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Santa Cruz County’s animal shelter grapples with post-COVID economic and social changes

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Inside the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter on Rodriguez Street south of Soquel Avenue, a staff member takes a soft, gray rabbit named Teddy from its cage and monitors the long-eared pet inside of a fenced area on the floor. The rabbit hops around the enclosed space and rubs its face with its paws while receiving gentle pets from other staff members.

A mix of adult cats and fuzzy kittens curl up next to each other in the adjacent room. Two tiny kittens — one black, one tabby — clumsily bobble around their cage, mewing for attention. Their adorable nature makes them irresistible to visitors, said Amber Rowland, the shelter’s general manager.

The dog section, which takes up a good portion of the building’s exterior, is brimming with huskies, terrier and bulldog mixes. German shepherds and pit bulls greet visitors with a cacophony of barks and pants. One quiet, sweet terrier mix trots around his kennel as a couple approaches to take him out on a leash for a quick walk around the premises. Their journey passes a 500-pound pig named Apples as he chomps on grass and scratches an itch against his area’s fence.

The county shelter has been bustling since the start of the COVID pandemic upended the economy and the way we live. Surrenders — owners giving up their animals to the shelter — have continuously risen since the pandemic. In 2021, the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter took in 1,315 surrenders, a 28% increase from the 1,021 in 2020. In 2022, that figure rose another 24% to 1,642.

Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter general manager Amber Rowland.

Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter general manager Amber Rowland.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

While the shelter is fairly full, it is not at a “crisis point,” said Rowland. Even as surrenders have risen, adoptions have also rebounded from a post-pandemic dip, with the 2,343 adoptions in 2022 representing a 31% increase over 2021’s 1,624.

The reasons for rising numbers of surrenders are plentiful — and all relate to the pandemic’s toll on nearly every aspect of society, including housing, income and veterinary costs.

High costs of housing and a lack of accommodations have long been the most common reason for pet surrenders.

“Animal shelters are very closely tied to the overall bigger picture of the economy,” Rowland said. “When you see higher rates of human homelessness and people being displaced from their homes or losing their jobs, shelters generally see more surrenders.”

Rowland added that in struggling economies and when faced with underpaying jobs, some people turn to breeding animals as a source of income. Too often, that can result in health problems for the pets, or giving the animal to an unfit home, spurring an influx of those same animals to local shelters.

However, COVID also caused issues for those fortunate enough to maintain their job and housing situation. More people appeared to have adopted pets to keep them company in the work-from-home era. But that became an issue when they had to go back to the office.

“The idea that people are bringing animals to us because they work too many hours is not a new one, but it has been higher now since people are returning to their workplace,” said Rowland.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Whenever an animal is featured in pop culture, the shelter tends to see a lot of those breeds a year or so later, as more people breed them and adopters end up unable to take care of them. “We’ve seen a lot of huskies after ‘Game of Thrones’ and Dalmatians with the latest version of ‘101 Dalmatians,’” Rowland said.

How to adopt a pet

The Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter at 1001 Rodriguez St. is open to the public seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Adoptions end at 5 p.m.

The shelter’s Watsonville location at 580 Airport Blvd. is closed Sundays and Mondays. It is open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Visit the shelter’s website to learn more about the adoption process, including application fees.

The shelter maintains a list of animals available for adoption on its website. There are separate websites for cats and dogs.

Looking for a hamster, bunny, guinea pig, or maybe a turtle or pig? Click here for a list of rare or exotic pets available for adoption.

The cost of owning and caring for a pet, including food, equipment and veterinary costs, can also overwhelm some people. Veterinary costs in particular have ballooned as inflation has caused the cost of supplies and medications to shoot up. That, coupled with the rising cost of living, has forced owners to make difficult decisions.

“They may take their pet to the vet to get some kind of treatment, find out how much it is, and realize they can’t afford it, leading them to surrender their pet,” Rowland said.

But shelters and pet owners have observed a decrease in the number of veterinarians, too, further complicating access and cost. Rowland said the shortage is due to fewer people going to veterinary school in general, which has led to burnout among the workforce. Rowland herself recently tried to get a dental appointment for her dog and was told she could not get even a consultation until June.

The shelter also has the capacity for farm animals.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Even before COVID, there were some national trends that showed fewer people opting for a college education, often due to cost,” she said, adding that the same applies to veterinary school.

“You end up with a lot of debt, and then you’ve got to pay that debt back somehow. What some find out while they’re in vet school, is that it pays much better if you go to work for something like a pet food company testing diets. It’s a less stressful environment and you get paid more.”

The Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter hasn’t struggled too much with a vet shortage, as it has a few contracted vets who work at both the Santa Cruz and Watsonville locations — and have a few candidates for a staff veterinarian in the pipeline.

There are no easy fixes, but even though Rowland’s shelter has so far escaped crisis mode, one thing is clear: “COVID was a hard time, and brought a whole host of challenges to veterinary hospitals, and both public and for-profit clinics.”

With kitten season just beginning, the shelter is expecting an influx of the tiny felines — but Rowland thinks many of those probably won’t be sticking around too long.

“Kittens get adopted very quickly,” she said.


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