GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — If you’ve ever considered volunteering to foster shelter animals, there’s no better time. 

Shelters in Michigan and across the country are struggling with what one clinic director called an “unprecedented capacity crisis.”

In mid-November, the Michigan Pet Alliance hosted a virtual roundtable on the issue featuring several experts.

“It is a complex, scary thing,” said Dr. Julie Levy, professor of Shelter Medicine Education at the University of Florida.

“(Shelters) are fuller than they’ve been for years, and some shelters are starting to euthanize for space for the first time in years.”

Levy was talking in generalities about shelters across the country, but News 8 wanted to know if the crisis is prompting local facilities to euthanize for space.  

The answer, for several West Michigan shelters at least, is “no.”

While Grand Rapids area shelters that responded to our inquiry confirmed they’re facing a capacity crisis, they also reported their stance on euthanasia has not changed: They only take that route in cases where an animal’s medical or behavioral problems render them unadoptable.

DETROIT EUTHANIZING ANIMALS FOR SPACE

That is not the case, however, in the state’s largest city.

“Detroit Animal Care and Control is euthanizing animals because adoptions and transfers have decreased,” wrote Detroit Animal Care Director Mark Kumpf in a Friday email to News 8.

“Detroit, like every other shelter in the state of Michigan and across the country, is over capacity on a daily basis,” wrote Kumpf. 

Deborah Schutt, chairperson of the Michigan Pet Alliance (MPA), took issue with the Detroit shelter’s use of the term euthanasia.

“That just makes everyone feel better,” said Schutt in a phone call Friday with News 8.

“You wouldn’t want to go to sleep in front of them because you won’t wake up. That’s the bottom line. The animal is dead. You didn’t ‘put them to sleep.’ You killed them.” 

Despite the capacity crisis, Schutt does not believe the increased shelter population will jeopardize the state’s “no-kill” designation.

MICHIGAN’S “NO-KILL” STATUS NOT IN JEOPARDY

Michigan Pet Alliance declared Michigan a “no-kill” state in 2018, which means its shelters, taken together, achieved a 90% live release rate on animals in their care.

Live release refers to animals who were adopted, returned to their original owner or transferred to another shelter or rescue organization.

Advocates agree there are multiple reasons for overcrowding at shelters. 

During the COVID-19 shutdown, there was a significant decrease in spay and neuter surgeries.

According to research by Dr. Levy at the University of Florida, the nation’s high-volume clinics missed out on three million such surgeries in 2020 and 2021.

“We could have generations of animals that have been born simply because COVID shut down and then the clinics couldn’t recover just like everyone else,” said Dr. Levy during the Michigan Pet Alliance virtual roundtable. 

There’s also a shortage of veterinarians, kennel workers, volunteers, and adopters.

“The new normal is not enough people working. High turnover. All kinds of stress that keeps people from being their best,” said Levy.

It’s likely financial stress on potential adopters is also playing a role. 

WEST MI OVERCROWDING HAS RIPPLE EFFECT

While West Michigan shelters are not reporting increased euthanizations themselves, their struggles cause a ripple effect in the state’s larger cities.

“We used to do transfers regularly and now I am turning down shelters left and right,” wrote Harbor Humane Society Executive Director Jen Self-Aulgur in a recent news release.

“Our shelter friends are dealing with overcrowded conditions and transferring used to be a way to help with that. Now, they are faced with having to potentially made hard decisions on animals when they can’t transfer them and that is so sad for all involved.”

In an email to News 8, Self-Aulgur said the West Olive shelter’s stray population has been “much higher than in previous years.”

“We saw around 200 more cats come in this year than last year. The bigger problem seems to be a longer length of stay. We don’t seem to have as many adopters as normal, so animals are waiting a longer time to get adopted.”

Self-Aulgur also reported a rise in emergency surrenders.

140% STRAY INCREASE AT KENT CO SHELTER

The Kent County Animal Shelter recently reported a 140% increase in the number of stray dogs brought in by the public this year.

“When we think about the number of people behind on rent in Kent County, it is possible that many dogs that are owned may be brought in as a stray to avoid fees and/or waiting period,” wrote Kent County Shelter Director Angela Hollinshead in an email to News 8. “Or they simply ran out of options.”

The Humane Society of West Michigan echoed the concerns of other metro Grand Rapids shelters.

“We are seeing it all over the country,” said Tania Jaczkowski, executive director of the Humane Society of West Michigan. “Too many in and not enough going out.”

At the Allegan County Animal Shelter, which is operated by the Wishbone Pet Rescue Alliance, Danika Langstraat introduced a News 8 crew to Shannon, a pitbull mix that entered the shelter in March.

Shannon is up for adoption at the Allegan County Animal Shelter. (Dec. 16, 2022)

“She’d be a great family dog,” said Langstraat. “She’s super happy-go-lucky.”

But after ten months, there are still no takers.

Increasingly, animals are staying in the Allegan shelter for longer periods of time.

“It’s very bad,” said Langstraat, lamenting how stressful the shelter environment is for dogs, despite workers’ efforts to give them one-on-one attention.

“WE NEED VOLUNTEERS”

“We need volunteers to come and walk our dogs, be with them. Decompression time is really important. Getting them out of the kennel. Just sitting with them.”

Langstraat said there’s no doubt the shelter’s intakes have increased.

“There was one day we had eight dogs come in and we had nowhere to put them. We had dogs in our intake area. We had to set up all these extra cages, and we were able to make it work.”

Cal Reed, volunteer coordinator at the Allegan County shelter, urged West Michigan to volunteer, donate, and foster animals to help prepare them for forever homes.

“Being overcrowded, (fostering) opens up kennels and gives us more time to dedicate to the dogs that are here, or space to even house them,” said Reed, who became tearful when asked about the challenges of her work.  

It’s clear she cares deeply about each and every animal.

“Everyone who’s here feels this way. We love our animals. We just want what’s best for them.”

While the Allegan County Shelter does not end animals’ lives to make space, its director said overcrowding can prompt them to euthanize animals who are unadoptable for medical or behavioral reasons sooner than they might otherwise.  

The Muskegon Humane Society is a private, limited admission shelter so it only accepts animals when it has space.

“This year has been especially difficult as we’ve been at capacity with our communities’ surrender needs, but we have continued to get requests for help every single day from organization around the state and country,” wrote Alexis Robinson, executive director of the Muskegon Humane Society, in an email to News 8.  

“It’s been a tough year on everyone,” wrote Alexis Robinson in an email to News 8.

“We’ve seen the stray cat population, animal cruelty, abandonment cases, and pet surrenders rise to an unmanageable level for all rescues. Meanwhile, donations, volunteer support and adoption numbers have declined.” 

DETROIT MAKING ADOPTION, FOSTERING MORE ATTRACTIVE 

Detroit’s animal shelter is looking for ways to increase adoptions and fostering.   

“We are waiving fees to encourage people to adopt or foster. All of our animals are microchipped, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and Detroiters will receive a license free of charge for their new pet,” wrote Mark Kump in an email to News 8. 

The city said it also expects to start construction in January 2023 on a new 30,000-square foot, state-of-the-art shelter which will have space for 200 kennels and a veterinary clinic.

Detroit, like every other shelter in the state, is urging people to donate, volunteer, foster or adopt an animal.

They’re also asking owners to reclaim lost pets.