Denver animal welfare organizations faced a surge in business during the latter half of 2021 that had been delayed by the initial waves of the pandemic, leaving workers overwhelmed as they confronted staff shortages while trying to maintain quality care for the animals.
“Normally, there’s somewhat of a slow season, and we’re just not seeing that right now,” Meghan Dillmore, shelter services manager at the Denver Animal Shelter, said last month. “Right now my team is so swamped that they are getting overtime, basically every day, just trying to get their basic cleaning done.”
With more than 310 animals in its care as of Dec. 1, the facility was essentially at capacity given the amount of staff it has, Dillmore said, due to a combination of reasons that include an atypical influx in customers and animals in recent months, staff shortages and an increase in the length of stay of animals.
The Denver Animal Shelter, a division of the city’s Department of Public Health and Environment, is an open-admissions shelter that offers a variety of services including reuniting lost pets with their owners, facilitating pet adoptions and accepting surrendered pets that owners relinquish to the shelter.
In recent months, the shelter experienced heightened numbers of both customers and pets coming to the facility, said Tracy Koss, the customer care manager. For example, the shelter had 400 more transactions in November 2021 than it had in November 2019 followed by 2,000 more transactions in December 2021 than in December 2019, Koss said.
These transactions include adoptions, pet vaccinations, issuing licenses and permits, store sales, returning lost pets to owners, euthanasia requests and citation payments. And December’s high number was partly due to donation letters, Koss said, as well as a doubling of adoptions for the month compared to December 2019.
Yet despite the recent influx in customers, the shelter was down about 10,000 transactions overall for the year, Koss said. That’s because, at the beginning of 2021, fewer customers visited than usual, indicating to Koss that people delayed coming until later in the year due to the pandemic.
“I feel like people are kind of making up time,” Koss said of the recent surge. “The business they didn’t do at the beginning of the year… we’re now seeing them coming in and doing that business now.”
The Denver Dumb Friends League, a Colorado animal welfare organization, experienced a surge in business starting in the summer of 2021, said CEO and president Apryl Steele, causing the organization to reach its capacity for the first time in a decade with more than 1,500 animals in its care.
“Everything happened at once for us,” Steele said, saying animals that likely would have trickled in month after month during a typical year all came at once in the summer. “We were begging everyone to help transfer from us.”
Although there was a boom in business in the latter half of 2021, Steele said the average number of animals the organization has received over the last three years would be fairly typical. “It’s just that it was decreased for so long (during the pandemic), and then it all happened at once,” she said.
Adoption surge didn’t hit until 2021
Despite publicity about a surge in adoptions of “pandemic pets” in 2020, adoption numbers that year were the lowest in five years based on data from 4,000 shelters, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The Denver Animal Shelter had more than 700 more adoptions in 2021 than in 2020, Koss said. The Denver Dumb Friends League, likewise, had more adoptions in 2021 than 2020, Steele said.
“I think the reason people feel like there was an increase is because demand went through the roof. Everybody wanted a pet,” Steele said. “But in reality, the number of adoptions that happened was significantly decreased because there were fewer animals coming to us.”
Steele said she thinks fewer animals came to the Denver Dumb Friends League in 2020 because people’s lives were largely on hold, resulting in animals mostly staying in their homes with their owners. Koss agreed, saying that, in 2020, fewer animals were lost and surrendered to the shelter.
In addition to lower animal intake, fewer animals were available for adoption in 2020 because of Colorado’s COVID-related elective surgery halt that temporarily prevented animals from being spayed and neutered. Steele said the executive order that temporarily stopped elective procedures “affected veterinary medicine as well as human health care.”
“So all spay and neuter shut down for a significant period of time,” Steele said.
When the Humane Society of the South Platte Valley, a smaller shelter organization based in Littleton that offers spay and neuter services in its low-cost clinic, had to temporarily stop its clinic work due to COVID-19 restrictions, it “affected our mission where we couldn’t really service the community like we want to,” development manager Mindy Schmidt said. Now that the clinic is back to offering its services, business has been booming, Schmidt said.
Although the organization’s adoption and surrender numbers have been fairly typical, Schmidt said there have been higher numbers recently of neglected animals.
The number of animals the Denver Animal Shelter confiscated, typically due to cruelty and neglect, in 2021 was up by more than 50% from 2019, Dillmore said. It’s something the shelter team wants to look into further, she said, but attention has been prioritized on keeping up with the shelter’s increased volume, as there was a 76% increase in the number of animals the shelter had on Dec. 1, 2021, compared to Dec. 1, 2019, Dillmore said.
“Our vet team is a little bit behind trying to get their stuff done because they can’t find veterinary technicians to fill the open spot that we have,” Dillmore said.
Impact of staffing shortages
Like the Denver Animal Shelter, the Denver Dumb Friends League is also facing a staff shortage. Steele estimated about 30% of the positions at their public veterinary hospital in Yuma are open and have been for a long period of time, she said.
Staffing is also one of the biggest challenges for MaxFund Animal Adoption Center, a no-kill shelter in Denver, manager Selina Davison said. After the pandemic hit, the center’s staffing went from 32 people to 12, she said.
“We are still digging our way out of that,” Davison said.
MaxFund had a grand opening on Dec. 11 for its new cat shelter, the Meow Manor, in Denver. The new shelter is ready to house about 80 cats, executive director Kathy Gaines said, but because MaxFund doesn’t have enough staff members, plans to bring cats into the building are on hold.
“As of right now, we’re struggling to have enough veterinarians and vet techs with our main operation,” said Gaines, who hopes to get cats into the new facility before the first quarter of 2022 is over.
In addition to the unpredictable waves of business and staff shortages, Steele and the Denver Animal Shelter’s Dillmore both reported having an increased average length of stay of animals, meaning the number of days an animal is in the shelter before being adopted. For the Denver Animal Shelter, the average length of stay for animals increased by nearly four days, from 11.6 to 15.3, contributing to the shelter hitting its capacity, Dillmore said.
“The entire shelter is pulling together to just make sure that the animals are cared for on a daily basis, because my team alone can’t, can’t do it,” Dillmore said.
While it’s unknown what 2022 may bring to these animal welfare organizations, each shelter representative said community support is essential to their operations, sharing that those who adopt, foster, volunteer and donate to their organizations help them provide quality care.
“We are grateful for our community,” Steele said. “We would not be anywhere near as accessible and impactful as we are, if we didn’t have the support.”
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