I wouldn’t have felt ambivalent in the past. Companion animal overpopulation was a crisis in the 1970s: The best available estimates show roughly 13.5 million cats and dogs — more than 90 percent of incoming shelter animals — were euthanized in 1973. Spay and neuter programs dramatically reduced overpopulation in subsequent decades, but pet owners largely assumed something was inherently wrong with shelter animals. Then, as culture and commerce tightened the human-animal bond, a three-word slogan summed up the mood and mission of humane societies: “Adopt, don’t shop.”
“That adopt-don’t-shop message really did cut through that preconception,” says Michael Keiley, who’s been working in animal shelters since 1994 and is the director of adoption centers and programs for MSPCA’s Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. He’s also part of the New England Future of Animal Welfare Coalition, with representatives from shelters, rescue groups, and reduced cost spay/neuter organizations. “People started to buy into the idea, and being socially responsible with your choices in acquiring animals became much more popular.” By 2010, adoptions became key to declining shelter euthanasia rates. In 2013, after a few years of volunteering at the MSPCA’s Centerville shelter, I adopted Mabel, a 2-month-old pit bull mix who stole my heart.
But adoptable animals are increasingly scarce. Shelter Animals Count, a national registry where Keiley serves on the board of directors, tallied 3.5 million shelter cats and dogs in 2019. Just under 10 percent of dogs and 13 percent of cats were euthanized — sometimes because of strained shelter capacity, but more widely for severe medical or aggression-related issues — a far cry from previous decades.
COVID-19 caused shelter populations to dive 25 percent from 2019 to 2020. Even as the pandemic pet adoption craze flared, essential shelter workers became less available and fewer animals could be taken in for adoption — no one was around to care for them. That’s fluctuating now that COVID restrictions have eased and workers have returned. The number of stray and surrendered animals has increased, in the South and Midwest especially, but pandemic-era shelter numbers have risen from record lows back up to near-2019 levels. It isn’t a new crisis, Keiley says; overall, pet overpopulation and its attendant problems are improving in every part of the country.
In the past five years, the MSPCA’s shelters “were more empty than they were full,” he adds, a shift reflected in the organization’s expansion of other animal welfare services, such as affordable medical care. “You could feel that frustration from people wanting to do the right thing, responding to our message, and not necessarily having the animal that they wanted to adopt.” For example, it’s rare to find a Goldendoodle puppy for adoption at a local shelter, he says.
Without enough rescue animals to go around, organizations wind up fielding dozens of applications for a single dog, incentivizing some groups to put up maddeningly high adoption barriers that exclude and exasperate capable guardians. In Massachusetts, groups that Keiley terms “black market rescues” frequently require adopters to pick up their animals across state lines to avoid the state’s mandatory 48-hour quarantine, a regulation intended to curb diseases transmitted by out-of-state animals. Some puppy mills deceive well-meaning adopters with online advertisements for “rescue dogs” available for “adoption fees.”
I hope everyone looking for a pet visits an animal shelter or rescue first. Adoption is still virtuous and necessary, particularly as COVID-related housing relief — which Keiley says likely helped diminish pet surrenders during the pandemic — ends and as animal-displacing natural disasters like Hurricane Ida become more commonplace. But while transferring animals from overpopulated locales like Louisiana to high-demand areas like Massachusetts — something the MSPCA has increasingly done in 2021 — helps correct some of the adopter-animal imbalance, it might not be a long-term solution.
We’d do more good by helping prospective pet owners navigate grayer realities. “It can’t be totally polarized, where there’s only two choices, where one is good and one is bad,” Keiley says. Instead of vilifying people looking for purebred puppies, help them distinguish between a reputable breeder — one who specializes in a single type of dog, lets you see the facility, and provides a contingency plan if the dog doesn’t work out — and a closed-door puppy mill hawking a dozen different breeds. Instead of blind attraction to the words “adopt” and “rescue,” remind adopters to verify the rescue agency’s 501(c)(3) status, check client reviews online, and walk away if it won’t furnish your animal’s behavioral and medical history. Whether adopting or shopping, you should be able to meet the animal — ideally in person — before paying up.
This advice is newly relevant to me. In September, after 14 great years that quickly went bad, Biff took a shot of pentobarbital in a lame leg and passed away. Mabel is sulking. My 3-year-old daughter keeps asking when Biff’s going to come home. I have no intention of getting another bulldog, but I know I’ll soon be in search of another pet. If the right one isn’t at the animal shelter, maybe I’ll look elsewhere.
Jeff Harder is a writer based in Connecticut. Send comments to [email protected].