming back to adopt a companion animal for the animal," Elmore said.

As a result of most shelters in the state being overcrowded, some are partnering up to ship animals to others that don't have as many animals.

Elmore, of Charleston Animals Society, said they've started a statewide transport program where his staff takes animals to other local shelters, and even ones out of state. Some shelters Charleston Animals Society partners with include Hallie Hill Animal Sanctuary in Hollywood and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals.

Church, of Greenville County Animal Care, said the shelter partners with rescue organizations almost daily to transport animals to other shelters. Some organizations they partner with include the Animal Sanctuary Society (New Jersey), Hearts of the North Rescue (Minnesota), Jackson's Legacy (New York) and Lovable Mutts Adoption Center (Pennsylvania).

Tiffany Hoffman, event coordinator for Berkeley Animal Center, said the shelter is lined up with pop-ups.

"As much as I don't want a dog in a pop-up, it's still saving a life," Hoffman said.

The center has recently relocated to a bigger building with more amenities, including a surgical suite, a meet-and-greet room and play yards. After being in the new building for 14 months, Hoffman said the staff are grateful they now have more space and are able to not just take better care of the animals they have, but also take in more.

"We are able to care for more animals, but with that, we need more fosters. We need more volunteers, more adopters," Hoffman said. "With (the new building) comes the need for the community."

Hoffman said there are many community members that already help. Those who foster pets are essential.

"We have a very hardworking staff, but we could not save the thousands of animals without the fosters," Hoffman said.

Hoffman said fostering from Berkeley Animal Center is completely free, and they have a 24/7 phone service for fosters in case they have questions about the animal they're taking care of. She said the center also provides food crates and medical care.

"We literally give everything needed," Hoffman said. "They just have to give the love."

Hoffman said the staff — a group of just over 10 — often fosters animals as well.

"Our staff work here because they love animals," Hoffman said. "If you work in animal rescue, if you work in an animal shelter, you do it because of your love of an animal."