On a warm August afternoon at the Animal Care Center in East Harlem, a bleary-eyed man waited in the lobby, cradling a fluffy, white dog in his arms like a baby. “I’m so sorry we can’t keep you,” he whispered to the dog, which made squeaky mewling sounds in reply. When a member of the ACC admissions team emerged from the office and secured a leash around the dog’s neck, it leapt up, wrapped its paws around its owner’s shoulders and refused to budge. As the dog was eventually pulled away, it shot one last forlorn gaze at the now teary-eyed owner, before disappearing behind the doors of the shelter.
This heart-wrenching scene has become a regularity at the Manhattan ACC, as owners who can no longer afford to feed or medicate their pets are surrendering them to the city’s shelters. “I lost my job a year ago, my wife is working two jobs just to keep us fed,” says Jay Garcia, a Harlem resident who adopted Oliver, a Golden Retriever, over six years ago. “I told my daughters we don’t have enough money to care for Ollie, and so we have to let him go. It’s one of the most painful things we’ve ever had to do.”
The Garcia family’s situation exemplifies two large misconceptions that some news reports have fueled; one, is that after a frenzy of adopting pets as companions over the pandemic, New Yorkers are now dumping these animals as social interaction returns to the norm. “Our return rate is normally around 11% and now it’s 4%, so it’s not pandemic-adopted pets being returned,” says Katy Hansen, Director of Marketing and Communications at the ACC. “These are pets families have had for years that are being surrendered.”
Hansen explains that many families are facing economic hardship and can no longer afford a pet. She lists a range of factors, including loss of employment due to the pandemic, that “the eviction moratorium and enhanced benefits from unemployment [are] about to be over,” and how “people are also moving into places that don’t allow pets.”
Another mistaken impression is that these owners are acting irresponsibly and should have carefully calculated costs before adopting. “I think that is really judgy — because you never know what is going to happen to you,” Hansen posits. “People who are surrendering their pets are deciding between feeding their family and feeding their pets, it has nothing to do with whether or not you care enough about your pet.”
A Delicate Process
At the shelter in East Harlem, rooms that house kennels for each animal are overrun, with extra new kennels propped up outside the rooms to accommodate the large volume of pets coming in day by day. In June, the ACC saw 1,393 animals brought to them, compared to 631 surrenders in February.
When a picked-up stray or surrendered animal is brought into the ACC, Hansen says the process to get them placed starts with getting examined by a veterinarian, and then every pet gets a photo put up on the ACC website. “We wait for them to decompress first, and after a few days they get a behavior evaluation,” adds Hansen, referring to how animals that come in are nervous and scared at first, and evaluating their behavior as being suitable for adoption is key.
The ACC then reaches out to over 300 rescue partners, including the ASPCA, or try to place the surrendered pets in foster homes where they get loving care and a quiet, calm environment. “The animals will be showcased, and if they’re not pulled by a rescue, they’re up on our adoption site,” says Hansen. “We also have an adoption app, and mobile events where we take [the pets] out to different parts of the city; those are really successful.”
Hansen highlights the biggest hurdle facing the ACC in getting animals placed is that they lack the manpower. “During the pandemic, shelters across the nation were sitting pretty. We had adopted out all our animals,” she laments. “And now it’s the opposite — we are full of animals and no one is coming in [to work here].” From veterinarians to medical assistants, behavioral experts and an admissions and adoption department, the ACC employs 250 staff, down 30% from before the pandemic.
Despite this, the ACC has been able to maintain a 90% placement rate. “Ninety percent is the benchmark for what people call no-kill, though we don’t use that language,” comments Hansen on their low euthanization rate. She says animals are euthanized based on aggressive, biting behavior, but determining the true nature of an animal that has been surrendered is very touch-and-go.
“It’s a really fine line because animals, especially dogs, act differently inside the shelter than they do in a home — they’re in a new environment, there’s all new smells and sounds, they’re away from their family, they’re in defensive mode,” says Hansen. “Once they get outside or in a foster home, they’re great.”
Dogs that come into the shelter with a bite history are first put on a rabies observation hold for ten days. “A lot of the dogs who have bitten get [adopted], but some don’t,” reflects Hansen.
Keeping the 10% that do get euthanized in mind, Hansen urges the public to do their part in helping discarded pets through these tough times. Aside from volunteering at the ACC or signing up to foster animals, she asks that New Yorkers bring in strays found on the streets to the shelter, and feel no shame in surrendering pets at the ACC instead of abandoning them on the streets. And, if financially able, to adopt abandoned and surrendered pets rather than buying designer ones from breeders.
Brooklyn native Melissa Gordon has another perspective on what pet owners can do. “I could never give up our [dog and cat], it would be like giving up one of our children!” she says. “We get their food for free from the ACC’s Pet Food Pantry in the Bronx, and if they do need to see the vet, we crowdfund it online or ask friends for help.” Gordon says keeping a pet at minimum cost to the family is tough but workable, and if there’s one thing the pandemic taught us, it is to keep our loved ones close at heart.