August 26, 2022

Mississippi Animal Shelters are in Crisis. But We Can All Help.

Mary Apel

“We have absolutely nowhere to put the dogs we have. I’m at a total loss.”

The facebook post from Cheshire Abbey, an animal rescue in Jackson, is not unusual to see these days, nor is it comfortable. But it is true.

Tear-jerker ads with Sarah McLachlan singing mournfully to images of abandoned pets are now part of our common awareness, at times feeling like an attack on our conscience. Not all of us can have, or want to have, pets in our homes. Some of us have too many already. Some of us would love to take in a dog, but could never offer the time seemingly required. Few of us, however, can bear knowing that there is unrequited suffering around us.

Here lies the conundrum. There is a crisis with over-crowded, under-staffed, under-funded pet shelters. This crisis in Mississippi is not unique, but it is very real. It is not permanent, however, and there are many ways that we all can still help.

Darkhorse Press will be running a series on the shelter crisis over the next months. We’d like to begin by examining the problems that led to this situation, and some possible solutions.

The Problems

Best Friends Animal Society, a leading animal welfare organization, has issued a warning of a national animal shelter crisis, with estimates that about 100,000 more dogs and cats in U.S. shelters are awaiting adoption than this time last year due to issues caused by the pandemic.

Finding people to help is difficult. “The [pandemic] dramatically increased the strain on shelters by creating staffing shortages that limit shelter hours, decrease in-person volunteers, and reduce adoption events and pet care support,” said Julie Castle, CEO, Best Friends Animal Society.

Last summer, Best Friends conducted a survey of more than 150 shelters and animal organizations regarding these staffing issues. Respondents reported what many businesses have dealt with in the past years:
88% were short on staffing.
57% have cut hours or programs due to short staffing.
41% are operating at 25% of normal staffing levels.
62% are operating more than 10% below normal staffing levels.

Staffing shortages are just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of need. And in Mississippi, the need is great. Shelters that would never have considered euthanizing animals are being forced to make the hard decision to do just that. For the men and women who started this work to save animals, this is an unspeakably heartbreaking situation. “What would you do?” a post from Cheshire Abbey asks.

Most rescue shelters run on volunteers and donations. Lexie Withrow, a volunteer for HART (Homeless Animal Rescue Team) in Ohio, has rescued dogs from many places, including Mississippi, to bring them to homes or shelters in the OH/KY/IN/WVa region. After recent flooding in Kentucky, she herself rescued and transported more than 20 dogs without guarantee of fosters or adoptive homes, something she usually would not do.
In light of the situation, the rescue ran with hope for better resources than the ravaged places the pets were living. Natural disasters are a major cause of shelter influx, and Mississippians know these situations well. Tornadoes, flooding, wildfires, hurricanes…humans are left without shelter or food, and at the end of a long list of needs we ask: What becomes of their pets?

Further issues arise regularly: Pet owners become ill or disabled, divorces happen, personality conflicts arise within pet families. A recession makes these issues grow exponentially. Money is needed, so many places, and wallets are rightfully tight. Often well-meaning people (especially during pandemic times) think they want a companion, only to find out that when life becomes hectic again they are not as interested or cannot keep up financially. Homeowners or renters are forced to move, unable to take pets with them. The reasons are plentiful. The money is not.

Rescuing animals is expensive. The cost of transport alone is enormous. It goes beyond rising gas prices, renting/owning adequate vehicles for the transportation of living animals, and time availability for volunteers. The cost of rescuing includes veterinary care, medication, grooming, and the massive job of housing and feeding the rescues. Lexie tells us that one dog rescued from the side of a highway just yesterday requires between $5,000- $8,000 to set broken legs. This is not unusual at all, according to all accounts. In fact, many rescue animals require even greater and more constant health-care bills just to survive. Sick pets are often left at shelters when owners can no longer afford the rising cost of vet care.

Overcrowding in shelters therefore occurs, which leads to the greater issue of housing too many dogs without adequate resources. Each shelter we spoke to said the same thing: “There’s just too many dogs that need homes. We can’t afford to feed them all. We don’t have space or staff to support them. But we can’t just turn them away, we can’t just leave them to die. That’s the issue in a nut shell,” one volunteer told us. The shelter where she works is caring for 120+ dogs at the moment. It was built to house no more than 50.

Cathy Bissel of the Bissel Foundation wrote in a blog for the University of Florida:

“Some shelters measure their success almost solely on live release rates. While a live release number of 90% is exciting, it loses luster when the animals in the facility are suffering. What the data does not show us is when there are three or more dogs in the same run, fighting over food and bullying the weakest. These numbers don’t reflect that staff is so overwhelmed with the vast number of pets in their care that animals suffer from illness and injury. Each pet is an individual sentient being, not a number. Consideration must be taken for each of them to ensure their basic needs are met.”

The Foundation’s video below (less than 2 min view time) explains a great deal of the crisis.

The Solutions

FOSTER! Adopting a dog is not the only way to help! Many people open their homes to foster dogs, bringing them from shelters into a stable home environment where the pet can adjust and recover until a permanent home is found. This is a crucial aspect of rescues and shelters, and keeps overcrowding at bay.

Shelters need FOOD, though even that is not as simple or cheap as it sounds. Those costs have increased as well, and there are often certain brands of food that are necessary for certain animals, as Valerie Hicks of CARA told us. “We are always grateful for anything we can get, and you never want to appear picky, but at the end of the day the animals and their health are the priority.” Many shelters will use pet supply stores (like Chewy or local supply centers) to order food, and cash donations or gift cards are always an option. Some shelters even use Kroger Rewards, or local restaurants that will donate portions of proceeds on specific days.

Time and labor are also needed, always. Hands-on, boots on the ground, pet rescue and recovery missions occur daily around the state. If you have transportation, blankets, FREE TIME, or just want to ask “what could I do?”, please call your local shelter and ask what they could specifically use. We were amazed how accessible and helpful everyone was when we called! Some places just need a set of hands to pet some lonely puppies.

And if you are a pet owner already, you can help from home. The Humane Society suggests ways to make the jobs of shelters and rescues easier: Outfit your cats and dogs with collars and proper ID (a microchip and ID tags) at all times. As soon as you bring them into your family, have all of your pets spayed or neutered. Keep your cats indoors, where you can keep them safe (though it’s great to take them on walks if they are comfortable on a harness and leash or provide them a catio for safe outdoor enrichment) and keep dogs on leashes when off your property.

And finally, there is a great need for moral support in this endeavor. Valerie at CARA says she goes to bed every night with her mind racing through all the things she still needs to do, all the animals that need her help. It is exhausting, both physically and emotionally, for the men and women who do this work. But they’d have it no other way, and most feel called to the cause. Reach out and thank them, if you can. Support Facebook groups, like and follow social media accounts of shelters. If you are a praying person, pray for them. The days are long, and the needs are mighty.

But if the pets have taught their caregivers anything, it’s that with love and perseverance, miracles CAN happen. We here at Darkhorse Press will be on board, “until every cage is empty”.

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