You might call him Lucky, Second Chance or even Miracle Man.

A 9-year-old dog was hit by a car over the weekend of April 6 and while extremely sore, he escaped the encounter with no broken bones. That was lucky. He did sustain an injury to his eye, which required surgery to have it removed.

The South Ogden Animal Shelter tracked down the owner of record because the animal was microchipped, but the owner refused to claim him.

The shelter put out a public plea for donations to cover the medical costs, and the community responded with donations to take care of those costs, and more. A city employee decided to adopt this lucky dog, but it will have to wait until it is recovered enough to leave medical care and they determine his temperament.

The majority of animal shelters across Utah and elsewhere in the nation are beyond the tipping point. Some identified owners are refusing to claim their dogs, such as in Lucky’s case, and entire litters are being self-surrendered at facilities, many of which have monthslong waiting lists for the intake. And then there are the strays, the lost, the dumped. People have this idea if you dump the dogs or cats in the rural country, they’ll find their way. Hmm, not.

Basically, there are too many animals coming in, and not enough going out. Some dogs, especially, spend months and months if not years, at a shelter waiting for adoption.

“I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I have never seen so many puppies in shelters in Utah,” said Stacey Nixon, with South Ogden City Animal Control. “And we have been getting slammed by microchipped dogs and people who don’t want them back.”

Shelter workers are burned out, developing “compassion fatigue” and staffing shortages are common in an environment that while full of hope and promise these animals might find a home, there is the depressing reality that some won’t. The longer they stay, the more stressed they become, diminishing the chance they’ll find a forever home.

The animal shelter in Weber County has had to close early periodically due to lack of staffing and routinely relies on social media in pleas for donations.

The overcrowding can lead to outbreaks of illness. Again, in Weber County, the shelter was in quarantine with its dogs until Wednesday due to a case of canine parvovirus.

Stacey Nixon, of the South Ogden Animal Shelter, holds a little dog that was hit by a car and ended up losing an eye, on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

What does ‘no kill’ mean?

“There’s no limits on the work that has to be done that workers are facing and it’s like ‘I just fed this cat for the past five days and now I got to go kill it. There’s no space for it.’ And so they build this relationship with these animals, and this trust, and then they’re having to go and just put it down. It’s just like, you know, that sucks. Who wants to come to work and do that,” questioned Thomas Sinnott, Utah strategist for the Best Friends Animal Society.

Years ago, we took our girl Bre to our veterinarian because she was riddled with cancer and suffering. We’d gone through expensive chemotherapy to extend her life, but knew it was only a matter of time. We made a giant leap and talked to a pet physic, although we were extremely skeptical. She told us things about Bre that only we knew. And she told us we would know that it was time when she put her head in my husband’s lap to say she was done with the suffering. On the way to the appointment, she dragged herself to the Jeep, as if welcoming the relief about to come.

Sobbing and petting her, we said our goodbyes. She looked at us once, and then was gone. It’s hard to imagine the thousands upon thousands of dogs and cats who meet a similar fate, through no fault of their own — when they are perfectly healthy but unwanted in an increasingly “throw away” society that discards personal items and animals at a whim. And while they have the comfort of a caring shelter worker by their side, it is not the same as having an owner with them in their final moments.

I couldn’t be the administrator of those drugs.

The state is moving to make things better for shelters. In late February, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox proclaimed 2024 as the year of “no kill” for shelters across the state, declaring Utah would be the largest no kill state in the country.

Best Friends says 47 of 60 shelters in Utah are no kill and Sinnott said it is the organization’s goal to reach no kill status for the nation in 2025.

Over a three year-period, the average “save rate” in Utah shelters was 87.8%, while 1,700 cats and dogs were killed.

The reality is no kill is not no kill. Animals are euthanized if they are too sick or too injured or too behaviorally messed up that they’re not adoptable. And, shelters are having to turn to euthanasia to make room for newcomers. Experts say about 10% of animals in shelter care meet that fate.

Utah to become largest no-kill state in country, Gov. Cox declares

Shelter Animals Count, a national data-driven organization, said the number of animals euthanized or that died in custody rose by 15% in 2023 compared to 2022 and is up 29% compared to 2021.

The group also said the number of animals that entered shelters or rescue organizations sat at 6.5 million in 2023, the fourth consecutive year of too many animals and not enough adoptions.

An estimated 900,000 animals that entered shelters did not leave them.

“We began increasing the number of animals coming into shelters, but not increasing the number of animals leaving at the same pace, so we really got into this bottleneck situation of too many animals in our care and at the same time, more continuing to come in each year,” said Stephanie Filer, executive director of the organization.

It is not that people aren’t acquiring new pets, they’re just getting them from somewhere else, she added.

“The majority of people are not getting them from shelters or pet stores. They are getting them online. That would indicate it is not pandemic-based as much as it is consumer-behavior based.”

In fact, a survey done by Salt Lake County shows that only 22% of the respondents indicate they have children under the age of 18 living at home, while 38% percent own a dog.

Alan Waldron, a longtime foster dog parent and volunteer at area shelters, said he recently checked KSL’s classified advertisements and found 2,800 postings for available dogs.

“So if they have five or six puppies to sell, that is literally thousands upon thousands of dogs,” he said.

Doodles, or any sort of “oodle,” are increasingly ending up in shelters even though the animal might have sold for as much as $2,500 or $3,000.

“Breeders are not being upfront with people because they are very high-strung dogs. They are being bred with dogs that don’t really go together. So they’re very hyper. They’re working dogs. There’s so much wrong with it,” said Lisa Saling, an Ivins resident in Washington County. “I mean, every dog you could possibly imagine is being bred with a poodle these days. And it’s just disturbing to me.”

Saling, a longtime animal advocate who helps out at the St. George Animal Shelter and has taken in rescues, said she has five of those “oodle” breeders on her block — even though it is technically against the law to breed dogs in Ivins. There’s just no enforcement.

French bulldogs are all the rage now, but they, too, are ending up in shelters, she said.

Saling said there are also “guardian homes” in which people take on an impregnated female on behalf of someone else to care for the litter before it is returned to be sold.

“They basically recruit people and I don’t think these people really realize what they’re getting into. And basically, the breeders are using them. "

Cats are generally easier to find homes for than dogs, but shelters across the country are bracing for “kitten season,” later this year when hundreds of kittens can enter one shelter during the breeding season.

Shelter funding can’t keep up with the inventory, with many operating on a shoestring budget that does not cover costs. On top of that, there is a veterinarian shortage, with shelters vying for who might be available and presenting a real challenge for people who do want to get their pets spayed or neutered but are caught in an endless wait for a bill that is financially prohibitive for some owners.

The Deseret News interviewed experts, advocates and shelter directors for this story and found several common factors that underscore the problem of what is happening with overwhelmed shelters, rescue groups trying to place animals for rehoming and the challenge of making sure that these animals’ lives count in a situation in which they did not ask to be abandoned, neglected or forgotten. They’re innocent.

There are some common dynamics at play in a nuanced problem that shows no sign of shifting from overdrive into low gear.

Economics: The price of pet food is nearly 24% higher than in January 2021 and 26.5% higher than in January 2019., according to Saling said with her animals she feeds, especially the community of cats that are feral, it’s a choice for survival. When it comes to down to food: “I feed them before I feed me.”

Housing: Unaffordable homes due to the spike in median prices and mortgage rate increases are driving more people into the rental market because it cheaper to sign a lease than to take over title. An eviction moratorium imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic has since been lifted and it is a free for all when it comes to pet regulations. Some property managers or landlords charge exorbitant fees to have a pet or do not allow them at all. Would-be home buyers are relinquishing their pets so they can rent a place to live for themselves.

Breeding: The cost of spaying and neutering has gone up and some people just cross their fingers and hope there is not an “oops” litter that happens. It typically is not a winning bet. Cats can get pregnant as early as six months. Heat cycles with dogs are hard to predict. If they escape, the owner’s destiny is likely a litter of unplanned puppies. Too, there are indiscriminate breeders who think it is “fun” to have a litter of puppies and don’t realize the amount of work that it entails. They shed themselves of the burden by taking them to a shelter, or can’t find homes for them. American Kennel Club breeders are also part of the problem. Some fail to properly educate would-be puppy parents, don’t do their own research or proper health testing, and the dogs end up getting rehomed by new owners who are overwhelmed. In those cases too, with this economy, there are not enough puppy purchasers and the “speciality” breeding takes away from the adoption of shelter dogs. Many of them, too, are in it purely for the money. Alan Waldron, animal advocate, shelter volunteer and rescue parent, says he knows of breeder who makes several hundreds of thousands a dollars a year — tax free because it is cash up front and under the table.

What are the solutions?

Spay and neuter. Please. It is the front line against this war on unwanted animals. Check with rescue groups, shelters or organizations to see if there are vouchers for discounts. Neutering keeps a male cat from spraying and repopulating. Young female cats reproduce at a rapid rate.

Sign up to be a foster parent. This helps to alleviate the chokehold shelters are experiencing with the tremendous influx of pets. The more fosters, the more animals that are not in a shelter. They are getting socialized, learning to be house trained and trained to obey simple commands. Waldron has taken in between 40 and 50 dogs and has successfully placed them in multiple states around the country. Salt Lake County has a robust troop of 45 volunteers they rely on to help and that includes shelter visits to socialize the animals, bring them treats and help with other tasks.

Bottle babies. More and more shelters are finding abandoned kittens or entire litters that are relinquished. Weber County Animal Services just recently held a mandatory class for 36 volunteers who want to take on the difficult task of feeding these babies who have lost their mother or are simply dumped. “It is rewarding to do, but very hard,” said Melanie Jensen, who coordinated the training. “It’s a really tough time to be in the field right now. There has been an uptick in entire litters, which used to be pretty rare.”

Network and volunteer. Saling goes to the St. George Animal Shelter and takes photos of their animals and gets them posted online. She’s hooked in with multiple rescue groups and does what she can. There are breed-specific rescue groups or general rescue groups you can search online through Facebook and other means. Community Facebook groups often do a good job of spotting strays or runaways and are vital in the fight helping to reconnect owners with an escape artist.

Outreach and education. Best Friends Animal Society does extensive outreach with multiple shelters, advising them of new and innovative ways to engage the community and run a better shelter. It promotes resources that are available and works with owners who want to relinquish and talks them through solutions to keep the animal at home. Salt Lake County hosts a pet pantry once a month to help get donations and assist pet owners with items no longer used such as dog beds, leashes, etc. Davis County has a a rehab website and asks that would be relinquishers of animals post them there before taking them to the shelter.

Money and funding approaches. Weber County Animal Services has said it desperately needs more funding, but in general, animal services is an afterthought when it comes to the budget in many areas. Animal Care of Davis County jumped on a 2021 law passed by Utah lawmakers that allows funding to have its own line item in the budget. It went to 15 member cities, got them to sign off and the deal was for the cities to reduce their tax rate and instead pay that in property tax. Animal Care director Ashleigh Young said it was a fair solution for a city as small as Sunset to one as large as Layton. There was a zero percent tax increase and gave her agency more autonomy instead of fighting with the general fund. “It’s made a world of difference. We can be the man of our ship.”

Changes in the law. Waldron is working with a group of people in a coalition to make changes to state law regarding breeders. He says they should be required to be licensed and regulated. In Colorado, where that is the practice, they have a shortage of animals. When he was working in New Mexico, he said they’d send up 50 dogs a month to Colorado because of the shortage. “New Mexico is like a Third World country. The reservations are killing of upwards of 50,000 dogs per year,” Waldron said.

Training. Young and others could not stress enough that it is important to take the time to socialize your dog. Enroll in puppy training, obedience classes and work to let that animal know the expectations. It can make all the difference with some investment of time and may avoid rehoming, or owner relinquishment at a shelter that may take months.

Shelters are not the problem

It used to be decades ago you called it the dog pound and some people in neighborhoods would dread seeing the truck with a cage roaming the neighborhood looking for strays or itching for citations. That is not the way of the world anymore.

As previously mentioned, shelters are strapped. Animal control workers are overburdened. The focus is on emergency care, feeding and moving dogs, cats and even other critters into good homes. They are not stalking neighborhoods.

It is curious as some people are in love with their pets and it has fostered a booming industry.

A Forbes story reports that 66% of U.S. households own a pet and in 2022, Americans spent nearly a $137 billion on their pets. So what is the disconnect among the interplay of pet ownership, the billions of private dollars spent and yet stranded animals in shelters?

If you go back to the dog at the beginning of this story, Lucky or Second Chance. He was microchipped, the shelter tracked the owner of record who refused to claim him. Who knows? Perhaps the dog was sold and no longer that owner’s technical responsibility. Perhaps the medical bill was too high for this original owner to absorb. But for whatever reason, a miracle happened. The people who got the dog from the microchipped owner made a huge donation to help future dogs in need. This dog is indeed lucky. They came for him, and now he is safe.

It is dicey.

The hunt is on for a lost Siberian husky in Weber County, with Facebook and social media lighting up posts and a reward by the owners and community that keeps growing to find her. It is up to $1,600, with donations streaming in. Akira still has not been found.

“It’s just constant cycle that’s happening right now. And I’ve never seen anything like it ever in my 17 almost 18 years I’ve lived here with the shelter system and the over population of dogs and cats,” Saling said. “It’s just so disturbing to me that it’s gotten to this point, but it’s irresponsible people that brought it to this point.”

She stressed shelters are the collection point — like spoiled food that goes in the garbage disposal or the trash you take out to the curb. Attitudes need to change.

“It’s not a shelter problem,” she said. “It is a community problem.”