PHILADELPHIA – Frustration jumped off the Instagram page:
“I’ve never seen so many people try to dump their dogs,” said Jessica Mellen-Graaf of the Philly Bully Team dog rescue.
Already overwhelmed, his rescue team had received 20 requests in 48 hours from owners who wanted to abandon their dogs.
“We knew this could happen,” she said. “I just don’t think we thought it was going to be that bad.”
In the early months of COVID-19, the near emptying of animal shelters across the country was one of the few bright spots in a dark time. Data from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals suggests that more than 23 million American households acquired a pet during the pandemic.
But pandemic restrictions have receded, and many people have begun to return to the workplace or find that COVID has otherwise changed their circumstances.
Animal advocates are now scrambling to find volunteers to take in homeless dogs. Fewer people want to adopt. And local organizations say they are inundated with requests from owners to offload dogs they no longer want or feel capable of keeping.
“It’s tough right now,” said Marta Gambone of Phoenix Animal Rescue in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.
Pet rescues and shelters help people abandon their pets due to hardship, but Gambone and his fellow advocates say many of the surrenders they see now are a different story.
These are dogs like Nate, a playful one-year-old German Shepherd recently entrusted to Phoenix by his family.
“He’s smart as a whip, he’s a great dog, but they dumped him because they don’t have time for him,” Gambone said. “He’s absolutely a COVID dog that someone bought, and now that people are going to work, they don’t want to deal with him anymore.”
Many of these “COVID dogs” are large breeds – a pet population that has become a challenge for animal shelters and rescues nationwide to foster or find homes, especially now.
“People have a puppy because it’s cute, but that puppy becomes a 100-pound mastiff or Boerboel,” Gambone said. “We’ve seen a lot of dogs that don’t fit the right match because they get too fat and become destructive at home because they don’t get the exercise they need.”
Angelica Giunta, president of Philly Rescue Angels, recently helped an owner who said he couldn’t keep his young Husky mix.
“The circumstances of my life have changed,” said the owner of the Husky, a Philadelphia professional who did not want to be named,
Giunta found a Husky rescue group willing to help find a new home for this dog. Bad luck for a young father-son shepherd couple that another owner no longer wanted.
“The rescues are so comprehensive. I hate asking for more rescues. I know how they feel,” Giunta said. “I’m at full capacity right now.”
What’s particularly upsetting for Philly Bully Team’s Mellen-Graaf and her fellow pet advocates is that many of these abandonments are the result of a lack of training — a fixable problem that some groups will even help fix.
“A lot of what we’re seeing is people struggling with their dogs with separation anxiety, which makes perfect sense,” Mellen-Graaf said. “When they got these dogs, they were home all the time. They never taught the dogs to be alone, and they never bothered to crate them. Now people are leaving their homes more often and they are seeing this anxiety that they unknowingly caused.
During COVID, many new owners couldn’t get a trainer, couldn’t afford to buy one, or didn’t know how to do it themselves. Many of these animals ended up having behavioral problems.
Freddie Mercury, a young pit bull mix – brown, with cute brown eyes and big, erect ears – was adopted by the Philly Bully team as a happy, friendly pup. But he was fired as a severely undersocialized young dog. The rescue funded a boarding and train program for Freddie.
“He had to relearn structure and boundaries — all those things he didn’t learn as a puppy when he adopted,” Mellen-Graaf said.
“He is looking for a home now,” she added. “He’s a good boy.”
As difficult as things are for shelters and private rescues, the situation is taken to a whole new level at Philly ACCT, Philadelphia’s open-admission shelter where the mission is to accept all dogs brought in and where owner abandonments are on the rise.
“It’s just a game of musical chairs every day, and unfortunately the cost is sometimes the lives of these animals,” said Sarah Barnett, ACCT’s acting co-executive director. “We need to timestamp [schedule for euthanasia] dogs that I never imagined we would need because they were dogs that we thought we were leaving – we thought we were adopting.
“Last Monday my colleague came out and there was a line.” Barnett said. “She said it looked like a Black Friday sale. It was for the surrenders.
Open shelters across the country are over capacity, the director said. ACCT recently had over 120 dogs in a space intended for 70. Length of stays are on the rise, but there are not enough foster homes or space in shelters and private shelters to give ACCT dogs more time to find homes.
The ACCT tries to prevent surrender by helping owners keep their pets — offering to pay for veterinary care or training courses, for example — but lately many owners seem less receptive.
“People have really reached their breaking point,” Barnett said. “There are different issues that are causing people to be on the brink and not open to help or assistance like they used to be.”
During this time, ACCT faced budget cuts as demands for services increased.
“That’s why everyone is reaching out to the public, whether it’s fostering, adopting or volunteering,” Barnett said. “Anything.”
ACCT, for example, often waives adoption fees. Many shelters and rescues also offer help with veterinary care, training, or other needs.
The Philadelphia branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA has the Barkfast Club, a lively team of young pittie mixes – Taz, Ty, Lexie, Lily, Leo and Ravioli. Adopting one of these high-energy dogs includes behavioral training sessions.
Maddie Bernstein, the PSPCA’s rescue manager in Philadelphia, said they were getting at least 10 requests for remission a day instead of one to three, she said.
The cats are still finding homes, Bernstein said, echoing other shelter operators. It’s the dogs, and their higher care commitments, that have a harder time.
Normally, this would still be low season for animal surrenders. Summer, with vacations and other plans, is usually the time when foster homes and adopters are scarce.
But now it’s busy everywhere, said Philly Bully Team’s Mellen-Graaf.
Like many rescues, his Philly Bully team has in the past accepted some dogs from so-called high-mortality shelters — animal shelters, often in the southern United States, where dogs are kept for a limited time and where euthanasia is common. But lately there is hardly any room for unwanted local dogs.
“I just got a text from one of our shelter partners in South Carolina: ‘Can you please take a litter of puppies? Please, please, please,” she said.
“I have nowhere to put them. But if they have to be euthanized, I have to take them. I can’t say no. They are puppies.
What to do?
“I’ll find them a place to go,” she said.
She just didn’t know where.