New York City, Tri-State animal shelters at capacity, emblematic of national crisis

"We can't adopt our way out of this," says one official as animal shelters in NYC and the Tri-State reach a breaking point

ByAlexandra George WABC logo
Tuesday, October 31, 2023
Four local animal shelters are in crisis
Representatives from the Liberty Humane Society, Associated Humane Societies and the Bergen County Animal Shelter share their experiences.

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Animal shelters in the Tri-State and across the country are in crisis.

At least three local animal welfare organizations are at capacity, and one is shutting its doors at the end of this year. But this crisis is not new, and it is not going anywhere any time soon.

As of October 16, there are over 1.06 million stray companion animals in the United States, and more than 525,500 pets have been relinquished by their owners in 2023.

Particularly, the crisis is affecting animal shelters in non-rural areas. Not only are there more companion animals where there are more people, but also urban shelters have finite space compared to rural shelters.

For this article, Eyewitness News spoke to three separate animal welfare organizations. Two of the organizations are operated by non-profits, and one of the organizations is operated by a county. Each of the animal welfare organizations interviewed operates out of New Jersey, but their experiences are emblematic of the crisis the United States faces as a whole when it comes to companion animals.

For example, San Diego County, California, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and Dallas, Texas all reported animal shelters at capacity in October. They are just three of dozens of animal sheltering organizations across the county that are operating at or near capacity this fall.

Many of the references made in this article only include dogs, as the local shelters are all at capacity in their kennels, but the same principles apply to cats and other small companion animals often found at shelters.

The crisis four local animal welfare organizations are facing

Animal welfare organizations are vital to the communities they operate in. States have different laws for animal sheltering and animal control, so animal welfare organizations step in to complete the legal requirements as well as provide additional resources.

"The state mandate in New Jersey says that you must provide seven days of animal care, palliative care, and relief from pain and suffering," said Irene Borngraeber, executive director of the Liberty Humane Society in Jersey City. "That does not really mean preventative vaccines, spay/neuter, adoption... There's a huge gap between what the law says you must provide towns, and then what people find to be acceptable in this day and age when it comes to companion animals."

As food prices, medical prices, and cost of living rise, and people all over the country are strapped for cash, their companion animals are often the first thing to go.

"Dogs have been entering the shelter at an alarming rate all summer, between strays and surrendered dogs there's just no room left," Associated Human Societies in Newark said in a post on Facebook. They announced their dog kennels were at capacity on October 2.

Animal Care and Control Centers across New York City have been closed to dog surrenders due to "critical capacity" since October 6.

"We care about our community and understand the challenges our clients face. We are actively seeking solutions to this issue and hope to open again soon," the shelter system said on Facebook.

In New York City alone, there are roughly 1.1 million pets, about 600,000 dogs and 500,000 cats.

On October 17, Bergen County Animal Shelter and Adoption Center shared they had reached max-capacity for dogs as well.

"Our kennels are completely full. If you have been considering adopting a dog, now is the time," the shelter and adoption center posted in part on Facebook.

With three local shelter systems at capacity, the news of Liberty Humane Society (LHS) in Jersey City shutting down came as a shock to the community.

On October 18, the nonprofit announced that Jersey City agreed to terminate both animal control and sheltering service agreements, leaving LHS "unable to appropriately fund or manage Jersey City's animal sheltering program and facility," the nonprofit said in a statement.

For now, LHS will continue to provide animal control and animal sheltering services to the city through December 31, 2023. Jersey City will then take control of both the animal control and animal sheltering operations in Jersey City.

"As of January 1, our Department of Health & Human Services will provide full animal control and sheltering services - in addition to a Pet Food Pantry - out of the City-owned building that LHS leased from us for $1 per year," a representative from the Jersey City mayor's office said in a statement.

What do animal welfare organizations do?

Animal welfare organizations serve two main purposes: animal control and sheltering.

There are two main kinds of animal welfare organizations, ones that are operated by local governments (a municipality, a county or a state) and ones that are operated by non-profit organizations.

"In New Jersey, there's no funding from the state that is able to directly support animal sheltering mandates. Every municipality in New Jersey has to decide, well, how are we going to fund this?" said Borngraeber.

New Jersey requires every municipality to at least have a licensed facility, commonly referred to as "pounds," where animals can be held for seven days, according to the New Jersey Department of Health.

Besides the legally mandated necessities of animal control and animal sheltering, animal welfare organizations supply many other resources to their communities.

"(We) visit all of our senior activity centers, and bring some of our pets. We promote responsible pet ownership, and the benefits of owning pets," said Bob Bergamini, the community relations specialist for Bergen County Animal Shelter and Adoption Center.

When people come in to adopt a pet, animal welfare organizations do their best to match them with the right animal.

"We take a lot of pride to try and find the best homes for these pets and avoid them being returned and or being in a bad situation," said Bergamini.

If you already are a pet owner and are struggling to provide your pet with basic necessities like food, medical care, or housing you can reach out to your local animal welfare organization for support.

"We're happy to work with people if they gave us a little advanced notice," said Jerry Rosenthal, CEO of the Associated Humane Societies. "(We can) advocate with their landlord, see if we can work out an accommodation. We have cases, especially with older dogs that are coming in with medical conditions... We can obtain the medicine much cheaper than the normal person would be going to their veterinarian."

Why is this happening now?

It is easy for companion animals to fall down the priority list for people when they are concerned about finances, their personal health, and housing access.

"When interest rates rise, and the cost of food and housing is increasing, (people are) putting off care for their animals. And so, small problems become large, and then those animals end up on our doorstep," said Rosenthal.

All across the country, animal welfare organizations say surrenders are up.

Many people blame the animal welfare crisis on the fallout from the COVID pandemic, as many people adopted "pandemic puppies" and can no longer care for them as they return to in-person work. But animal welfare organizations saw this crisis coming long before the pandemic. And while the COVID pandemic may be a factor, it is not the only reason animal welfare organizations are struggling.

"There was an eviction freeze during the time of COVID. And so, once that was lifted, people who are moving now are finding it very difficult to find pet-friendly housing. Either they're restricted from having any pets, or there's a weight restriction. So, we're seeing a lot of big dogs, bully breed dogs come into the shelter," said Rosenthal.

When people adopt, they are not necessarily considering where they are going to live two or three years down the line, and whether or not their animal will be able to move with them. Many landlords do not allow their tenants to have pets, and others have restrictions on sizing and breeds of dogs.

In 2019, only 40% of listings indicated they were pet-friendly, but by 2022 63% of listings were, according to Openigloo.

Even if someone is able to secure and afford housing that is pet-friendly, they may face other roadblocks when it comes to the animal's medical care.

"It's coming to a point where the only people who could afford pet insurance are the people who probably could absorb the medical costs," said Rosenthal.

Not only has the number of surrenders increased over the past couple of years, but also the manner in which people are surrendering their animals.

"Increasingly, people began saying to us very transparently things that they had never openly said to an animal sheltering facility before, which is, 'I just don't want this animal anymore,''" said Borngraeber.

Another key issue when it comes to animal welfare is how companion animals are legally designated, Borngraeber says.

"Animals are living beings... Is it really in the best interest of society to allow someone to absolve themselves of the responsibility for caring for another being, just to be able to say, 'I wanted you because I thought you were going to make me feel better about myself?'" Borngraeber said. "As long as we continue to pretend that it's okay, to just get rid of them to pass them along, haphazardly, we will never get out of this cycle."

The cycle, exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, brings more animals into the shelter systems than they can afford to house. And in non-rural areas, space limits animal welfare organizations' intake ability.

"In Newark, this year our intake was up over 20%. Last year, we were up 20% over the prior year. So it's a challenge," said Rosenthal.

It is a common practice for animal welfare organizations to transfer animals from one shelter to another to free up space. However, with more and more animal shelters reaching capacity, their options are running dry.

"We can't adopt our way out of this crisis right now," said Rosenthal. "We've established partnerships with shelters and rescue groups primarily up in New England, where the kitten season is shorter. And surprisingly, there are shelters that don't have cats up there."

When it comes to kittens, Rosenthal says a clear factor in their increase in intakes is climate change.

"Summer, you see a higher intake, that by this time, you would see intake start to drop off. (This year) that hasn't been the case, it's stayed at the same level, if not increased," said Rosenthal. "But if we're going to have 78-degree weather this Saturday, kitten season is going to be with us for quite some time."

With all of these factors impacting the rising intake at animal shelters, some fear the animal sheltering crisis in the United States will only worsen.

ACC is closed for surrenders due to critical capacity. They're open for adoptions and are hosting a foster event this weekend, hoping to alleviate the numbers. Janice Yu has more.

Where do we go from here?

Animal welfare organizations are doing what they can to manage intake.

"You'll get a call, and the dog chewed the expensive rug. One of the partners will say, the dog has to go. What we have found is if we schedule them out, people come up with their own resolutions. Some people realize, well, I never liked that rug," Rosenthal said. "They take stock of the situation, realize the animal is a part of the family, and work it out."

Scheduling out non-emergency surrenders is a tactic many animal welfare organizations have adopted to manage intake, even before shelters started reaching capacity in mass.

"My hope is that as we go through the waitlist and contact them, they'll say, 'Never mind, no problem,'" said Rosenthal.

Newark AHS's surrender waitlist is currently filled through March 2024, and the list is only expected to grow. However, they are still accepting emergency surrenders on a case-by-case basis.

"It doesn't go down. The number of animals that leave the organization, a similar number, if not more, come back in," Rosenthal said.

Instead of surrenders, some shelter systems are offering emergency holds.

"If they've fallen on hard times, where we'll do emergency holds for dogs, where we'll give them 30 days to try to figure out if they can better their situation. We'd love to have them have their animal return to them," said Bergamini.

Meantime, LHS cannot operate with a five-month-long surrender waitlist, as they will completely cease operations by December 31, 2023 when Jersey City will take over animal sheltering and control operations. Until then, they will seek to find foster homes for all of the animals not on seven-day stray holds, Borngraeber says.

How can you help?

It is clear this crisis will not be resolved through adoption alone, but adoption is a great option if you are looking to assist your local animal shelter. Adopting an animal can be a rewarding experience for many people.

"Animals have personalities, and they all deserve someone who will love them. I encourage everyone to adopt a pet," said Bergen County Commissioner Joan Voss. "I have had pets all my life and all of my pets have been rescues. Once you adopt a pet, it's like adopting a child, you're going to have that pet a home forever and ever."

If you do not have the resources or are unable to commit to adopting a companion animal at this time, many shelters are in need of fosters. In fact, some rescue organizations do not have a shelter facility and are purely foster-based. Many times, the organization will provide you with all the materials you need to house your pet, at no cost to you.

Perhaps the easiest way to help animal welfare organizations in your area is to raise awareness and educate others about their struggles.

But the need for awareness goes beyond just the local issues, it is about how we view animals as a whole Borngraeber says.

"When you start to talk about animals being more than just property, you have to talk about the animals we eat. There's no way to differentiate that," Borngraeber said. "There are many organizations, other nonprofits who are working on advocacy, to change those regulations to make slaughterhouses and those types of facilities more humane, but also more transparent. Because the first step is awareness. But as companion animal lovers, we're not going to get anywhere until we're ready to talk about the cows," said Borngraeber.

If you have the time and are old enough, you can apply to volunteer at a local animal shelter.

"The dogs need to be walked in, they need exercise. Everybody who comes to the shelter is a volunteer," said Commissioner Voss.

Plus, animal welfare organizations are always accepting donations. Monetary donations are welcomed at non-profit organizations, but others are funded through taxpayer dollars. When in doubt, check your local animal welfare organization's website to see what kind of donations they need. Many shelters are looking for blankets, cleaning supplies and pet food.

If you decide to adopt through a shelter, they might be able to cover all of your overhead costs through the donations they have received.

"We were given a bed, food, toys, and a whole packet of training material so that if we had issues, there were resources that the animal shelter provided," said Amanda Karpinski, the public information officer for Bergen County.

Karpinski and her husband adopted their dog Sadie, a poodle terrier mix, from Bergen County Animal Shelter.

"My husband and I stumbled upon our new pet. She is the best thing that ever happened to us... We were just thinking about getting a dog we weren't actively doing applications or anything. If you have that thought visit the animal shelter, visit a rescue because you don't know if you have love at first sight once you meet that animal," Karpinski said. "There's a lot of misconceptions about rescues."

If you are feeling down after reading this article about the crisis animal welfare organizations all over the country are experiencing and want to feel better, Commissioner Voss has a helpful tip.

"Having pets will make your life happier," she said.

Frank Esposito, Ryan McGriff and Sarah Swiss contributed to this story.