I surrender! How Huntsville Animal Services is tackling influx of owner surrenders

single-meta-cal April 5, 2018

The 13-year-old schnauezer mix sits in Karen Sheppard’s lap and props her chin on the arm of the wicker chair, peering curiously through her bangs. What can be perceived as a contented smile appears below the dog’s graying whiskers.

How somebody would willingly surrender this adorable dog is almost unfathomable. And the urge to walk out of Sheppard’s office with a new pet is almost uncontrollable.

Sadly, she is one of more than 10 dogs and cats per week – more than 700 in 2017 – owner-surrendered pets received by Huntsville Animal Services.

What we find, people have gotten a pet and really didn’t have the finances and the time and the energy and maybe the knowledge.”

Good news, bad news.

Good news: That’s a drop of 150 from 2016, and 350 fewer than in 2015.

Bad news: It’s still too many, and because of a new procedure in place by Huntsville Animal Services, it’s becoming a larger challenge for the department.

Owners who are compelled to surrender their pets to Huntsville Animal Services must fill out an online submission form. They will then talk with staff members to see what measures might be taken to avoid that difficult decision.

“We’re trying to intervene to see if we can keep the pet in the home,” says Sheppard, the director of Huntsville Animal Services. “Are there resources that could be useful for this person? Can we provide vaccinations? Can we provide spay/neuter? Behavior tips? Healthcare? Can we encourage this owner to find another home on their own?”

Roughly three out of 10 times, Animal Services is able to help with a solution to keep the pet in the home. Though owner-surrender requests are essentially 50-50 between dogs and cats, intervening to help owners keep cats tends to be more successful.

Irresponsible ownership

Why do owners surrender their pets?  One answer pops up most frequently. It’s that people were oblivious to all the responsibilities, financial and otherwise, that come with the privilege of ownership.

“What we find, over and over again, people have gotten a pet and really didn’t have the finances and the time and the energy and maybe the knowledge to have that pet,” Sheppard says.

It’s frequently younger people, perhaps moving out on their own for the first time, who find that work and social time minimizes the time with a needy pet, or that the added cost of a pet-friendly lease becomes a burden.

Sometimes, it’s because of an aging owner who can no longer manage a pet, or is moving to assisted living or with family.

Of particular challenge to Huntsville Animal Services are the vast number of pit bulls and pit-bull mixes who are being surrendered or simply being removed from the streets. They make up the majority of dogs awaiting adoption, and because of reputation, they’re also not as frequently adopted. Complicating matters, owners of pit bulls are more often resistant to having their pets spayed or neutered because of potential profit in breeding or they’re simply uncomfortable with the process.

Huntsville Animal Services announced this week a plan for free spaying or neutering for animals in the 35805 zip code, from which a majority of impounded dogs are rescued. It’s part of a $20,000 grant received from Best Friends Animal Society and the Rachael Ray Foundation.

‘Opening eyes’

“Saving these lives is such an honor,” Sheppard says, “but our shelter is only so big, we can only accommodate a limited number of pets.”

Thus the effort to assess conditions of the ownership and work toward a solution.

“We try to open people’s eyes that (surrendering) might not be the right thing to do for the pet,” says Cristin Anderson, who counsels owners.

There is great care given to pets at Huntsville Animal Services. Sheppard and her staff have received national recognition for their work. The City of Huntsville has devoted significant resources toward the ultimate goal of becoming a “no-kill” shelter; indeed, their current euthanasia rate is minimal, limited to pets who are too dangerous for adoption or dealing with terminal disease.

That said, the shelter is still small and noisy and unsettling for pets. As Sheppard says, “It should be the last resort. This is not a happy option for a dog. It’s not summer camp.”

Educating owners is an on-going priority for Huntsville Animal Services. Encouraging responsible ownership is the most essential part of that education.

“Our main goal,” Sheppard says, “is we change their future behavior for the next pet. Maybe the next time they go to get that free pet, they stop and say, ‘I can’t responsibly take care of a dog.’”