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No Rescue: Why animal shelter euthanasia is rising

A Scripps News investigation finds euthanasia rates are climbing at cramped animal shelters nationwide.
No Rescue: why animal shelter euthanasia is rising
Posted at 7:24 PM, Mar 29, 2023

Shoshi Gamliel has transformed her Riverside, California house into a kennel. Everywhere you look, there's another furry face.

Gamliel has turned her home over to her passion: helping rescue shelter dogs before they are euthanized. Even her garage is full of canine tenants.

As the founder of the non profit rescue group underdog heroes, Gamliel is part of a network of local activists trying to save dogs from overcrowded shelters,  posting pleas for help on social media.

Our Scripps News investigation reveals that the problem of packed kennels isn’t just happening in southern California. It’s nationwide.    

"It really is a complex issue that we are in right now," said Stephanie Filer, executive director of Shelter Animals Count. 

The group tracks shelter trends across the country, and the data shows euthanasia rates are going up.  

"There are too many animals entering, and not enough animals leaving each year," Filer said. "Last year was the worst we saw in the past four years. When you think about millions of animals in the shelter system, it’s hundreds of thousands of animals."

We learned there are a number of complex reasons for increasing euthanasia rates, from shelters running out of space to major staffing shortages. And as the pandemic ends and inflation drives up the cost of ownership, people just aren’t adopting as many pets.   

"As people have returned to normal, and animals are staying behind," Filer said. "And so that whole system has essentially bottlenecked. "

That bottleneck has put a spotlight on shelters where euthanasia rates are going up, like one we visited in Riverside County, California.     

Our investigation found that the rate of healthy dogs and cats put down here more than doubled, from 6% in 2021 to more than 15% last year. 

SEE MORE: Pet shelters are packed while pet owners grapple with high costs

Those numbers motivated more than 53,000 people to sign a petition to demand that county commissioners take action, claiming that "dogs under 3 years of age with zero medical issues are being killed consistently at the shelter." 

Private animal rescue groups who work with the shelter we visited say the numbers are going up because this shelter is running out of room and are therefore euthanizing more animals. Of course we wanted to ask Riverside County officials about those numbers. They declined our request for an interview.

Rescue groups say Riverside County used to notify them when a dog was about to be euthanized so they could quickly mobilize and try to save the animal — but recently that stopped. The groups say they now have to rely on a vague "red list" posted online, and say dozens of dogs can still be put down without what they believe is adequate warning.

"I feel like they’re the worst shelter I've ever dealt with," Gamliel said. "it’s stressful, because you have like a day to figure it out. With Riverside, it’s like, 'surprise, thirty dogs were killed on Valentine’s Day.'"

Our repeated requests for an interview with Riverside County Animal Services director Erin Gettis were declined. But we did finally elicit this written response from county officials: "The impact our shelters are seeing with extremely high numbers of animals in our care," they wrote, "is a trend seen throughout the entire state and nation, and is not specific to one county."

Across the country, there are more than 4,400 animal shelters. Policies about when animals can be put down are inconsistent. Rescue groups say adoptable pets are being euthanized at alarming rates.

Instagram and Facebook posts try to spread the word before it’s too late, but sometimes it’s not enough.   

This past December, Gamliel’s group tried to rescue this three-month-old puppy named Bowie from a shelter in Baldwin Park, California .   

We reached out and of course, nothing, and then we found out that he was killed," Gamliel said. "It’s always a stab in the heart more so than anything because we’re like, 'we almost had him.'"

Bowie’s story went viral. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors demanded an explanation from the Department of Animal Care and Control, citing a 30% euthanasia rate, saying "It’s time for the county to rethink its animal care strategy to maximize the number of animals that find their forever homes."

In a new report obtained by Scripps News, the agency says it has a five-year plan to cut the number of animals euthanized, but needs hundreds of new employees and a budget increase of more than $43 million a year.  

SEE MORE: Animal rescues see fewer adoptions, more surrenders due to inflation

Bowie’s story also caught the attention of a state lawmaker. California state assemblyman Bill Essayli has now introduced legislation he calls "Bowie’s Law."     

"It’s really simple," Essayli said. "It just says before you put down an adoptable dog or cat, you have to post them on your website for 72 hours.  That way, the public or a rescue has an opportunity to intervene and save their life before they are put down."

But the association that represents more than 240 shelter organizations in California opposes the bill.

"It will be an increase in euthanasia if Bowie’s Law is passed," said Jill Tucker, CEO of the California Animal Welfare Association. "Putting a time parameter on the outcome of animals is actually going to limit their ability and flexibility to keep animals as long as possible."

Maria Duarte rescued 2 year old Molly from doggie death row in January. She believes something has to give.   

"This is the worst I’ve ever seen it," Duarte said. "Right now, there aren’t any words to describe how terrible these shelters are with overcrowding. I want to be angry with the shelter, but if they weren’t there... There are dogs that are getting happy endings there."

Duarte says pet owners bear responsibility too.   

"That's a big part of why shelters are so overcrowded.  People aren’t spaying and neutering and you’ve got litters of dogs… and they end up in the shelters and it’s a really vicious cycle."

in the meantime, Gamliel and a small army of pet-loving volunteers are fighting for more of those happy endings.

"My whole idea was to get a big property and be able to house as many dogs as I can," Shoshi said. 

A place where there is always room for one more.   

"I mean, there’s nothing like dogs. I love them more than people, you know?" Shoshi said. "I just feel like they deserve a chance."

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