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Crisis at the kennels: Crowded Palm Beach County shelter resorts to euthanasia to free up cages

FOR MORE THAN A YEAR, Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control has been sounding the alarm about an overcrowding “crisis” at the public shelter’s 144 dog kennels.

A steady rise in new arrivals pushed the canine population well above 200 most of this summer, forcing two dogs to share kennels designed for one and straining the shelter’s limited staff and resources. ACC issued announcements urging the community to step up and help by adopting and fostering dogs.

Then, one day two weeks ago came a policy change of last resort that sent shockwaves through the shelter's network of dedicated volunteers.

Starting Aug. 9 (which happened to be the same day the dog population hit a year high of 237), long-time canine residents with dim rescue prospects and dogs with certain medical and behavioral problems would be eligible for euthanasia.

In other words, to free up cages for what at times has seemed like an unrelenting stream of new animals, the agency’s most vulnerable dogs are at risk of being humanely put down.

“Our focus is on lifesaving efforts for those animals likeliest to be adopted quickly and which have the least need for behavior modification and/or medical care,’’ shelter Director Jan Steele wrote Aug. 8 in a “Capacity of Humane Care” update to volunteers and partner shelters.

Among the categories that “may be humanely euthanized,’’ according to a memo that boldfaced the word “may”:

  • Heartworm positive dogs with clinical disease (these dogs exceed the shelter’s current ability to provide immediate intensive treatment).

  • Heartworm positive dogs with subclinical disease and with confounding factors (these dogs exceed the shelter’s current ability to provide complex treatment).

  • Animals with multiple medical issues (these animals exceed the shelter’s current ability to provide complex treatment).

  • Animals that have been in shelter care for an extended period of time and have no promising adoption or rescue prospects.

“If we are not overcrowded, we can usually work with those animals,’’ Assistant Director Dave Walesky said in an interview.

“But when we are overcrowded, we know that certain animals are going to drain a lot more of our resources than other animals. If we are focusing on the numbers, we’ve got to focus on the ones that are easiest to get out of here the fastest.’’

It's a difficult but necessary decision, ACC officials say. And many shelter volunteers, who have bonded with the dogs through countless hours of walking and pampering, were moved to tears when it was announced.

“Every dog that is not perfect is on the chopping block,’’ Heather Smith, a volunteer for the past seven years, said Aug. 9 in an emotional Facebook video.

“It’s not the shelter’s fault,’’ she said. “It’s the influx of animals coming in that is the problem. Yeah, they are killing animals. There is no other option. They need help.’’

ACC officials said they understand the emotional reactions from volunteers who know many of the shelter's four-legged residents by name — "Rolex" and "Baxter" and "Cowgirl" and "Radar" and "Arianna" and "Blue Bell" and "Coach,'' to name a few.

But the policy change, they said, is a wakeup call about the dire realities of a crisis taxing the agency’s resources and staff.

"Every dog that is not perfect is on the chopping block."

“We put out a number of press releases about overcrowding. This is the first one that referenced the word ‘euthanasia,’” Walesky said.

“The others were us begging for help from the community to take the animals from us. This one was a little more blunt and reminds everybody that euthanasia is a real possibility.’’

Animals are euthanized every day at ACC, located at 7100 Belvedere Road in suburban West Palm Beach. Most cases involve dogs and cats suffering injuries from car strikes, pets with chronic illnesses, dangerous dogs, or pets voluntarily brought in by cash-strapped owners who can't afford to pay a private veterinarian to put down a terminally-ill pet.

The agency took a major step toward avoiding euthanasia in 2008 when it required local breeders to register and pay more for unsterilized pets. Since then, euthanizing animals for the purpose of freeing up kennel space has been rare.

“It's the first time in several years that we’re having to euthanize because of overcrowding,” Steele said in an interview. "I am trying to keep from doing that. What I want to do is get out in front of this.’’

Steele, in her second year as director, hopes the policy change spurs the public to help out.

“I was hoping to motivate people to say, ‘Look, we’ve been talking about this for the last year. I'm really serious. I don't want to euthanize for space. I want to get these animals out,’” she said.

“But I am at a point where if we don't move some of these animals out that I know can be saved, I’m going to have to euthanize them because they’ve been here for six months, they have heartworms, nobody wants to adopt them and I’ve got new dogs waiting for that one space.''

So far, the strategy appears to have netted some early positive results.

In the days after the announcement, rescue groups and others stepped up to adopt and foster, lowering the dog population to 192 as of Aug. 18.

But more help is needed before euthanasia can be removed as an overcrowding solution.

The shelter’s cat population has had crowding issues, too. The shelter, which can house 130 cats, had 132 on Aug. 15.

Dogs are the most pressing issue. The shelter's daily dog population hasn’t been under 144 — the number of available kennels — since Oct. 30, when it fell to 142.

Since April 6, 2022, which is around the time the crisis started, the dog population has been above 144 for all but 26 days. It has been above 200 every day from June 5 to Aug. 14, when it dipped to 198.

“We’re in an emergency situation,’’ Steele said in a statement posted Aug. 18 on the shelter’s website. “The sheer volume of animals is pushing us to the limit. We can’t do this alone. Our community’s support is vital now more than ever.’’

The shelter's dog population has exceeded the shelter's 144 kennels since early last year. It has been above 200 every day from June 5 to Aug. 14, 2023, when it dipped to 198. (Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control.)

Most individual kennels are 12 feet long, 6 feet high and 4 feet wide, with a sliding guillotine wall in the middle that allows staff members to clean the cages. The dog’s food, water and sleeping quarters are in one 6-foot half, with the other half used as the dog’s bathroom area.

Because of the overcrowding, the guillotine wall on many kennels has been dropped permanently to create two smaller kennels, each with food, water and sleeping quarters in the same space as the dog’s bathroom area.

“What we are doing right now is just not sustainable. It’s not humane. It's not best practice with cleaning and disinfecting,’’ Walesky said.

Each year, the shelter typically takes in more than 10,000 dogs and cats. That number will probably top 11,000 by the end of 2023, Steele said.

The shelter's goal is to have a release rate of at least 90 percent, which qualifies as a “no-kill shelter” designation. For example, a 94 percent release rate means that if 100 animals come to the shelter, 94 are released to a home or rescue and six are euthanized.

“We often operate above those numbers. Lately we have not been able to do that,” Walesky said. “I believe we are in the low 80s for dogs and in the high 70s for cats.’'

Many animals surrendered to the shelter or picked up as strays by ACC officers come from owners who are struggling financially with low-paying jobs and can no longer afford their pets.

“That's why we are seeing this huge influx of just your regular mutt kind of dogs, the dogs everybody’s got here in South Florida,’’ Steele said.

But there are other contributing factors.

“We are also seeing a lot of dogs from older people who as they have to go to elder care homes or they died, their children take over their pets,'' she said.

"There are a lot of small fluffies that are 6 to 8, 10 or 12 years old coming to the shelter now too. We used to be able to find homes for them really quickly, but we are having a hard time finding homes for even the cute and fluffies.’’

Adoption fees are usually $60 for adult dogs, $75 for puppies, and $50 for cats and kittens. But the shelter this month is waiving adoption fees for dogs in a “Celebrate DOGust” promotion.

ACC works with more than 60 rescue groups and shelters in Florida and other states to get as many animals out of its facility as possible. But many of those shelters, and others across the United States, are also facing overcrowding, Steele said.

"The other night the sheriff's office served a search warrant for drugs and they end up needing us to pick up 11 dogs from somebody who was being incarcerated. All of a sudden I got to figure out where to put 11 dogs," Walesky said.

Some help may be on the way.

On Tuesday, county commissioners approved a $4.2 million purchase of 3 acres next to the shelter. The land will be used as part of a $48 million expansion of the shelter that could break ground in fiscal year 2025.

And later this fall, commissioners will consider allocating $90,000 for two new positions at the shelter, an adoption coordinator and a foster coordinator. At a budget hearing in June, several shelter volunteers urged commissioners to approve the new positions.

“I have serious concerns about the overcrowding in our shelter and the fact that dogs and cats are going to die if we do not figure out how to get them out of the shelter and into good homes,’’ Smith said at the hearing.

At the same hearing, another volunteer, Anne Schmidt, told commissioners: “I regularly counsel and comfort members of the public who are brought to tears (because) of conditions of the county shelter. Children sometimes run out because they can’t handle the stress by viewing and hearing the suffering caused by the living conditions of our animals.’’

Earlier this month, after reading Steele's email about the euthanasia policy change, Schmidt wrote to Palm Beach County Mayor Gregg Weiss.

“Staff and us volunteers are working so hard around the clock to take care of these animals and get them out the door safely, but when receiving a letter like that we are all feeling hopeless and defeated,’’ she wrote.

Steele said it’s “a community problem” that can best be solved one way — with the community’s help.

Smith and another volunteer recently launched The Shelter Dog Project , which works with the county to find homes for the dogs.

“These dogs through no fault of their own, they have heartworm, nobody wants to adopt them,'' Steele said. "I can't keep holding them here and not having the resources to treat them and they are taking up space that can be used for other dogs that can hopefully find home'' quicker.''

She added, “If each family did just one foster every couple of years, we would solve this problem.''

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About the author

Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.


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