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A flood of surrendered pets is overwhelming Minnesota's shelters and dog rescues, filling up kennels and foster homes at a time when fewer people are opting to adopt a new furry friend.

Shelter workers and rescue volunteers say the reason seems to be a combination of people who obtained dogs for companionship during the COVID-19 pandemic and are now returning them, and those struggling with evictions and inflation for whom pets have become a burden.

"It's a national phenomenon," said Caroline Hairfield, director of Minneapolis Animal Care and Control (MACC), an open admission shelter that takes in every animal that comes in. "When you're having to choose between the roof over your head and your family and your pet ... it's just sad."

Hairfield said there have been 312 owner surrenders at MACC so far this year, compared with 230 during the first five months of 2019, the last year before the pandemic — amounting to a 36% increase.

In a statement, officials with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) disputed the notion that, nationwide, the increased number of animals in shelters is being driven by owner surrenders and fewer would-be adopters.

"Multiple factors are converging simultaneously to impact shelters' capacity for care, including staffing and veterinarian shortages and an increasing proportion of animals with greater medical and behavior needs," said Christa Chadwick, the ASPCA's vice president of shelter services. "Higher intake combined with flat animal outcome numbers means that space in shelters for animals is shrinking."

Several local rescues beg to differ.

"It's right now the roughest time we've ever been in," said Sara Romdenne, founder and director of UnbreakaBull, a small Minneapolis rescue that helps pit bulls find homes. "This is really bad — I don't know how sustainable it is anymore."

Romdenne, who started the rescue in 2018, now has 60 dogs in foster homes, twice the usual number. She said that many "amazing" dogs are remaining in those homes for six months or more before getting adopted.

Kathy DuVall, founder and director of operations for Anoka-based FaerieLand Rescue Inc., said she's getting three to five phone calls daily from people wanting to surrender dogs; she used to get five per week. Her rescue specializes in German shepherds and corgis.

"A lot of it is, 'I don't have time for the dog,' or 'I'm moving to an apartment and I can't take the dog,'" said DuVall, whose rescue gets animals from Texas, Kentucky and the Dakotas as well as Minnesota. Many people can't commit to the training their dog needs, she said, or failed to research the breed before they brought the dog home.

DuVall said she's had six dogs returned to her in the past 18 months, compared with just a handful of returns in the dozen years before that. She's seen an uptick in people dumping their dogs somewhere rather than taking them to a shelter, something she said typically didn't happen before.

Fewer adopters

Some animal advocates point to another aspect of the problem: Nearly everyone who wanted a dog in the past few years got one, slowing the stream of potential adopters to a trickle.

At the Tri-County Humane Society in St. Cloud, executive director Vicki Davis said she hasn't seen an increase in the number of animals surrendered. But over the past few months, the number of weekly adoptions has slowed from about 100 down to 70 or 80.

"We just haven't had a lot of adoptions and the waitlist [to bring in a dog for surrender] has gotten a little longer," Davis said.

There are more large-breed dogs at the shelter lately, which might not match up with what many adopters are seeking, she said.

The Animal Humane Society (AHS) closed its St. Paul shelter in mid-2020 and shuttered its three locations temporarily this spring due to canine influenza, making their data difficult to interpret, a spokesperson said.

Dr. Graham Brayshaw, head vet for AHS, said there's more demand for a place to surrender pets than the shelter can meet. But the biggest factor is a lack of veterinary technicians, he said, which greatly limits the number of pets the nonprofit can help.

As wait times to surrender at AHS have increased, there's been an uptick in animals brought to MACC and St. Paul Animal Control, he said. In addition, he said the average length of animals' stay at AHS has increased due to fewer people looking to adopt.

Brayshaw said that demand may have slowed due to many people getting pandemic pets. But he pointed to the possibility that generational differences — such as fewer millennials owning homes — might also be having an impact on the number of adoptions.

'Puppy explosion'

Though several sources said they chalked up the influx of dog surrenders to people returning dogs since the pandemic ended, not everyone in dog rescue circles backs that theory.

Safe Hands, a Minneapolis-based rescue that gets 95% of its adoptable animals from rural Kentucky, has taken in fewer animals lately. But that's due to a lack of foster homes, not lowered demand for places to surrender animals, officials said.

There's a "puppy explosion" going on in Kentucky, said Lynne Bengtson, Safe Hands' founder and executive director, with puppies making up 80% of intakes.

"The shelters down here [in Kentucky] are seeing more surrenders than they ever have," Bengtson said. But she believes the influx is mostly due to the shutdown of spay and neuter clinics, and the limitations placed on vets' offices during the pandemic.

Many veterinarians were busy during the pandemic with treating newly acquired pets and restricted by the government to performing only lifesaving operations. Spaying and neutering mostly stopped, she said.

Kathie Anstett, chief operations officer at Safe Hands, also pointed to the "economy and the cost of everything" as a cause.

Megan Ehlert, adoption coordinator at Underdog Rescue in St. Louis Park, said she's getting more online surrender applications and emails from shelters with too many dogs. Many of the surrendered dogs are less than three years old, supporting the idea that they were acquired during the pandemic and that something has changed for their families, she said.

She's also hearing about people giving up their dogs due to housing changes and financial issues, she said. "Both of those situations are just truly heartbreaking because you know they have that bond and that relationship with the pet," she said.

Ehlert emphasized the emotional toll on rescue volunteers, who constantly get emails from southern shelters with 10 to 25 photos of needy dogs attached. Underdog "just can't help them all," she said, and it's contributing to a high burnout rate.

Some rescues, such as UnbreakaBull, have had to go on an intake hold, temporarily saying "no" to new dogs until numbers decrease. Donations are also down, Romdenne said.

"I cry about it a lot," she said. "I want to help dogs, but we're getting to the point where we're not going to be able to anymore. When the money runs out, what else do you do?"

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).