Human/Animal Bond

Don’t Blame the Janitor

Published: January 27, 2024
By Jennifer Woolf, DVM, MS

Two cats in a kennel/cage

Recently, as I was driving to work at my local animal shelter, I had a moment of excitement followed by tears (not tears of joy). As I approached the parking lot, I could see more cars than usual. At the start of the driveway, several people were milling about, hopefully there to adopt a new pet. My first thought was, maybe we’re having an adoption event today! That happy bubble quickly burst when I read one of the signs that someone was holding: “Stop killing healthy animals!”  These were protesters, not adopters.

Like many shelters across the country, ours is struggling right now. As was predicted, the end of COVID (more or less) has brought animals flooding back into the shelters. Some are being returned because no one has time for the dog now that people are back in the office or school. Other pets never received proper socialization and training and have become behavioral problems as they’ve grown. Because COVID forced many spay/neuter programs to go on hiatus just as kitten season was starting, litters of kittens and puppies are being dropped off daily since many pets missed being spayed before their first heat cycle.  (During COVID, many spay/neuter programs slowed dramatically or stopped altogether to reserve gloves, masks, and other supplies for human hospitals. Many had staffing issues, like everywhere else, and could not operate as efficiently as they once did. Staffing shortages continue today for veterinary practices everywhere, similar to what is seen in other businesses such as retail and restaurants.)

Adding to this perfect storm are the economic issues many families are facing. With the increase in interest rates or perhaps a job loss, some families simply cannot afford to continue caring for a pet properly, so they are sadly relinquishing them.

And of course, there are all the usual reasons animals come to shelters: strays found on the streets, injured animals with no identification to reunite them with their owners, pets surrendered because of changes in the family or a move, and simply animals that are no longer wanted for whatever reason.

Many shelters, like mine, cannot turn an animal away. Local laws may require the shelter to accept any animal that comes in the door, whether from the public or from animal control, regardless of a lack of kennel space, staff to care for the animal, or financial resources. Many of these pets have medical issues. Many have behavioral issues. Few are actually completely healthy, and even those still need feeding, vaccines, antiparasitics, and a room at the inn. Most will need extensive care to make them ready for adoption, if they can ever become ready. Some issues require humane euthanasia. Some medical cases are untreatable, or at least untreatable given the resources of the shelter. Some behavioral issues make dogs dangerous to the general public or to other animals and unsafe for adoption. All of these issues require money, labor, and time, three things shelters tend to have in short supply.

These are the thoughts that ran through my head as I parked my car and walked inside the treatment room to start my shift. 

What I really wanted to do instead was to go tell the protesters to put down their signs and pick up a leash to take a dog for a walk. Put down the signs, pick up a bottle, and feed the newborn kittens that need it every two hours around the clock. Pick up an application and become a foster. Pick up the basket of laundry and fold towels with the other volunteers. Show me which dog or cat you plan to adopt today. Your signs are insulting and demoralizing.

Most important, remember that the shelter exists because of someone else’s mess. Shelters exist in communities that didn’t care for their pets or couldn’t care for their pets. If more people spayed or neutered their pets, fewer would come into shelters. If more people leashed their dogs or kept their cats indoors, fewer would come into shelters. If more people tagged or microchipped their pets (and registered those chips and kept their information up to date), fewer strays would be brought in and never reclaimed. If there was a taxpayer-funded clinic for low-income pet owners the way there are taxpayer-funded hospitals for people, there would be better access to care. If there was less animal abuse and neglect, animal control officers would have fewer animals to confiscate for care and protection.

Believe me, shelter veterinarians and staff dream of the day when they have more time than surgeries to do that day, when the “needs medical attention” list is shorter than the day is long, and when the Amazon wish list is completely filled. None of us want to euthanize healthy animals, and more often than not, the animals that are euthanized are not completely healthy. Most importantly, the shelter didn’t make the mess; the community did. Shelter staff are just there to clean it up. And if the day ever comes when their services are no longer needed, they will be happy to no longer have to be the janitors.

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