When shelters are too full to take animals in, where do they go?

By Daphna Nachminovitch

A TV news report described it as a “horror scene”: dozens of dead and dying cats at the home of a self-described “rescue” in Lutz, Florida. A woman who went there to retrieve her cat tearfully described seeing other cats’ skeletal remains and bodies crawling with maggots.

This case is not unique β€” other recent incidents include a “rescue” in Kentucky at which more than 40 dogs were crammed into cramped feces-strewn cages along with trash and dead rats and a so-called “animal hospice” in Ohio whose operators were convicted of cruelty after more than 160 neglected cats were seized.

These incidents are symptoms of an anti-euthanasia epidemic, the inevitable result of the pressure that is being put on shelters to increase their “release rates” by implementing misguided, shortsighted and downright dangerous “turn-away” policies that foster abuse and neglect.

What happens when shelters turn animals away?

Often, they wind up in hellish places like those mentioned above, where they may suffer for weeks, months or even years in filthy conditions without adequate food, water or veterinary care β€” left to waste away in misery because of an objection to euthanasia that borders on the pathological.

More and more shelters are trying to avoid making hard decisions by forcing someone else to make them instead.

They put the onus for sheltering homeless or unwanted animals on the public by charging exorbitant “surrender fees,” requiring that appointments to surrender animals be made weeks or months in advance, or simply turning away animals when they run out of space or because the animals β€” including those who are sick, injured, elderly or unsocialized β€” aren’t very adoptable.

Some shelters are refusing to accept any cats at all and are instead recommending that they be turned loose to fend for themselves.

When animals are rejected by shelters, they don’t just disappear β€” people may abandon them, relegate them to life on a chain, give them away to an irresponsible person or even kill them. Earlier this month, a man in Tampa, Florida, was caught on video opening his car door, dumping a dog out onto a busy street and driving away as the bewildered dog frantically ran after the car. Both shelters in that area have turn-away policies, including surrender fees and waiting lists.

Many shelters also put animals at risk by doing whatever they can to get the ones they do admit back out the door β€” waiving adoption fees and background checks, as well as handing animals out to unregulated hobby adoption groups, unscreened foster homes and hoarders. In Kennesaw, Georgia, one facility regularly released animals to a “rescue” that was keeping them in a derelict house with urine-soaked floors littered with feces.

So-called “rescues” and “sanctuaries” have also been implicated in horrific cases of cruelty, including abandoning, shooting, drowning, beating and even sexually assaulting animals. And animals aren’t the only ones who get hurt.

In June, a pit bull from a Virginia “rehabilitation center” β€” which had purportedly “trained” the dog by shocking him with an electric-shock collar β€” attacked and killed his new guardian’s elderly mother within hours of adoption.

Among the most shameful tactics used to bolster shelters’ “release rates” is their refusal to offer euthanasia services to gravely sick and injured animals whose guardians can’t afford to go to a veterinary clinic.

Such policies don’t offer a humane or even nonlethal solution. The animals are still dying β€” they’re just dying elsewhere, slowly and painfully, instead of peacefully and with dignity.

With some shelters refusing to do their jobs, it’s up to their constituents β€” taxpaying citizens β€” to demand that they stop prioritizing statistics over animal well-being. We must demand that municipal shelters accept all animals β€” no waiting lists, no surrender fees and no excuses.

Instead of charging people to take their unwanted animals to a shelter, municipalities need to prevent homelessness in the first place by requiring that all animals be licensed, microchipped, and spayed or neutered β€” and by implementing low-cost sterilization programs to make it easier for animal guardians to comply.

Animals aren’t just numbers on a page β€” they’re vulnerable beings, and they need our protection.