Animal shelters in Calexico, and some in El Centro, were at or near capacity this week, prompting one animal advocate to consider the abandoned pet population so far this summer to be at “crisis” levels.
Devon Apodaca, executive director of the Humane Society of Imperial County, said summer is always a busy time of year for animal shelters, “but this year seems to be worse.
“I don’t think it’s ever been this bad. Every year it seems to get worse,” Apodaca said during an interview Aug. 12.
While the Humane Society at 1575 W. Pico Ave. can comfortably fit about 100 animals, Apodaca said the shelter topped out at just under 300 dogs this week.
On Aug. 12, Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo, who oversees the city animal shelter off Anza Road just behind the Calexico International Airport, said there were only three spaces left even after the shelter had adopted out two dogs that morning.
“We haven’t been like this in years,” Gerardo said. “We’re almost to where we can’t take these dogs.”
The chief added the city tries to keep animals no more than five days, but it’s difficult to find rescue organizations or other shelters to take them this time of year. He acknowledged the Humane Society was at capacity and said Dee’s Rescue on West Evan Hewes Highway outside El Centro was also full on Aug. 12.
The reasons for such high numbers in the summer has to do with several factors, Apodaca and Gerardo said: Dogs get loose and run off when they get scared following Independence Day, when fireworks are shooting off all around them. Many of those animals never get claimed. They added people go on vacations as well and rather than pay to take their dogs to pet sitters or kennels, they permanently turn them over to animal shelters.
Then there’s the issue of the dog breeds themselves. The shelters are always full of pit bulls, who Apodaca said get “self-surrendered” because of what he calls the negative media portrayal of the breed as “viscous monsters.”
While Gerardo admitted Calexico’s shelter is holding an inordinately high number of “aggressive pit bulls,” he agreed with Apodaca there are bad pet owners out there breeding these pits to be aggressive.
“Pit bulls aren’t bad dogs. People train them to be bad dogs,” the chief said.
Populations at shelters also seem to swell with the “dog-of-the-moment” breeds, like when everyone seemed to have a Chihuahua following their rise in popularity thanks to formerly famous Paris Hilton or the “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” movie franchise of the late 1990s and early 2000s. For a time, it seemed like shelters all over the Imperial Valley were filled with the toy-sized breed.
Now, Apodaca and Gerardo said, they are seeing German shepherds and huskies.
“Lately, television shows have had huskies and German shepherds in them, and they become a fad. These types of dogs are bred to work and they require a lot of time and attention,” Apodaca said. “People get them because they see them on TV and do not do any research about the breed beforehand.
“When these animals are not trained or disciplined properly, they can be hyperactive and may become destructive. When the animal acts out due to the pet owner’s lack of proper pet parenting, to some people it is easier and more economical to just get rid of the pet than spend the time, effort and money it will take to correct the behavior,” he added.
Meanwhile, while not quite as affected as Calexico and the Humane Society, the Imperial County Animal Shelter at 1329 S. Sperber Road, south of El Centro, was also experiencing a high volume of pets on Aug. 12, said Jeff Lamoure, deputy director of the county Public Health Department. Lamoure oversees environmental health and the animal care and control offices.
“We’re pretty full, but we have some room,” Lamoure said this week. “We’re moving some things around. We’re on the higher end right now.”
Lamoure said the county shelter has enough room for 48 dogs without breaking out the 15 or so portable kennels the county has on hand. On Aug. 12, the county was holding 46 dogs, five cats, four ducks and 25 roosters, he added.
The city of El Centro’s animal shelter, which is run by the El Centro Police Department and sits behind the Humane Society on Pico, was running “under 50 percent” of its 11-dog capacity Aug. 12, police Sgt. John Tang said.
Over in Imperial, city Public Information Officer Alexis Chalupnik said the city shelter only had four dogs on Aug. 12, with room for 14 total.
The cities of Brawley and Calipatria do not have their own shelters and bring their found or surrendered animals directly to the Humane Society, Apodaca said.
Most cities with shelters have strict rules on how many days they can keep animals on hand. For Calexico it’s five days; El Centro four days; and Imperial three days. While euthanasia is a last resort for many of the shelters (there are technically no “no-kill” shelters in the county with the exception of organizations like Dee’s Rescue), dogs are rarely “put down” for non-health-related reasons, Apodaca and Gerardo indicated.
Instead, cities, the county, the Humane Society, even other local pet rescue organizations, rely heavily on their network of friends and fellow animal advocates from other shelters and rescuers outside Imperial County to help thin the local animal populace.
Apodaca, Lamoure, Gerardo, Sgt. Tang, and Chalupnik all referred to contacting San Diego-area agencies and other shelters to take their animals when conditions call for it. In the case of the cities and county, they usually have to pay for the privilege.
Apodaca said the Humane Society has contracts with certain local governments to take their animals. Rates depend on past negotiated contracts and numbers being housed.
Gerardo indicated it can be a struggle to find rescuers that are affordable for cash-strapped organizations. He said some rescuers can attempt to charge as much as $65 a dog, but he said he has often been able to find those that charge Calexico between $25 and $35 per dog.
Apodaca said the Humane Society does not pay to move out its animals; rather, the shelter relies on a vast network of fur-friendly organizations.
On Aug. 13, for instance, Apodaca posted to the Imperial County Humane Society’s Facebook page that the Humane Society of San Diego County came out that day and took 34 dogs.
Some of Apodaca’s animals travel even farther: On Aug. 10, some representatives from a rescue organization in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, came to the Humane Society and selected 25 dogs Apodaca will drive to Los Angeles on Aug. 16. He will be met by a pet transport van that will take the local dogs the rest of the way to Canada.
Social media has proved to be a good medium for getting out the word about the struggles some of the local shelters are facing. The Calexico Border Paws Facebook page, which the chief said is run by volunteers on behalf of the Calexico Animal Shelter, sent out a plea about the overcrowding at the shelter last week, asking people to adopt.
This week, the Humane Society is posting about a national campaign it is taking part in this weekend called “Clear the Shelters Day,” where organizations around the country on Aug. 17 will cut adoption fees by 50 percent. The Humane Society will have volunteers and staff members at the shelter, at PetSmart and Petco from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. that day. Adoption rates for kittens will be $40, cats $25, puppies $85, and dogs $60.
“What it all boils down to is that there are too many animals and simply not enough homes for them. This is why spaying pets and neutering pets is crucial. It keeps animals out of shelters, and it prevents the ones in shelters from having to be needlessly euthanized,” Apodaca said.
“Backyard breeding is a death sentence for animals. The cities and county should really consider passing a countywide ordinance that bans backyard breeding so that we can better get a handle on this (pet population) crisis,” he added. “It’s not right that animals are paying the ultimate sacrifice for our selfishness and mistakes.”