Arizona animal welfare community faces overpopulation issue
Vickie Lee was in her home when she heard one of her children screaming. When she went to check up on them, she saw Mika, her female purebred Shiba Inu, attacking Taiyo, her male corgi-Chihuahua mix.
“I had one dog outside and another dog inside,” she said. “One of the kids opened up the backdoor, and [Mika] just flew at the other dog… That was just a really tense moment.”
Lee had Mika for six years before Mika’s behavior started to become aggressive toward Taiyo.
“He’s smaller than her, so she was just going after him,” Lee said. “It got to a point where we had to keep them separated at all times.”
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She kept them in different rooms, had them take turns being out of their kennels and even hired a trainer to work with Mika’s behavior. The trainer determined that Mika was perfectly fine, but said Mika specifically hated Taiyo.
The trainer advised Lee to either keep working with Mika, trying different techniques like slowly introducing the dogs again, or to rehome Mika.
Lee continuously made efforts, and payments to the trainer started to add up. She eventually decided to rehome Mika for her and the family’s well being.
“I was concerned about [Mika]” she said. “When she cut her nose trying to get out of the crate, that was the moment when I was like, we can’t just keep switching them out of the crates… She’s not happy. She’s hurting herself.”
She made a Facebook post saying she was looking to rehome Mika. Through Facebook, she found Mika a home.
Hundreds of posts flood animal welfare Facebook pages daily, and even more people flock to local shelters, each looking to rehome or surrender their pet for various reasons.
While Lee decided to rehome Mika for behavioral issues, many other Maricopa County residents are faced with having to give up their furry companions out of economic necessity, contributing to the larger overpopulation issue in the animal welfare community.
A COMMON THEME
According to Kimberly Powell, Maricopa County Animal Care and Control spokesperson, 1,657 animals have been surrendered to their East and West shelters from January 1 to November 15, breaking 2021’s record of 1,545 pets surrendered in total.
As a result, Maricopa County Animal Care and Control (MCACC) is looking to fill a brand new position after experiencing an increasing amount of pet surrenders.
“We’re seeing people not wanting to give up their pets, but they’re having to do it because they feel they have no other way to go,” Powell said. “They’re struggling financially, they lost their job, they’re in between jobs, they’re having to move out of state—stuff like that.”
To alleviate the problem, MCACC is currently interviewing for a new position called a shelter diversion specialist.
“Our director has a background in social work, and he thought this could be a good position,” Powell said. “This is something that we’ve seen be successful at other shelters, so we thought we should give it a try.”
The shelter diversion specialist’s job will be to work with pet owners looking to surrender their pets and help them find other options that would allow them to keep their animal.
“We also would have that person help them navigate the county system because the county offers a lot of services for people who are struggling financially,” Powell said. “[The shelter diversion specialist] will be able to help them with those things because it can be confusing, and so this person will basically be an expert on that.”
After strays, pet surrenders are the second highest type of intake at the county shelters, making up 17% of their total intake over the counter.
Within the past few months, MCACC has been facing waves of overflow at their shelters. In September, MCACC had 14 days where they had over 800 animals in their care, when they only had 755 kennel spaces.
“When it comes to overflowing… it was all hands on deck,” Powell said. “We had people in the finance department and the IT department—everyone was cleaning kennels, feeding and helping where they could just to make sure all these animals were comfortable. Then we also turned to our rescue partners.”
With MCACC facing overwhelming numbers, some rescue organizations are stepping up to help.
The Phoenix Animal Care Coalition, or PACC911, is the hub for animal shelters and rescues across the state. While it’s not a government-funded organization, PACC911 works to find homes for excess animals brought to the county shelters by tracking down animal welfare groups that have space.
Bari Mears, founder of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, said the animal welfare community is “trying as hard as they can to pull [animals] from the county [shelters]. The county and humane society, which were always the go-tos for the public, are no longer go-tos.”
The MCACC has experienced such high intake that it has had to suspend walk-in drop offs of pets and set up an appointment system to reduce the chances of another overflow.
The need for animal care and space has grown so much that even breed-specific nonprofit animal groups like Boxer Luv Rescue have been taking in dogs other than boxers when the need arises.
“Our objective is to save those pets, get them out of the shelter system, bring them in and do what we need to do to help them so they don’t have to be euthanized,” said Randy Rotondo, president of Boxer Luv Rescue.
With shelters packed to the brim, many animals are stressed because they aren’t getting the stimulation they need. Unfortunately, if the environment is causing an animal to suffer, they will be euthanized unless saved by a rescue, said Powell of MCACC.
According to MCACC data, 708 animals have been euthanized so far this year. However MCACC policy is not to euthanize for space issues in its kennels.
Another animal welfare group aiding the MCACC has been Love Them All Rescue, which is operated by Christine Conroy. The group specializes in animals that require a higher level of care.
“The ones who are facing euthanasia are usually the heavy medical, the hit by cars, the neurological, the cancer, the masses, ones that need behavior modification training,” Conroy said.
Powell said Love Them All Rescue has been especially helpful after their East shelter closed temporarily at the end of October due to a distemper outbreak.
“Without East being able to [intake]… we’re having to take in every single dog at West,” Powell said. “Our rescue partners really stepped up and… started pulling more dogs than they probably normally would… We are very grateful for them because without them, we wouldn’t be able to function like we do.”
LAYERS OF PROBLEMS
Valley residents are being buffeted by some of the highest inflation rates in the country and are having to make difficult decisions that sometimes come at the expense of their animals.
“We’re in a perfect storm,” Mears of PACC911 said. “[Within the past few years], we went from a booming economy to an inflation, low gas prices to tripled gas prices and housing that is unsustainable for many people. We have the shortage of capacity at the county shelters, [and] we have people unable to afford their pets any longer.”
Randy Rotondo of Boxer Luv Rescue said another factor contributing to the current problem of shelter overflow is backyard breeding.
“Backyard breeding—what we define that as is someone’s trying to make a quick buck,” he said. “These dogs are raised in backyards, given away way too young, have no medical provided, a lot of them are getting sick, a lot of them have parvo—a lot of them are sold that way to unsuspecting owners.”
Rotondo also said more people are turning to backyard breeding to make money, but that’s resulting in too many animals with too few homes.
“As the economy gets bad—there’s jobs out there, but for whatever reason, people aren’t taking them. People are certainly breeding a lot, and they’re making cash off the backs of dogs,” he said. “Maricopa County is saturated, we’ve reached a saturation point.”
According to Powell of the MCACC, there were also side effects as a result of so many people adopting animals during the pandemic.
“A lot of people got pets in the pandemic,” she said. “It was actually great for animal welfare… The problem was with the lack of veterinarians that came after that. Those pets weren’t spayed and neutered and then they had puppies and kittens, and that added to the growing animal population, so now we’re seeing all the after effects of that.”
Powell also said the animal population is increasing alongside the “growing population of Maricopa County,” which, according to the U.S. census bureau, had the nation’s largest population growth last year.
THE BUDGET DEBATE
Finding solutions to animal overpopulation has been just as complex as the issues causing it. Advocates say funding is the main barrier in the animal welfare community.
Some animal rights advocates, like Mears of PACC911, criticize the county for underfunding their shelters.
Because the MCACC is a county entity, it cannot solicit donations independently and has to rely on the county budget process.
MCACC spent $18,426,620 in 2020 and $21,401,452 in 2021, but Mears said that’s not enough.
“They are barely given enough money at the county—just to feed the animals and barely staff the facility—so anything extra would have to be through their licensing program,” she said.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors allocates the budget to all county facilities. Their approved budget for this fiscal year, which runs until June 30, 2023, is $4.46 billion—a 23% increase from last year.
Budget proposals are submitted every year, and Assistant County Manager Valerie Beckett said budgetary trends from earlier years are considered when it comes to creating the budget plan.
“All department directors, elected officials and their respective budget and finance staff review the prior year’s fiscal performance to forecasts and actuals,” she said. “Each considers and plans for the strategic initiatives and operational needs for future budgeting cycle.”
But Mears said that process doesn’t give animals the importance that they should have.
“Guess who’s at the bottom of the rung? The animals,” she said. “They don’t vote, they don’t speak and they have been pretty much forgotten. They have gotten inadequate budgets for longer than 30 years.”
According to Powell, the funding from the board goes toward employee salaries, keeping the lights on, and medical costs like spay and neuter surgeries, microchips and vaccines.
“The board of supervisors have been very supportive of us and our missions,” she said. “We are grateful for what we do get.”
However, with the waves of overflow at the county shelters and animal welfare groups taking in more animals, Mears is pushing for an urgent solution, which leads to more funding from the board of supervisors.
“The solution is that the board of supervisors finds a pot of money and that they, right away, start finding additional capacity [for animals],” she said.
The board recently approved over $35 million in constructing a new East Valley Shelter. According to Powell, the new East shelter will have 369 dog kennels and 63 cat kennels.
However, the future of the current East shelter has not been determined. If it’s replaced by the new shelter, it won’t provide the additional capacity Mears is looking for.
“It’s not solving today’s problem, nor is it solving tomorrow’s problem,” she said.
In response to criticisms toward the board, Beckett said she feels confident in the funding allocated to the MCACC.
“With resources having a defined limit, the funds must be dispersed responsibly across all departments in order for each to achieve their mission,” she said. “If you review the statutes of what is mandated for a County shelter operation, I’m proud to say that the board of supervisors has funded the shelter to operate far beyond the mandates to do more for the homeless pets in our community.”
FUTURE OUTLOOK AND SOLUTIONS
Not only has funding at the county been a big debate, but funding for the many nonprofit animal welfare groups in the community has also posed a challenge.
Going into the pandemic, Rotondo’s Boxer Luv Rescue had a board reserve with savings so they could continue taking care of animals, but with the latest economic crises, managing funding has become a main focus.
“In the nonprofit world, it’s all just kind of this perfect storm that’s come together, where we’re all trying to figure out how [to] adjust,” Rotondo said. “It’s the first time where we’re very well funded, and we’ve been very careful with that. We have to protect our funding. We have to protect the dogs in our care. We have to look at each dog request we get, and we have to look at our available resources.”
But Randy Rotondo of Boxer Luv Rescue said many rescues are barely hanging on.
“We’re well funded. There are a lot of rescue groups out there that aren’t. And I just wonder how they’re doing. I just don’t know how they’re doing it,” Rotondo said.
Nonprofit animal organizations thrive off donations and volunteers, which helps alleviate the many challenges they face. However, Rotondo noted that it’s been difficult getting the community to donate and get involved.
“We need the economy to improve so families can be more secure,” he said. “We need that funding. We need that giving to come back. And we just want people to keep their pets and take care of them. But it’s a really tough time right now. It’s the worst we’ve ever experienced in 25 years.”
Another major solution the animal welfare community has been emphasizing is getting animals spayed and neutered to control the overpopulation.
“I hope that people start taking spay and neuter seriously,” Kimberly Powell of the MCACC said. “It all comes down to people being responsible pet owners and neutering and spaying their pets and vaccinating them as well. And if we do that, then we can all function as a society together and hopefully no overcrowded shelters.”
In addition, Powell said MCACC is trying to educate the public on licensing their animals and making sure they’re microchipped.
“A lot of the dogs come in here—less than 20% of them have a microchip and so we’re not able to find their owner,” she said.
Powell also encourages the public to be open to adopting senior dogs.
“Puppies are great, but there’s older dogs here that have been waiting for homes forever,” she said.
Even though different animal welfare organizations like nonprofits, the county and the humane society are separate entities, they are united with the common goal of saving animals. Those involved in solving the animal overpopulation issue say it’s a crisis that needs to be solved by everyone.
“Maricopa County is being blamed,” Rotondo said. “They’re not to blame for the overpopulation. This community problem gets dumped at their feet every day. They’re left to manage what it is. They need help. The rescues need help. It’s a community problem.”