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Philly animal rescues overwhelmed as families return their pandemic pups en masse

In the early days of COVID, its seemed like everyone wanted a dog. But now a lot of those dogs are being surrendered, and the adopters aren't coming back.

Four month old mixed breed Terrier puppies Caspian and Baltic at Phoenix Animal Rescue of Chester Springs, Pa. on April 3, 2022. Both dogs are available for adoption. Shelters and rescues are filling up again with animals that were adopted during COVID but are unwanted now as things get back to pre COVID normal
Four month old mixed breed Terrier puppies Caspian and Baltic at Phoenix Animal Rescue of Chester Springs, Pa. on April 3, 2022. Both dogs are available for adoption. Shelters and rescues are filling up again with animals that were adopted during COVID but are unwanted now as things get back to pre COVID normalRead moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The frustration jumped off the Instagram page oversized letters:

“I have never ever seen this many people trying to dump their dogs,” posted Jessica Mellen-Graaf of the Philly Bully Team dog rescue.

Already swamped, her rescue team had received 20 requests in 48 hours from owners who wanted to give up their dogs.

“We knew this could happen,” she said. “I just don’t think we thought it was going to be this bad.”

In the early months of COVID-19, the near-emptying of the nation’s animal shelters was one of the few bright spots in a dark time. ASPCA data suggest over 23 million American households acquired a pet during the pandemic.

But as pandemic restrictions have receded, many are returning to the workplace or finding COVID has otherwise altered their circumstances.

Animal advocates are now scrambling to find volunteers to foster homeless dogs. Fewer people want to adopt. And local organizations say they’re inundated with requests from owners to unload dogs they no longer want or feel able to keep.

“It’s hard right now,” said Marta Gambone of Phoenix Animal Rescue in Chester Springs.

Pet rescues and shelters are there to help people giving up pets due to hardship, but Gambone and fellow advocates say a lot of the surrenders they’re seeing now are a different story.

They are dogs like Nate, a playful, 1-year-old German shepherd turned over to Phoenix recently by his family.

“He is smart as a whip, he’s a great dog, but they surrendered him because they don’t have time for him,” Gambone said. “He’s absolutely a COVID dog that somebody bought, and now that the people are going to work, they don’t want to deal with him anymore.”

Many of these “COVID dogs” are big breeds — a pet population that has become a challenge for animal shelters and rescues nationwide to foster or find homes, especially now.

“People get a puppy because it’s cute, but that puppy grows into a 100-pound mastiff or boerboel,” Gambone said. “We’ve seen a lot of dogs that are not the right match being returned because they’re getting a lot bigger and they’re getting destructive at home because they’re not getting the exercise they need.”

Angelica Giunta, president of Philly Rescue Angels, recently helped an owner who said he couldn’t keep his young husky mix.

“My life circumstances changed,” said the husky’s owner, a Philadelphia professional who didn’t want to be named.

Giunta found a husky rescue willing to help find a new home for that dog. No such luck for a young father-son shepherd pair another owner no longer wanted.

“The rescues are so full. I hate asking other rescues. I know how they feel,” Giunta said. “I’m at capacity right now.”

Especially upsetting to Mellen-Graaf of Philly Bully Team and fellow pet advocates is that many of these surrenders stem from lack of training — a fixable problem that some groups will even help with.

“A lot of what we’re seeing is people struggling with their dogs having separation anxiety, which totally makes sense,” said Mellen-Graaf. “When they got these dogs, they were home all the time. They never taught the dogs to be alone, and they never bothered to crate train them. Now people are leaving their houses more often, and they’re seeing this anxiety they unknowingly caused.”

During COVID, many new owners couldn’t get a trainer, couldn’t afford one, or didn’t know how to do it themselves. A lot of these pets ended up with behavior problems.

Freddie Mercury, a young brown pit bull mix with pretty chestnut eyes and big, stick-up ears, was adopted from the Philly Bully Team as a happy, friendly puppy. But he was returned as a severely undersocialized young dog. The rescue paid for a board-and-train program for Freddie.

“He had to relearn structure and boundaries — all those things he wasn’t taught as a puppy when he was adopted,” Mellen-Graaf said.

“He’s looking for a home now,” she added. “He’s a good boy.”

As tough as things are for private shelters and rescues, the situation ratchets up a whole other level at ACCT Philly, Philadelphia’s open intake shelter where the mission is to take all dogs brought in, and where owner surrenders are way up.

“It’s just a game of musical chairs every day, and unfortunately the cost sometimes is these animals’ lives,” said Sarah Barnett, ACCT’s acting co-executive director. “We’re having to timestamp (schedule for euthanesia) dogs that I never imagined we would need to because these were dogs we thought would leave — thought would get adopted.”

“Last Monday, my colleague went outside and there was a line of people,” Barnett said. “She said it looked like a Black Friday sale. It was for surrenders.”

Open intake shelters around the country are over capacity, the director said. ACCT recently had more than 120 dogs in space meant for 70. Lengths of stay are way up, but there aren’t enough foster homes or space in rescues and private shelters to give more ACCT dogs more time to find a home.

ACCT tries to prevent surrender by helping owners keep their pets — offering to pay for veterinary care or training classes, for example — but lately, many seem less receptive.

“People really have reached their breaking point,” Barnett said. “There are different issues that are just making people hit their brink and not be open to help or assistance in the way they used to be.”

Meanwhile, ACCT has struggled with budget cuts as service demands have risen.

“That’s why everybody is reaching out to the public whether it’s fostering, adopting, or volunteering,” Barnett said. “Anything.”

ACCT, for example, often waives adoption fees. Many shelters and rescues also offer help with veterinary care, training, or other needs.

The Philly branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA has the Barkfast Club, a lively crew of young pittie mixes — Taz, Ty, Lexie, Lily, Leo, and Ravioli. Adoption of any of these high-energy canines includes behavior training sessions.

Maddie Bernstein, PSPCA’s Philly manager of life saving, says they’ve been getting at least 10 surrender requests a day instead of the typical one to three, she said.

Cats are still finding homes, said Bernstein, echoing other shelter operators. It’s dogs, and their higher care commitments, that are having a harder time.

Normally, this would still be the slow season for animal surrenders. Summer, with vacations and other plans, is usually whenfoster homes and adopters get scarce.

But now it’s busy everywhere, said Mellen-Graaf of Philly Bully Team.

Like many rescues, her Philly Bully Team has, in the past, accepted dogs from so-called high-kill shelters — animal shelters, often down South, where dogs are kept for a limited time and euthanesia is routine. But lately there’s barely room for unwanted local dogs.

“I just had one of our shelter partners in South Carolina text me: ‘Can you please take a litter of puppies? Please, please, please,’” she said.

“I have nowhere to put them. But if they’re going to be euthanized, I have to take them. I can’t say no. They’re puppies.”

What to do?

“I’ll find somewhere for them to go,” she said.

She just didn’t know where.