ACCT Philly codirector Sarah Barnett showed up to work on an April morning to find eight people waiting to give up their dogs. The doors at the North Philadelphia animal rescue weren’t even open yet.

Exasperated, she offered one person $50 out of her pocket to see if it would persuade them to keep their pup. Was food the issue? Training? Would they be willing to re-home the dog themselves?

“They weren’t interested,” Barnett said.

This increasingly frequent scene is part of a spike in surrenders that is overwhelming animal rescues across the region, driven in part by housing insecurity and a deluge of people offloading their “pandemic pets” now that life is regaining some normalcy. At ACCT, the result has been overcrowding, more euthanasia, and now, a disease outbreak that has forced the cash-strapped animal shelter to adapt on the fly.

» READ MORE: Philly animal rescues overwhelmed as families return their pandemic pups en masse

With 110 dogs being housed in a space meant for 70, a pneumovirus outbreak ripped through the kennels last month and sickened dozens of dogs with an upper respiratory infection, Barnett said.

The disease spreads quickly — and puts the 10 to 20 new dogs that ACCT welcomes each day at risk.

So this week, ACCT is moving the 70 sickened pups to a temporary quarantine site at a defunct school on Tulip Street in North Philadelphia, where the dogs will remain for several weeks until they’re healthy.

ACCT secured the building at no cost, and will staff it with help from Brandywine Valley SPCA. The old classrooms make for suitable kennels, and the fenced-in recess yards double as exercise areas.

“It’s an emergency shelter like you’d do during a hurricane,” Barnett said.

A nonprofit founded in 2012 to take over the city’s troubled animal shelter operation, ACCT’s decade-long run in Hunting Park has been beset by chronic underfunding and revolving-door leadership. During the pandemic, the city slashed the shelter’s budget by 18%, and last fall, ACCT lost its fifth executive director in 10 years.

During the surrender spike, the shelter has been asked to do more with less, relying on private donations and partner organizations to make sure the nonprofit can take every dog that comes through the door, as part of its contract with the city.

But ACCT can’t fill the kennels emptied by the virus, as those dogs will return after their quarantine period. To quell intake while the quarantine site is running, Barnett said, ACCT’s main shelter at 111 W. Hunting Park Ave. temporarily closed to most surrenders for a five-day period that will end Friday. For the next several weeks, the shelter will keep surrenders limited, urging people to reach out in advance before they show up to surrender pets.

» READ MORE: After revolving leadership and chronic underfunding, what’s next for Philly’s beleaguered animal shelter?

ACCT said it would continue to do surrender prevention work with desperate dog owners who come to their doors.

“We offer as many support services as we possibly can,” said Marsha Perelman, cochair of the ACCT Philly board of directors. “But at a time when people are being evicted from their homes as they are now, no amount of food or veterinary care or behavioral support is going to allow them to keep their dogs.”

Adoptions have not been keeping pace with the number of dogs that come into the shelter, and animal welfare advocates are bracing for the problem to get worse this summer.

Once the pneumovirus outbreak is contained, Barnett said, the goal is to get the shelter down to its supposed 70-dog capacity by continuing to try to reduce surrenders, focusing on stray and injured dogs.

“We have to take a firmer stance,” Barnett said.

How to help

Those who would like to help ACCT or its animals can:

  • Donate to the shelter
  • Adopt a dog
  • Apply for one of the shelter’s open kennel car attendant jobs by emailing jobs@acctphilly.org
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