‘We’ve been close to putting a dog in a bathroom’: Chicago-area shelters deal with overcrowding due to financial strain on owners, worry about eviction moratorium ending

It was one of the few bright spots during the COVID shutdown: Animal shelters emptied as people who were working from home and eager for distraction took in animals for fostering or adopting.

“We had a situation where a dog would come in and get adopted an hour later, because there was such demand for adoptions and fostering,” said Emily Klehm, CEO of Chicago Heights’ South Suburban Humane Society.

But when the shutdown relaxed and people began returning to their normal lives, animals trickled back in.

Now, many Chicago-area shelters are overcrowded, with adoption numbers lower than they’ve seen in years.

Shelter owners and workers point to financial and economic issues as the reason animals are being surrendered. And they worry it will get worse when the eviction moratorium ends Oct. 3.

“Just like the pandemic changed the cycles and flows of every business and industry, the same thing has happened in the shelter industry,” Susanna Homan, CEO of PAWS Chicago said.

Making space wherever they can

Klehm said her shelter has been so crowded that staff have been close to “putting a dog in the bathroom,” in order to make space.

South Suburban Humane Society is a managed-admission shelter, which means it tries to schedule admissions to match the flow of animals entering and leaving the building. Even so, Klehm notes the shelter has been at capacity or over capacity since spring, and its adoption rates have dipped lower than 2019′s rates.

“Every organization pretty much across the country, and especially here in Chicago, saw the highest adoption and foster demand that we’ve ever seen in 2020,” she said.

Klehm says the shelter now regularly has 25% to 30% more animals than in 2019, before the pandemic. She estimates its adoption rates are about 30% lower than in 2019.

“A couple of weeks ago we had dogs in every office, filling our community room,” she said. “We did an emergency plea to the public for fostering, we did an adoption special. We reached out to our partner organizations across Chicago, and we were able to get our population down a little bit.”

But she says the numbers could rise at any time and they could be back where they started.

One Tail at a Time is a Chicago shelter that, like South Suburban and many others in the area, receives animals from the area’s open shelters, which often means Chicago Animal Care and Control.

“We take in as many as we can, and we have noticed that every shelter partner that we have is full now. So everyone is basically begging us to come in and take as many dogs and cats and rabbits as we can,” said Heather Owen, founder of One Tail at a Time. “But at the same time, our adoptions and offers for foster homes have slowed down.”

Ideally, shelters say about half of their animals would be in foster care, while the other half are at the shelter. But at the Animal Care League, foster rates are only at about 30%.

Owen said the group has tried initiatives to get adoption rates up, such as waiving fees and running specials, as well as offering to let prospective owners foster. It also tries to help owners who say they may have to surrender animals because they can’t afford to keep them. Other shelters, including PAWS Chicago, pay for pet food and veterinarian expenses for fosters.

She said shelters often have tough years, but 2020 was an extraordinary exception.

“We saw a major reprieve last year, because people were home. So they thought that they could take care of their pets. And they were probably getting lots of comfort from their pets. Now that life is back to the hustle and bustle, and people are experiencing hardships from the pandemic, they’re not able to keep their pets,” Owen said.

Pandemic economy burdens trickle down to pets

Michelle Wilfred, an adoption counselor at Oak Park’s Animal Care League, said some pandemic animal owners did not “make a committed decision” when they adopted their pets. But they are also seeing long-term pet owners surrendering animals.

“We are getting constant phone calls of people trying to return their dogs, cats and rabbits,” Wilfred said. “It’s like families who’ve had a dog for like five years, and all of a sudden, they can no longer care for it or keep it.”

But the Animal Care League is full. So Wilfred and other staff members have to begin a “cycle of calling” and try to direct the animals elsewhere.

“In severe situations (of owner surrenders) we do what we can, but if we don’t have the space, we just cannot take them,” she said.

Wilfred said the yearly “Clear the Shelters” events, which ran from Aug. 23 to Sept. 19 across the country, have not been as successful for the Oak Park shelter.

Klehm and other shelters say they are not seeing the feared “pandemic return” — animals being returned once the pandemic lockdowns ended because their owners were too busy or not home enough. But they are seeing animals being returned for other reasons: namely, the economy.

Shelter workers say owners surrendering animals often say they can no longer afford to care for them.

“We have seen an increase of demand for our low-cost veterinary services, an increased demand at our pet food bank, an increased demand of people calling us and telling us that they have to move and they can’t find pet-friendly housing to take their dog or cat with. Those are all things that are easily tied to the economy, and our world is still trying to recover,” she said.

Additionally, the end of the eviction moratorium on Oct. 3 in Illinois worries shelter owners in Chicagoland.

“We are very, very concerned,” about the moratorium ending, Klehm said.

As many as 20,000 evictions could happen in Chicago once the moratorium is lifted, and Klehm said that could leave thousands of pets homeless

‘No one else can take them’: Shelters with space are still feeling the crisis

When Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans, the Animal Care League was unable to help out the affected animals due to space concerns.

One shelter that was able to help animals displaced by Ida was PAWS Chicago.

PAWS, a no-kill shelter, recently opened a state-of-the-art medical center that has enabled it to host more animals.

Staff there have not noticed a drop in adoptions from 2019, but are getting calls from other shelters asking them to take in more animals than normal. However, the shelter finds it is able to handle more animals than normal because of having the larger space, and their new medical center. They also have not seen many returns — PAWS has an extensive counseling and compatibility process to match owners with pets.

Even so, Homan said she noticed an increase in calls in August from shelters with an overflow of animals.

PAWS, a managed admission shelter, is the largest intake partner of Animal Care and Control, she said, and has about 600 animals in total (including fosters), some of the larger numbers in the area. The shelter’s new medical center, which has 90 isolation units, has been especially helpful for sick animals that other shelters cannot handle.

“They’ve been calling us about specific animals and saying, ‘Can you take this animal because no one else can take them?” she said.

As for the future, shelters are hoping more people join their foster programs, adopt or even donate to any of their organizations.

Klehm said this isn’t the worst she’s seen in the shelter industry — that would be in 2008 when the recession hit.

“That was truly an extraordinary time, and we’re not to that level yet. But that’s what we’re trying to prevent from happening, we can’t get back to where we were in that time period.”