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Chicago Shelters Are Full Again — And Struggling To Save Pets’ Lives: ‘We’re Not Going To Sugarcoat It. Things Aren’t Good’

In April 2020, every animal was adopted from Chicago animal control for the first time. Now, shelters and rescue groups are struggling as they're "inundated" with animals in need.

One Tail at a Time is an animal rescue group.
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CHICAGO — Many Chicago animal shelters are full — and rescue groups said foster homes and adoptions are badly needed.

Pet adoptions soared during the start of the pandemic. But now Chicago Animal Care and Control and other open intake shelters are seeing more animals come in than the shelters are able to get out, said Heather Owen, executive director of rescue group One Tail at a Time.

Owen’s group is trying to find foster homes and get animals ready for adoption to keep from animals being put down around the city.

“We’re not going to sugarcoat it. Things aren’t good right now,” Owen recently posted on One Tail at a Time’s Facebook page. “Our shelters are full, even fuller than before the pandemic. We hear the pain in the voices of the shelter managers who ask if we have any room at all, even for just one.”

‘A Return To Normal’

Owen and others said it’s not unusual in the long term for Chicago’s shelters to be full. But the groups enjoyed a respite last year as adoptions took off during the first waves of the coronavirus pandemic.

In April 2020, every animal was adopted from Chicago animal control for the first time.

“We saw what we call the ‘pandemic silver lining,’ which is a huge influx of people wanting to foster and adopt pets, and then a huge reduction in how many animals were being brought to the shelter,” Owen said.

The “silver lining” is officially over, as people are returning to more normal lives and are struggling as aid programs run out, Owen said.

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“We’re now seeing people surrendering their pets again,” she said. “We’re going back to how it was pre-pandemic. And in some ways, it feels a little bit harder and a little bit worse and scarier than pre-pandemic.”

Shelters have seen some people return animals they adopted last year. But there are other problems, too.

Groups that typically provided spay, neuter and vaccine services had to limit their work last year, said Jenny Schlueter, Chicago Animal Care and Control spokeswoman. That could mean more animals reproduced in 2021, contributing to a population rise just as people are slowing down their adoptions.

“We had a luxury in 2020 when people were home and were interested in adopting and fostering, and we had our lowest population on record for both cats and dogs in the facility,” said Angela Rayburn, operations manager for animal control. “But now to come back into it full swing — it’s been a lot, and I know a lot of shelters throughout the country are inundated with animals.” 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A cat in the Chicago Animal Care and Control facility in Chicago’s Lower West Side in December 2020.

Schlueter sees the situation as a return to normal.

“For such a long time, people were working from home, people didn’t have anywhere to go, they weren’t going on vacation and they certainly weren’t moving,” Schlueter said. “For us, at least anecdotally, we see the biggest reason for surrendering pets is moving. ‘Now my new landlord won’t allow me to have pets,’ or it’s often associated with the landlord.”

Other people have less time for pets now that they’ve stopped working remotely, she said.

“So, it’s really nothing different,” Schlueter said. “It’s just that things changed for a while, and now we’re back to the old way.”

RELATED: Rabbits Are Being Abandoned As Chicagoans Give Up Pets Adopted During Lockdown, West Ridge Shelter Says

Owen attributes the challenges to other causes, like hardship exacerbated by the pandemic.

“The reality is we’re watching people who have very nuanced and complex hardships and lives that are struggling to keep their pets,” Owen said. “We run an intervention program out of the city shelter that tries to help owner surrenders, and what we found is that people are typically surrendering pets not because of anything with themselves, but because they’re going through things, whether it be job loss, or they’re on a fixed income, or just a variety of things.

“And, they can’t afford that animal’s care, or they don’t have housing that they can take that animal to. So there’s just so many roadblocks for so many Chicagoans, and those animals end up in the city shelter.”

Finding Solutions

Full shelters mean limited spots and services for animals born or rescued this year. Fostering and adopting from Chicago’s shelters and rescue groups can significantly help, animal advocates said. 

Chicago’s Animal Care and Control is offering free adoptions through Sept. 19. Information on how to foster or adopt is on the agency’s website.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can to get these animals adopted,” Schlueter said.

Rescues have hosted adoption events. The Anti-Cruelty Society, which is caring for 500 animals, is holding a Clear the Shelters event this weekend where people can pick the fee they’ll pay for adopting.

PAWS Chicago, the city’s largest no-kill rescue, isn’t facing capacity issues, but it’s looking for ways to help animal control and other groups. 

“When these things happen, and when there are problems, we will increase our foster homes,” said PAWS founder Paula Fasseas. “We’re increasing foster homes because we’re seeing that Animal Care and Control needs more support. Or we’ll bring in less animals from other states, and we’ll focus more on Chicago.”

Fasseas said a lot of PAWS’ foster homes end up becoming permanent homes. And the group has events and programs to increase adoptions and foster situations while lowering the number of animals euthanized.

PAWS Chicago’s Foster First program allows people to try out fostering an animal before committing to an adoption. It’s hosting a Clear the Shelters event through Sept. 19 where it’s waiving fees for people who adopt animals with special needs. More information on how to foster can be found on the shelter’s website.

Owen said it’s important that foster and adoption programs and events exist to prevent animals from being euthanized.

“Very directly, we’re trying to prevent shelter deaths,” Owen said. “If there’s no open kennels in the city shelter, and more animals are coming in then are leaving, then there are animals that will die in the shelter.”

To meet the needs of the animals, One Tail at a Time is hosting a membership drive where people can commit a monthly donation to help the rescue care for animals and increase its capacity.

“Pet ownership makes people happy, and a lot of people are struggling right now,” Owen said. “To be able to have a family pet is so important, and it’s really sad to think that people are surrendering their pets when they don’t want to because they don’t have that support.”

Having to give up a pet stems from a bigger societal problem, Owen said.

“I don’t think it’s gonna get better until our community truly invests in community-based solutions,” Owen said. “People are suffering because of a pandemic and that suffering they’re going to bring home, and it’s going to hurt their families and their livelihood in a way that makes pet ownership not possible for a lot of people.

“Unless we really look at the housing crisis, we look at health care and all of these things to help our community, we’re not going to be able to solve the issue.”

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