Where can Southern Utah put all its rescue animals?

A recent count showed 52,000 cats and dogs crammed into Utah animal shelters.

(Providing Animals With Support) An employee interacts with dogs at Providing Animals With Support (PAWS) shelter in St. George.

St. George • Of all the animal rescues Lulu Hart has taken part in, the dearest to her heart was the time she helped save a black male Labrador retriever mix that was found wrapped in barbed wire and clinging to life.

Hart remembers trying to stabilize the dog in the back seat of a car as a volunteer drove the three of them to the veterinarian in Cedar City on a Saturday night.

“I looked into [the dog’s] eyes and told him, ‘We are not going to let you die, and your name is now Murphy,’ " recalled Hart, the animal rescue manager at Providing Animals With Support — also known as PAWS — in St. George.

Keeping Murphy alive wasn’t easy. The dog had to be brought back to life twice through CPR and one of its back legs was so severely infected it needed to be amputated. Hart remembers fielding a call from the vet, who told her Murphy was in bad shape and asked her to make the call whether to proceed with efforts to save him.

“We move forward,” Hart recalls telling the vet.

Four days later, a happy Murphy was walking on three legs at PAWS, where everyone “fell in love with him.” A family also took a shine to Murphy, later adopting the dog and making him a cherished addition to their home.

Pet numbers overwhelming shelters

Experiences like Murphy’s help motivate animal rescuers to press on. Sadly, overcrowding at some shelters and animal rescue organizations in southern Utah mean happy endings are sometimes in short supply.

“We are seeing overcrowding …,” said Bailee Mabe, a supervisor at the Santa Clara-Ivins Animal Shelter. “This is a common problem throughout the state of Utah and across the nation right now.”

Last year, 6.5 million animals — 3.3 million cats and 3.2 million dogs — were placed in animal shelters or with rescue organizations in the U.S. Roughly 48% of the animals were strays and another 25% were surrendered by owners who could no longer care for their pets, according to Shelter Animals Count, a national database that tracks shelter and rescue numbers.

(Providing Animals With Support) Dogs at Providing Animals With Support (PAWS) shelter in St. George.

According to data compiled by the Best Friends Animal Society, nearly 52,000 cats and dogs were recently crammed into Utah animal shelters. That said, shelter officials in southern Utah don’t need statistics to understand the magnitude of the problem. They just look at all the cats and dogs overflowing their cramped facilities.

For example, the Santa-Clara Ivins Animal Shelter, which can hold about 100 cats and a combined 24 dogs at its two facilities, has been at full capacity for more than two years. In neighboring St. George, the shelter recently held 33 dogs, despite having 30 kennels, only 19 of which were available for canines suitable for adoption. The undersized and outdated facility, which was built 25 years ago, also shelters as many as 50 cats.

Further exacerbating matters, the shelter is not equipped with doors that allow the animals to choose between going in or outdoors.

“Because we don’t have that setup, we have to manually take them outside the kennels, which takes time and can be dangerous to staff if the animal is aggressive and has a bad behavior problem,” said Lt. Aaron Bergquist, who oversees St. George’s shelter.

PAWS, which has one building for dogs and another for cats, is also hard-pressed to keep pace with the overflow of pets requiring shelter and adoption. The nonprofit, which relies on private donors, grant money and profits from its thrift store to stay open, can take between up to 40 dogs and 150 cats.

Hart said PAWS takes so many animals from overcrowded shelters, it is unable to accept dogs or cats from individuals who can no longer care for them and want to “surrender” their pets to the nonprofit to put out for adoption.

Guinnevere Shuster, director of marketing at the Humane Society of Utah, said overcrowding at Utah’s shelter and rescue centers negatively impacts animals.

“The fuller the shelters get the more difficult it becomes to properly care for all of the animals,” she said. “So it’s definitely something that animal shelters try to avoid by moving animals through the system so they can get adopted into home.”

Housing insecurity harming animals

While several factors contribute to overcrowding, shelter officials agree that housing insecurity is the primary cause. Economists say Utah is in the midst of its least affordable housing market in the last 50 years, which makes pet ownership increasingly a luxury many can no longer afford.

Hart said the influx of big corporations buying many of the apartment buildings in the St. George area and changing leases to prohibit pets is also a major problem. Other apartment owners are charging renters with pets exorbitant deposits or billing them an extra $50 to $300 a month per animal.

“There is not enough housing for renters that allow pets,” Hart said. “They are either forced to move or get rid of their animals.”

In 2023, owners surrendered 1,134 pets to the Humane Society of Utah. Many of the owners said they were forced to give up their animals because they no longer had a place to live, were moving or were unable to find pet-friendly housing, which Schuster said accounted for nearly 23% of all pets surrendered.

Fewer places for pets to live often translates into longer stays at already overcrowded shelters. As a result Santa Clara-Ivins’ shelter no longer accepts pets that owners want to surrender.

“Our animals are staying significantly longer than they have in years past because it is taking longer to find homes for them,” said Mabe, adding animals’ average stay at the shelter has gone from two to four weeks to between four and six months.

A related factor shelter officials say causes overcrowding is the economy.

“The cost of living in our area is high and going up … and some people who can’t afford to care for their animals and their family are trying to cut expenses,” Mabe said.

COVID-19 has also played a role in overcrowding. During the pandemic, many animal clinics cut services or were shuttered, resulting in many pets acquired during that time not getting spayed or neutered.

“Now these animals have reached sexual maturity and are reproducing,” Shuster said. “So we are seeing a lot more ‘oops litters.’ "

Whatever the reasons, shelter overcrowding casts a cloud on Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s recent designation of 2024 as “No-Kill Shelter Year,” a declaration aimed at highlighting a statewide effort to make Utah the first no-kill state in the West and the largest in the nation.

According to data Best Friends Animal Society has compiled for the past three years, about 2,100 cats and dogs were killed in Utah animal shelters. Currently, 46 out of the state’s 58 shelters have achieved no-kill status, which means they have saved at least 90% of the animals admitted each year.

Fostering and ‘fixing’ animals

Still, despite the challenges posed by overcrowding, shelter managers are finding ways to ease the situation. One of them is to enlist volunteers to temporarily foster young and vulnerable animals in their homes until someone adopts them or they are old and well enough to be housed in the shelter.

PAWS, for example, has 15 volunteers who foster animals, thus freeing up space at the shelter. One of them is Lynn Burger. She initially started fostering cats at her St. George home she dubbed the “Burger Feline Bed and Breakfast but soon expanded to caring for canines.

Burger estimates she has fostered more than 100 animals over the past 15 years. She also has four cats and two dogs of her own. “I’ve turned my home into an animal haven,” she quipped.

As important as fostering is, Hart argues spaying and neutering are even more critical.

If everybody spayed and neutered their pets,” she said, “we would not have millions upon millions of dogs and cats around the world that do not have homes.”

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