Monday mornings at the Mendocino Coast Humane Society, the northern California animal shelter where I work part-time, are chaotic.

The frenzied beeping of anesthesia monitoring equipment echoes as I dodge Coco, one of the resident shelter cats with a penchant for ankles, and tiptoe down a freshly mopped hallway with a bleachy smell that makes my eyes water.

A man in worn flannel and workboots waits at the front counter, face drawn; his elderly catahoula dog is waiting in the back seat of his car for an 11am euthanasia appointment. Somewhere in the clinic, a newly spayed dog is howling as she wakes.

I say good morning to Sierra, one of our animal care workers. Her partner, Michael, is tugging off his waders in the supply closet after hosing down our 26 kennels, hands rough from constant immersion in water. I swing open the door to the office, where the executive director, Judy Martin, is on the phone negotiating a transfer of 12 puppies from Covelo, a hamlet 77 miles east of us that has a growing dog overpopulation problem.

“Covelo has at least two roaming dog packs,” she says after hanging up, “running through people’s yards and killing pets. It’s only a matter of time before it’s a child.”

Last year, rescuers found a pair of Covelo litters under a decaying trailer. Two of the puppies were dead, rotting under piles of their living siblings. This was not the first time.

Coco, for example, came from Point Arena, a city an hour to the south of us, towards the far end of our service area. She was brought in with “a string hanging out of her rectum” which proved to be her intestines. Vet staff initially thought they might need to euthanize her due to the complexity of her case and the resources available, but she proved so sweet that they took a chance, tacking her intestines in place.

Shelter workers are at the front lines of a crisis. Photograph: Cassandra Young Photography/Courtesy Mendocino Coast Humane Society

Last year, we took in 694 animals, from animal cruelty cases to unwanted litters, and we are drowning. We hear that animal care and control is telling people to leave found animals where they are because they don’t have the capacity to handle them. Those people turn to us or Inland Valley Humane Society, a foster-based rescue that is similarly inundated. As closed admission shelters, we can decide to turn animals away if we lack space, even though we strive to prevent it, knowing what may happen to those we do not accept.

The list of people waiting to surrender animals is always growing.

It is workers such as Sierra and Michael who make our services possible. They’re the unseen, unheralded heroes of animal sheltering across the country, a workforce on the frontlines of a pet overpopulation crisis that has been steadily building over the last four years.

Getting people to understand that crisis sometimes feels impossible. Most members of the public are only interested in one thing: euthanasia.

An intake coordinator with Ghost the dog, who was waiting to be adopted at the Humane Society of Greater Miami in December. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In 2023, 690,000 dogs and cats were euthanized in shelters across the US. For many members of the public, this calls to mind healthy, adoptable animals euthanized for space in open admission (so-called “kill”) shelters – those required to accept all animals, even if there’s no room. But shelters also have to cope with owner-requested euthanasias, behavioral problems and animals who are so sick or injured that a gentle death is the most positive outcome.

The issue we and many other shelters are facing is this: after a record low of 5.5 million in 2020, animal intakes are slowly increasing, and they aren’t leaving – in 2023, 6.5 million animals entered, and only a little over 6 million left. Animals are lingering for weeks, months and sometimes years in the shelter. Between 2022 and 2023, the number of animals waiting to get out of shelters increased by 177,000.

For us, these numbers have faces, such as Sophie (intake 8/11/22), Asia (4/14/23), and Annie (4/21/23). We’re also being hit by the tight job market, which makes it hard to hire and retain personnel, creating even more strain for staff: more animals, fewer people.

While the media popularized the idea of the “pandemic puppy”, dogs adopted by white-collar workers trapped at home only to be discarded as soon as the world reopened, the truth of what’s happening in animal welfare is more complicated. It’s gotten harder to access and afford vet care, while emergency extensions of the social safety net, including increased Snap benefits, expansions to Medicaid, childcare assistance, the student loan pause, the child tax credit and generous unemployment insurance benefits have come to an end, leaving people in financial precarity that hurts pets too. Far from a world where people treat animals as disposable, we are surrounded by people who love and desperately want to keep their pets, but can’t.

Shelter workers are at the frontlines of this crisis, providing daily care to cats and dogs in environments ranging from capacious, well-funded private rescues to crowded municipal shelters where dogs bark frenziedly through rusting fences and cats coil, terrified, in small metal cages.

A dog available for adoption at an animal shelter in New York in December. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

They aren’t doing this work for the money. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, kennel attendants and animal care workers earn a median wage of $29,790, often with limited benefits. Fair market rent in Mendocino county for a two-bedroom like mine is $1,488 a month, per the US housing department. Pacific Gas & Electric just hiked everyone’s utility costs and the US agriculture department’s “thrifty plan”, a nearly impossible to accomplish, bottom-of-the-barrel food budget, has a family of four spending nearly $1,000 a month on food.

But logistical issues such as trying to make their paychecks match living expenses is only part of what deeply affects shelter workers. The same stories that go viral on social media for being sad are also sad for the workers caring for those animals, many of whom grow deeply attached to their charges and experience empathy for even the briefest lives. A kitten so beloved by the staff that they carried him around in a sling is buried under a plum tree outside the shelter.

Those lives do not blur together. We remember all of them.

Our surrender waiting list is bulging at the seams; after a man threatened to “throw them against the wall”, we hastily made room for Kiwi, Raspberry and Strawberry, three clearly feral kittens who huddle, traumatized and hissing, in the back of their intake kennel, exploding like popcorn if you open the door. The staff member who handled the intake was shaken, her hands trembling as she recounted the story.

A staff member shelves donated cat food that will be distributed through the League City, Texas, animal shelter’s pet food pantry. Photograph: Houston Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images

Animal care workers like her are confronting a form of moral injury, in which they may struggle with being asked to do things that go against their consciences, or circumstances expose them to feelings of helplessness or betrayal. In open admission shelters, some are coping with the caring-killing paradox, described in 2005 in a study exploring the heavy impact of euthanasia on shelter workers, who may play with a dog in the morning and euthanize it in the afternoon. Both phenomena are associated with issues such as anxiety, suicidal ideation and substance use disorder as people struggle to process traumatic events.

The public, however, doesn’t see Sierra’s face falling as one of our permanent shelter cats, Oscar, gets sicker and sicker until the sad Friday afternoon when we have to euthanize him. Nor do they see Michael speaking animatedly on behalf of a dog with behavior issues.

“I hear about stories where shelter staff or managers get death threats because they’re euthanizing animals,” says Dr Kathleen Cooney, director of education at the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy. She’s speaking to negative public attitudes about shelter workers, sometimes stereotyped as callous for the hard, dirty parts of their jobs.

Working at shelters can mean treating animal victims of abuse and neglect, and listening to harrowing stories of domestic violence. Photograph: Cassandra Young Photography/Courtesy Mendocino Coast Humane Society

Meanwhile, they experience the incredible emotional strain of “seeing the worst of the worst, the worst side of humans, having to see pets suffering”, says Jerrica Owen, executive director of the National Animal Care and Control Association (Naca), which is working to develop consistent professional standards and training in the field.

“Animal control officers are first responders,” Owen says, but ACOs don’t have the hero status of firefighters and paramedics. Instead, they’re treated like glorified janitors, ignoring the catastrophic mental health issues in the field, with animal care workers more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and experiencing high rates of burnout and so-called “compassion fatigue” because of the secondary and primary trauma they face in their work.

This is, after all, a job that may require treating the animal victims of abuse, listening to harrowing stories of domestic violence, and caring for neglected animals such as the dog who came in like a walking skeleton, covered in sores, but still determined to wag his tail.

There’s no time to process these events: on to the next intake, the next area to clean, the next stock-taking. Sometimes the only thing we can offer is to save one life, take home one dog or cat in the face of a tidal wave of need.

A volunteer records notes on a kitten’s weight and behavior in Mission Hills, California. Some shelters are bringing on social workers for counseling the public and staff. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

“How do you help the shelter staff to override the negative aspects of the work? You try to reduce the demand that’s placed on them in the first place,” Cooney says.

That demand includes the emotional burden created by members of the public, who may not understand the tough daily decisions that happen in a shelter environment. It’s hard to work when people are posting cruel comments on social media or glaring when you pull up in an animal care and control truck.

It’s also important to reduce the number of animals entering shelters via a variety of diversion programs administered by state and local governments as well as non-profits like ours. These could include more expansive spay/neuter programs, assistance with veterinary costs, landlord education, eviction prevention, providing emergency foster placements and including animal welfare in the wraparound services extended to unhoused and low-income people.

Some communities are already creatively embarking on projects such as offering dog training and embedding veterinary social workers at animal shelters and vet clinics to provide counseling for members of the public.

Those social workers don’t just work with the public, but also staff, including those struggling with mental health. Kelly Bremken, a veterinary social worker at Oregon Humane Society, says: “The thing I’m so passionate about is acknowledging it and talking about [mental health] out loud. Name it to tame it. If you can’t tell me what your feelings are, we can’t even tackle it.”

Reforming the way people view animal care workers also includes valuing their work as skilled labor and cultivating better working conditions. The notion that animal welfare jobs should come with good pay, benefits and the protections of union membership should not sound out of bounds.

A staff member comforts a dog at the Harris County Pets animal shelter in Houston. Photograph: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

“This framework is often used in non-profits,” says Jay Cunningham, a staffer at Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh, which is waiting on the outcome of a union election. “You shouldn’t ask for fair wages, shouldn’t ask for better working conditions, because you’re doing good. It’s so hypocritical. We can have good working conditions and still be doing good. If we are continuously showing empathy and compassion and care for all these animals, why are we not given the same? There’s nothing wrong with advocating for better.”

Cooney says: “Until the general public puts themselves in the shoes of shelter staff, they’re going to have a hard time understanding those complexities behind those closed doors,.”

As I write, a text comes in from Judy: “Someone just brought us two adorable little chihuahua puppies in a paper bag,” she says, attaching an image of two puppies looking plaintively up at the camera.

I have ShelterLuv, the application we use to keep track of our population, open to pull statistics and scroll quickly through the population of in-custody animals, checking off location after location in my head: no room in intake, no room in the vet clinic, all the kennels are full, the “family room” where we put overflow occupied by a Boston terrier someone dumped in our parking lot.

We make room for them somehow – we almost always do – and within a week, they’ve been whisked off to new homes, just in time for yet another chihuahua in need to come through the door.


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