Slobbering and wheezing in anticipation, Brooklyn, a pit bull mix, strained against her collar as she marched purposefully toward a fenced play area at Animal Care Centers of NYC’s Manhattan shelter, where she knew she would be showered with butt scratches and attention.
The gate opened, and volunteers laughed as Brooklyn bounded around like a playful wrecking ball.
“She is the cutest, roly-poly, delicious dog,” said Katy Hansen, the director of marketing and communications for Animal Care Centers, which runs New York City’s public animal shelters. She said it was hard to believe Brooklyn had been living at the shelter for six months.
The city’s shelter animal population has exploded, with many animals waiting weeks or months without being adopted. Because of overcrowding, dogs at the Manhattan shelter are being kept in makeshift kennels in offices, and stacks of cat cages line the halls.
The cat population has grown to the point that last month, Animal Care Centers said it was “closed for cat intake.” But the organization’s contract with the city requires it to take in animals in need, and Ms. Hansen said hundreds of cats had been accepted since the announcement.
Compounding the problem, only three boroughs — Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island — have full-service, city-run shelters. Two new shelters are being built. One, in Queens, is expected to open next year, the other, in the Bronx, in 2025.
The three existing city shelters took in roughly 4,500 cats and 2,429 dogs in the first six months of this year, compared with 3,900 cats and 1,976 dogs during the same period last year (the shelters take in other animals as well). The number of adoptions has risen at a much lower rate, Ms. Hansen said.
“I think it’s a perfect storm in a way,” Eva Prokop, the founder of Whiskers-A-Go-Go, a cat rescue group based in Brooklyn, said of the factors that created the shelter crisis.
Ms. Prokop said that she and other rescuers trained in T.N.R. — or “trap, neuter and return” — have tried for years to limit the growth of the city’s cat colonies by capturing feral cats and bringing them to veterinarians to be spayed or neutered before returning them to the streets.
During the pandemic, organizations across the country, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York, temporarily halted spay and neuter services to protect staff members and to preserve personal protective equipment, according to Christa Chadwick, the group’s vice president of shelter services.
“I think it’s fair to say we’re seeing the impact of that pause in spay and neuter services in lots of places,” said Ms. Chadwick.
The organization has resumed the services, but the national veterinarian shortage has made it difficult to keep up with the demand for procedures. With regard to its own veterinarian ranks, Ms. Chadwick said, the A.S.P.C.A. has “a number of open positions that have been open for some time.”
On top of that, people are abandoning and surrendering pets in large numbers, rescuers said, part of a national trend. Former owners cite several reasons for giving up their dogs and cats, including job uncertainty, the high cost of veterinary care and moves to apartments that do not allow pets.
“The reasons we are experiencing surrender are classics and are as true now as 10 years ago,” said Joel Lopez, the vice president of the A.S.P.C.A. Adoption Center in New York.
When the number of homeless animals rises, shelters rely on rescue groups to move the animals into foster homes, Ms. Hansen said. But rescuers said they have been taking fewer animals because they are overwhelmed by the increase in surrenders and drop in adoptions as fewer people offer to foster.
“There’s a domino effect,” Doug Halsey, the president of the rescue group Ready for Rescue, said.
Trying to keep up, rescuers said, is difficult physically, financially and emotionally.
“It’s hard to live your life,” Mr. Halsey said. “It’s constant nurturing, care-taking, troubleshooting, problem solving, fund-raising.”
Rescuers said they were also frustrated by a political culture that does not hold lawmakers accountable on issues like animal control and welfare.
“When you go to actually vote for the next mayor or for whoever, you don’t even know what their stance is on the shelter, because ultimately we vote for other things,” Ms. Prokop said. “It’s considered not a serious issue, but it’s an issue about compassion and humanity.”
More animals would be adopted, Mr. Halsey said, if the city created incentives for landlords to allow pets. He also called for the city government to increase the shelter system’s budget.
Jim Gennaro, a City Council member who represents parts of Queens, has long been outspoken about animal welfare issues. Mr. Gennaro, a Democrat, said in a statement that public officials should “encourage New Yorkers to adopt over shopping from breeders and pet stores — even if that means coming up with a legislative solution.”
Alexandra Silver, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Animal Welfare, said members of her staff were active in trying to spread awareness about Animal Care Center’s resources to prevent pet surrenders and about its foster orientation events.
As the number of dogs and cats at city shelters has increased, Ms. Hansen said, so has the number of animals being euthanized. Through June, about 600 animals at the three shelters had been euthanized, Ms. Hansen said, up from 450 in the same period last year. The euthanasia rate remains historically low, she said.
The organization euthanizes animals only if they have medical or behavioral problems that would make it difficult for them to be adopted, Ms. Hansen said.
But Mr. Halsey, whose organization focuses on rescuing animals at risk of being euthanized, said that many animals developed problems while at shelters, and a recent Animal Care Centers’ board presentation noted that such problems were more likely with overcrowding.
“It’s a hostile environment to an animal being in a cage, hearing other dogs barking, not getting enough exercise,” he said.
Animal Care Centers posts “emergency placement animal” lists three times a week, and lists are viewable for 42 hours. If animals are not placed with a rescue group, adopted, reclaimed by a previous owner or taken off the list for some other reason, they are euthanized.
Animals on a recent list included: a “friendly, playful and shy” dog who loved to cuddle but who began digging and banging at her kennel door incessantly; a “highly social and playful dog” who was frantically trying to exit his kennel and risked injuring himself; a dog described as a “wrinkly-faced dreamboat” who recently bit someone when he got over-excited; and a cat who enjoyed cheek and chin scratches but was overstimulated and stressed at the shelter.
Mr. Lopez of the A.S.P.C.A. said the solution was to “adopt, adopt, adopt.”
Those who are unsure if they are ready to commit to a pet, Ms. Prokop said, could help by volunteering to foster.
“Maybe by fostering, you realize that your life is considerably different,” she said.
Last week, Animal Care Centers held a “Cat Pawty” adoption events at its three shelters that led to dozens of cats being taken to new homes.
Sydney Swail, 21, was at the Manhattan event. She said she had been planning to adopt a cat since graduating from Pace University this year. Hearing about the overcrowding at city shelters, she said, was a sign that “now was the time.”
Crouching down, Ms. Swail smiled and peered into a cage housing a brown tabby cat named Jolly, who had white markings on his feet that almost resembled knee socks.
A shelter employee opened the cage and described Jolly’s temperament so that Ms. Swail could decide how to proceed.
No need. Ms. Swail was sold: Jolly would be living with her and her roommate in Brooklyn.