Animal shelter

Inside a Hillsborough animal shelter, overwhelmed by an abnormal increase in the season


TAMPA – The black kitten from Kennel # AC-57 arrived unnamed at the shelter on the last day of November, nine weeks old and weighing 2.7 pounds. The staff christened him Darwin. Smoothing in his cage, he stretched his paws through the metal slats and showed the tuft of gray on his chest.

As the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center came alive on Wednesday, he was one of its 374 felines and canines inhabitants, a figure that placed the shelter at nearly double its intended capacity. As it approaches what is normally its slowest time of year, the refuge, the largest in the region and one of the largest in the state, is still welcoming animals faster than it can. can move them. Those in charge cannot understand why.

The director of the shelter, Scott Trebatoski, fears the possibility that the admission rate will continue to rise during the winter. He worries about his staff, stretched out and so busy taking care of basic animal needs that they often don’t have 15 minutes free to play with a cat or walk a dog.

“You can come in and do your job,” he said, “but you’re more of a manager. “

The place on Wednesday had a low hum of synchronized movement. Volunteers transported the dogs between the kennels and the playground. In the bowels of the maze-like facility, workers stuffed blankets, towels and quilts from a pile of Sisyphean laundry into washing machines industrial grade.

A cat and kitten rest together at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa on Wednesday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Mali Harden, an animal care assistant, cleaned the kennels around Darwin with proven efficiency. “It will be adopted by the end of the day,” she said, emptying the contents of a litter box into a trash can.

The cute and charismatic kittens come and go fast; puppies, even faster. As for the rest of the animals, the refuge strives to socialize them, to treat their wounds and their ailments, and to play the go-between, by finding homes that correspond to their personality.

Usually spring and summer are busy, but the rush subsides in the fall, at the end of kitten season, and the holidays mark the slowest time of year.

Related: Photos: Overcrowding at Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center

Trebatoski looked at the admission data, but can find a few trends indicating what made this year so markedly different. Disposals due to housing changes are on the rise, he said, but are being offset by a drop in the number of people abandoning pets they don’t have enough time to care for. All other proportions are stable – that’s right more of everything.

The first year of the pandemic has brought surprising blessings for the shelter. Trebatoski said adoptions increased at the start of the pandemic as more people found themselves alone, stuck in their homes with free time. A rescue coordinator at the shelter said that on some days in 2020 there were fewer than 20 animals.

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Trebatoski and many of his peers were concerned that new pet owners would return their pets when the world reopens, but he said almost none of the recent uploads were adopted animals last year.

Related: Not all pandemic pets adopted in Tampa Bay were returned to shelters after all

Reports have chronicled near-crises lately in shelters across North America: a shelter in Ontario inundated with rabbits; a no-slaughter facility in Atlanta that had to turn down animals queued for euthanasia at other shelters; a Humane Society in San Diego in desperate search of foster homes. Some of these places blamed particular trends, such as changes in animal transportation or a nationwide staffing issue. Trebatoski said the Hillsborough shelter is about 20 percent below its ideal staffing level, but that doesn’t explain the increase in admissions.

Skyler Jean Pierre, 20, of Tampa, meets a cat he named
Skyler Jean Pierre, 20, of Tampa, meets a cat he named “Cornflake” at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa on Wednesday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Comparing the Hillsborough shelter to its Tampa Bay counterpart deepens the mystery.

The Pinellas County Animal Services shelter has hovered between 50 and 60 percent of capacity, said director Doug Brightwell. Both shelters are public, have remained open during the pandemic, and are “open access”, which means that they do not refuse any cats or dogs. Brightwell pointed to some programs he said have helped, including a “back to the field” effort around feral cats that cut cat consumption in half. But even that ignores the gap between the two shelters.

The Hillsborough shelter, sandwiched between the county jail and a facility that turns waste into energy, is a dense maze of hallways and kennels, cubicles and vet rooms.

The volunteers participated in a constant relay, picking up a dog from its kennel and bringing it to the fenced green expanse, bringing another dog, back and forth for three hours, from 9 to noon.

During this time, the rescue coordinator was sending mass email calls to the more than 200 rescue groups the shelter works with. Across the building, a vet team bandaged a glistening pink rash from a sedated mastiff, while a cat with a fractured palate watched from its kennel and waited to be intubated. The animals were named after groceries or snakes or Star wars characters; people called them “baby” or “bud” or “honest” or “little lady”.

Monika Steidl, who will mark her 15th year volunteering here next month, has learned not to get too attached to animals. But she is worried about finding homes for all the animals during this recent wave, and what might happen to them otherwise.

In recent years, after efforts to make the shelter look less like a pound than a pre-adoption station, more than 90 percent of the animals have left here alive. The most recent cases of euthanasia involved animals too sick or injured to regain a reasonable quality of life, or dogs that posed a threat to public safety, Trebatoski said. But he noted that the shelter has euthanized animals due to overcrowding in the past and that this could be a concern in the future, especially if the shelter receives a sudden influx of particularly large animals.

A dog looks at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa on Wednesday.
A dog looks at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa on Wednesday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Steidl guided a dog through a series of chain link pens and into a large yard.

Rafael Fontan lingered in a corner, a spray bottle hanging from his cargo pants. The tattoos on his biceps say “Every Dog / Every Day,” a motto of the dog enrichment program he worked in, which argues that letting dogs play together on a daily basis is essential to understanding and socializing them. Lately, however, the shelter was so overcrowded that “every dog, every two or three days” would be a more accurate description.

Until two years ago, Fontan traveled from shelter to shelter with the enrichment program, Dogs Playing for Life. He wants to get back on the road, so he will quit his job at the shelter at the end of the year. His eyes scanned the grass, like a teacher watching the children at recess, focused but a little wistful.

“I want to see them all go before I go,” he said.

Inside the shelter, people were trying to figure out how to get there. The previous weekend they had had success with an event focused on older animals. They kept working on mailing lists, posting the cutest photos online, trying to perfect the art of animal pairing.

A few potential adopters had wandered into the front room, greeted by a chorus of meowing cats named Costco and Bat Woman and Ralph. And yes, Darwin was still there, but now the information sheet hanging from his kennel was stamped “Adopted,” as Harden had predicted. He would be gone soon, and as soon as there was another cat to take his place.