Some Iowa animal shelters fill up as pet adoptions drop, surrenders increase

By: - August 2, 2021 3:01 pm

Dogs at the Animal Rescue League of Iowa participate in a training class. (Photo Courtesy of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa)

Animal shelters across the state are seeing fewer pet adoptions as Iowans return to in-person events and work. 

Animal adoptions skyrocketed in early 2020 across the country as Americans began working and learning from home, with one in five households acquiring a new pet between March 2020 and May 2021, according to a survey by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

The Humane Society of North Iowa saw applications triple for animals that needed to be adopted at the beginning of the pandemic, Executive Director Sybil Soukup said, but demand now is beginning to slow.

“In COVID times, we were getting 50 to 70 applications for an animal,” she said. “ … Our adoption rate is still steady, animals are still being adopted very quickly from our shelter. The number of applications has become a bit less because people have gotten back to their lives a little bit more.”

The Humane Society of North Iowa reviews these applications and chooses the best home for the needs of an animal, Soukup said, so the adoption process became more time consuming in 2020. 

Fewer adoptions in 2021

Following a year of consistently high adoption rates, pets are being adopted at a significantly lower rate in 2021. Vice President of Hope Animal Rescue of Iowa, Cheri Foreman-Keuck, said in an email to Iowa Capital Dispatch that adoption rates in 2020 jumped 29.5%, but the shelter is currently seeing a lack of homes willing to foster animals. 

“Some of the decrease in foster homes we attribute to individuals going back into the office and other outside the home activities and commitments as the pandemic lock-down requirements changed (or) lifted,” she said. 

Furry Friends Refuge Director Britt Gagne said her shelter has also seen a slowing in overall adoptions this summer. Animal Rescue League of Iowa CEO Tom Colvin said the adoption rate at the shelter is settling between 2019 and 2020 numbers. 

Coffee Cats owner Mary Jankowski said her West Des Moines cat café has seen fewer adoptions in the summer months as Iowans go on vacations.

“We’ve had several people come in and say that they’d love to adopt a cat, but they’re leaving for vacation,” she said. “People just aren’t home, and they’re taking advantage of being able to go somewhere on vacation. I think that’s part of the reason adoptions slowed down. My hope is that, once the summer is over, there will be more of an increase in adoptions.”

End of eviction moratorium could increase pet surrenders

The American Veterinary Medical Association told the New York Times in May that there is no “evidence to show that shelters are seeing an increase” in the number of animals returned that were adopted in the last year. However, in the past few months, many shelters in Iowa are receiving requests from pet owners to surrender their animals. 

Gagne said her shelter is seeing intake numbers reach pre-pandemic levels for the first time since early 2020 — something that could get worse this month.

“We are concerned that we will continue to see increases in owner surrenders of pets with the eviction moratorium ending and workplaces changing from virtual attendance policies,” she said.

A dog at the Animal Rescue League of Iowa participates in a training class. (Photo courtesy of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa)

Colvin is also concerned that evictions could increase the amount of animals at the ARL, but he said he has yet to see an increase in people giving up their pets.

“I am concerned about the impact evictions will have on people and pets, both,” he said. “There is the potential for it to break up a lot of families, two-legged and four-legged.”

Regardless of the moratorium, Soukup said the Humane Society of North Iowa is at capacity for certain animals and is running out of space as they continue to receive requests to take new animals.

“Right now, we have over 100 cats in our care, and we literally do not have any open kennels,” she said. “We have cats in every nook and cranny of our shelter and so we don’t have room for more. We have a waiting list of cats that are waiting to come to our shelter.”

She said the shelter has also seen several dogs surrendered, especially from breeders, to the shelter because people’s circumstances have changed due to the pandemic. 

Foreman-Keuck said surrenders are also up for the Hope Animal Rescue of Iowa, with animals that were adopted through breeders and shelters in the past year. 

Iowa is not alone in seeing surrenders and returns of animals. States across the country are seeing shelters hit capacity as lockdown restrictions ease. Kansas shelters are hitting capacity limits, as are several in California, Virginia, and Colorado

New business opportunities appear after accelerated adoptions

In July 2020, the ARL partnered with Coffee Cats, a café located in West Des Moines’ Valley Junction that hosts adoptable cats from the shelter. In only a year, Jankowski said hundreds of cats have been adopted from the business.

“We’ve adopted 437 cats,” she said. “We probably have had close to 500 cats that came through here … Since the summer started, probably mid-June, is when we saw a slow down in adoptions.”

Colvin said there are more opportunities for pet-based businesses as people return to work and want to keep their pets. 

“I hope that now we’ll see more interest in doing these types of partnerships, because they are extremely valuable,” he said. “… I can see businesses probably popping up for (taking care of pets) in addition to the ones that are already out there. We may even see more employers being okay with bringing your pets to work.” 

Volunteers and workers needed

An added struggle on top of increased surrenders and decreased adoptions is fewer volunteers at shelters. Colvin said if the ARL of Iowa had more staffers and volunteers, more adoptions could be completed faster. 

“Our new and completely unexpected challenge this year has been finding enough staff,” he said. “We were impacted very heavily in 2020 and the beginning of ‘21 with our volunteer numbers. People were understandably reluctant to come in, but they’re starting to come back now.”

Cornell University’s Elizabeth Berliner told NPR in June that the lack of volunteers and workers is adding to shelters feeling overwhelmed this summer. 

Keeping staff safe throughout the pandemic’s many stages has been a priority for Soukup alongside protecting the animals in her shelter’s care. She said switching to an appointment schedule helped with staffing issues and allowed focus to remain on pets at all times.

Regardless of volunteer shortages and some animals being surrendered, Colvin said he is positive that the majority of pets adopted will remain with their families.

“I think the pandemic reinforced a lot of what we already know, that pets are so important to people’s health and mental wellbeing,” he said. “… People really clung to their pets during the pandemic and continue to do so.” 

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.