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Houston voters to decide on $47 million bond for BARC amidst ‘crisis’ at local animal shelters

The numbers of stray dogs and cats being euthanized have increased in recent months at animal shelters operated by the City of Houston and Harris County, which are coping with capacity issues related to staffing shortages and declines in pet adoptions.

Puppies Harris County Animal Shelter
Harris County Pets
Harris County Pets is temporarily waiving adoption fees and suspending some animal intake services amidst over-crowding and a staffing shortage at its shelter.

There have been increases in the numbers of stray dogs and cats euthanized in recent months at the animal shelters operated by the City of Houston and Harris County, which both are experiencing staffing shortages and overcrowding as fewer animals are being adopted, taken in by rescuers or transported to other parts of the country.

The shelters' struggles reflect a nationwide trend, according to a Houston-based animal welfare organization, with a tightening economy and decreased demand for pets as more and more people return to offices and social activities amidst a waning COVID-19 pandemic.

"It feels like more people than ever are having to surrender pets, and fewer are adopting or fostering. The numbers coming in (to shelters) are higher than the numbers are going out," said Lisa Tynan, a marketing and special events specialist for Houston PetSet. "We call it a crisis. In addition to being an animal welfare crisis, it's a public safety crisis."

Harris County Pets, which euthanized 64 dogs and cats in September after putting down 15 in August, is trying to cope by temporarily waiving adoption fees for dogs. The shelter also is suspending animal intake from members of the public and limiting the number of weekly owner surrender appointments, although it will continue to take in strays through its animal control operations as required by law.

At the city-run BARC facility, where a total of 537 dogs and cats were euthanized in August and September, there is a need for two more full-time veterinarians and the staff vacancy rate during the last fiscal year was between 20 and 40 percent, according to Julie Mintzer, a spokesperson for the facility. BARC's 30-year-old kennel building housed 1,941 dogs and cats as of the end of September, according to the most recently available data released by the shelter.

Houston voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to allow taxpayer money to fund a $47 million bond for new BARC facilities and upgrades to its existing facilities. Proposition C is one of seven bond initiatives on the ballot related to facilities upgrades for Houston's municipal government.

"To meet the needs of the Houston community, BARC would benefit from both updated facilities and increased capacity," Mintzer wrote in an email.

The Harris County shelter got facilities improvements in recent years through a $24 million bond passed in 2015 by county voters, but is still coping with capacity issues and staff shortages. Dr. Max Vigilant, the interim director of the shelter, said it has openings for 17 staff positions, including two full-time veterinarians.

Harris County Pets, in addition to saying it was waiving adoption fees and suspending animal intake from the public through this Friday, announced in an Oct. 25 news release that it was working with animal rescuers and networkers "to have over 150 animals that have stayed for more than 45 days rescued by November 4."

Vigilant said Wednesday the shelter is extending that deadline by "maybe another two weeks." When asked what would happen to those longer-tenured animals if they are not adopted by then, and whether they would be euthanized, Vigilant said no, adding, "We have to keep pushing to see if we can get them out."

Houston resident and animal advocate Rebecca Bridges, who said she's volunteered at the county facility for the last six years, described the current conditions there as "heartbreaking." She also said shelter staff has recently become less communicative with her and other networkers – who work with rescuers and make social media posts in an attempt to get more dogs and cats adopted – despite expressing an urgent need for more outreach.

Bridges said the shelter in February began sending out a weekly euthanasia list that included 20 animals that had been at the shelter for an extended period of time and were at a higher risk of being put down. The shelter then shifted to releasing daily lists of four animals apiece, according to Bridges, who said she hasn't received any such lists since Oct. 20.

When asked about Bridges' claims, Vigilant said, "Information that some people want from the shelter is some of the information that is specific to the shelter."

"The craziness of this to me is you're in an urgent situation and have people who are volunteering their time to help you, who have a successful track record of getting dogs out of your shelter," Bridges said. "Why would you issue a press release on the 25th of the month saying you're going to work to get a plan together with 150 dogs to get out of the shelter? Why would you do that and not send out to your networkers and rescue partners? It doesn't make any sense what's going on there."

Bridges also said she wonders whether a $47 million bond for the city facility will improve conditions there. BARC's live release rate, which represents the percentage of dogs and cats that are not euthanized at the shelter, was 91.5 percent for fiscal year 2022 but has remained below 90 percent while steadily declining every month since April. The facility's live release rate for September was 80.3 percent.

The live release rate for the county shelter, according to its data, was 99 percent in February and had dwindled to 91 percent as of the end of September.

"The live release rate isn't always the best measure of animal welfare in a city or a county," Tynan said. "It's a statistic and statistics can be manipulated. Are they able to provide the services they are mandated and tax-funded to provide?"

Tynan said funding for the city and county shelters is dwarfed by the resources allocated to their counterparts in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. So she and her organization support the bond measure on the ballot in Houston, saying it figures to help improve conditions at BARC along with calling greater attention to its needs and the plight of stray animals in the region.

While more money should help, though, Tynan said it won't completely solve the problems facing the city shelter, where there was a 26 percent decrease in adoption rates from 2019 to 2021 along with a 40 percent drop in the number of animals transferred to fosters or rescuers, according to Mintzer. She also said BARC's animal enforcement officers, who respond to calls such as animal cruelty and bite cases, brought in 34 percent more animals during the first eight months of 2022 than they did during the same span in 2021.

"When it comes down to it, the community at large is just as responsible as the organizations we're talking about," Tynan said. "If there's nobody to adopt, nobody to foster and if people aren't taking responsibility for their own pets, then it's not a problem that's going to get solved anytime soon."

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