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Pandemic and no-kill policy worsen overcrowding at animal shelters

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

During the COVID pandemic, a lot of people got pets, but now some people are finding they can no longer afford to take care of those pets. So animal shelters, particularly ones with no-kill policies, are packed. Haya Panjwani with KUT visited an overcrowded shelter in Austin.

HAYA PANJWANI, BYLINE: Walking into the Austin Animal Center, visitors are met with crates of loud dogs filling its hallways.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

PANJWANI: Two or three puppies are housed in the same kennel, originally meant for cats. The center's loading dock out back is lined with crates with large dogs, all looking sad. They're separated by cardboard to avoid agitating each other. Fans point towards the dogs as temperatures rise to the triple digits. Kelsey Cler is with the center.

KELSEY CLER: So the building was designed pre-no-kill, and we've had to do a lot of retrofitting to make it work for no-kill operations.

PANJWANI: She says the shelter was built to accommodate 300 dogs and 160 cats. That was before the no-kill policy took effect 10 years ago in Austin. Now there are over 500 dogs and over 600 cats. They're supposed to live out their days in the shelter or be adopted.

CLER: Every resource, every person's time is spent just getting through the day, providing what care we can to the animals.

PANJWANI: No-kill animal shelters across the South are waiving adoption fees, asking folks to volunteer while they face staffing shortages, and are constantly looking for foster homes. In metro Atlanta, the no-kill shelter in DeKalb County is packed too. Here's Tiki Artist from the LifeLine Animal Project there.

TIKI ARTIST: We typically would like to see around 450 animals, 470 tops. And right now, we're sitting at 627. So that just gives you some idea.

PANJWANI: She says cost of living is a factor in people giving up their animals.

ARTIST: Atlanta has extremely high rental rates right now. And when you add on those fees for having an animal in your apartment building, for example, or house, it gets extremely expensive.

PANJWANI: And in Pensacola, Fla., overcrowding is also an issue. John Robinson runs that shelter.

JOHN ROBINSON: We're over capacity. We've been that way for months.

PANJWANI: To keep the no-kill status, shelters need to save 90% of their animals each year. Other shelters can euthanize animals for space. Some no-kill shelters transport animals to northern states to make room. But the Austin Animal Center has gotten backlash on that practice from locals who say they should be able to adopt those animals. There's a push to increase spay and neuter services, but there's just not enough veterinarians in places like Pensacola. There's one controversial solution no one wants to talk about - doing away with the no-kill policy. Even PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says policies like no-kill can do more harm than good. Rachel Bellis is with the group.

RACHEL BELLIS: The idea of no-kill is - it's a wonderful idea. Who wouldn't want to just have all these animals? Nobody has to euthanize animals, and they're living these wonderful lives. But that's just not the reality.

PANJWANI: Reversing no-kill practices is something all of these shelters are trying to avoid. But Cler, with the Austin Animal Center, says the current system is not sustainable.

CLER: Nobody wants to look at a healthy, adoptable animal and say, you can't live because we have no space.

PANJWANI: But finding that space is a challenge with no simple solution.

For NPR News, I'm Haya Panjwani in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILLY GONZALES AND JARVIS COCKER'S "THE TEARJERKER RETURNS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Haya Panjwani