Adoptable dogs harder to come by in Vermont as travel restrictions slow shelters’ supply

Published: 5/19/2020 9:38:33 PM
Modified: 5/19/2020 9:38:27 PM

Even before COVID-19 arrived, shelter dogs were so scarce in southern Vermont that people were willing to pay $500 and drive 150 miles to pick up their new pet sight unseen, said Annie Guion, executive director of the Windham County Humane Society.

Now even that level of commitment isn’t enough; there just aren’t enough dogs available. So a group of shelters in Vermont has asked Gov. Phil Scott for permission to restart the pet transport programs from other states that bring hundreds of dogs into Vermont every year.

The Vermont Humane Federation, which represents animal shelters and humane societies in about a dozen communities, wrote to Scott on Saturday asking him to update an order in late March that suspended the importation of animals as pets.

VHF had already suspended its transport by then to limit the spread of COVID-19 into Vermont, said Barry Londeree, its lobbyist.

Londeree noted that evidence indicates pets don’t spread the virus.

“Now, as the state begins efforts to reopen Vermont to expanded commercial and personal activities, we believe it is time to consider modifying this executive order and sector guidance,” Londeree wrote. “We understand that the health emergency sparked by the COVID-19 virus is not over, and we are committed to conducting animal transports consistent with applicable state policies on cross-state travel and in compliance with state and CDC health guidelines.”

Through much of the U.S., demand for dogs exceeds supply.

“There seems to be a breakdown between the supply and demand of healthy American-bred dogs,” said Hank Greenwood, president of the American Dog Breeders Association in Utah.

The biggest reason for the dog shortage in Vermont and elsewhere is an increase in successful spay/neuter programs, said Greenwood, who cited a 2018 American Pet Products Association survey that reported 85% of all household dogs in the U.S. are neutered.

“Today, there are no longer enough dogs being born in the U.S. annually to replace the approximately 8 million dogs that die each year,” Greenwood said. “As a result of all these remarkable changes, dog overpopulation no longer exists in most parts of the U.S. and today many regions of the country do not have enough dogs to meet demand.”

Spay-neuter success is patchy in the U.S. For several years, Northern New England, the Pacific Northwest, and some Midwestern states have operated such successful spay/neuter programs that they have imported dogs from states like Florida, Alabama and Texas, where the spay/neuter message isn’t as strong, resulting in a surplus of shelter dogs.

The Addison County Humane Society, called Homeward Bound, imports about 250 dogs a year from other states, said executive director Jessica Danyow. She said many shelters, including those that don’t belong to the Vermont Humane Federation, do the same.

“If the governor says yes, I know there are multiple shelters who are ready to do it right now,” she said of bringing in dogs from outside Vermont.

In keeping with social distancing guidelines, the Humane Society of Chittenden County has been offering curbside dog and cat adoptions, said president and CEO Joyce Cameron. The shelter in Vermont’s most populous area transported 60 dogs into the state last year, and had transported another 30 this year until the programs, from states such as Louisiana, South Carolina and New Jersey, stopped March 28.

“Typically, animal welfare is very unpredictable, and this has just compounded that exponentially,” said Cameron.

She added that interest in adoptions has spiked since the pandemic started.

“We are hearing anecdotally from people who call this an ideal time to adopt an animal,” Cameron said. “They have companionship if they are lonely, and they have time.”

For people who have decided that being homebound is the perfect time to get a puppy from a breeder, things aren’t much easier.

“It’s absolutely insane the amount of families looking for puppies,” said Dorothy Childs, who breeds and sells Bernese mountain dogs in Montgomery Center. “The demand in my opinion isn’t healthy. I’m hoping breeders are screening and being careful how they place their puppies.”

Penny Strong, who breeds German shepherds and runs a shelter operation for the breed in Wolcott, said applications for dogs have increased fourfold.

“Honestly, if they didn’t have dogs before, why now?” she asked. “Will they have time for them when the world gets back to normal?”

Cameron said shelter workers ask would-be dog owners what they will do when they have to go back to work.

“What happens if you have a sustained lack of employment?” she said. “Are you still financially secure enough to take care of your pet?”

In fact, Danyow said she expects the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis will spur some people to give up their pets to shelters in coming months.

“All of us in the shelter world are wondering what is going to happen as the effects of unemployment linger,” she said. “In three to six months, when unemployment benefits are ending, if people’s jobs haven’t been restored, are we going to see an incredible uptick in surrenders?”

Each shelter has handled the COVID-19 crisis a little differently, said Londeree. Some have had to lay off staff; most have worked hard to reduce the number of animals in the shelter by placing them in foster care. Some are offering curbside or phone adoptions.

Guion, who brings in about 200 shelter dogs from out of state each year, said dogs also enter Vermont in truckloads through online sales, some run by for-profit animal shelters. The for-profit operations compete with nonprofit shelters, which benefit financially from the dog and cat transports. Guion said her shelter makes about a fifth of its income from adoption fees, which can be as high as $500 for a puppy.

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted hundreds of shelter directors to discuss their shared concerns and challenges twice a week.

“The good news out of COVID for animal welfare is these gazillion different groups are now talking to each other on Zoom,” Guion said.

Part of that conversation concerns an initiative aimed at encouraging the breeding of family-friendly, affordable dogs and cats, she said. That’s really only a focus in New England.

“Some of them are running municipal shelters that take in 20,000 animals a year, so there’s a bit of a disconnect,” she said.

Meanwhile, Cameron said she’s confident that the governor will give the go-ahead soon for the transports to resume.

“I think it’s just a matter of asking the question,” she said.

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