Shelters crowded as pet owners struggle to keep their animals

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr, right, retrieves Strudel from her pen to be adopted by Edin Thompson and her daughter Abby, 8, on a recent Saturday afternoon in Northampton.

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr, right, retrieves Strudel from her pen to be adopted by Edin Thompson and her daughter Abby, 8, on a recent Saturday afternoon in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr retrieves Strudel from her pen to be adopted on a recent Saturday afternoon in Northampton.

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr retrieves Strudel from her pen to be adopted on a recent Saturday afternoon in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Abby Thompson, 8, meets Strudel before adopting her on a recent Saturday afternoon at the Western Mass Rabbit Rescue in Northampton.

Abby Thompson, 8, meets Strudel before adopting her on a recent Saturday afternoon at the Western Mass Rabbit Rescue in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Abby Thompson, 8, holds Strudel for the first time before adopting her at the Western Mass Rabbit Rescue in Northampton.

Abby Thompson, 8, holds Strudel for the first time before adopting her at the Western Mass Rabbit Rescue in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr fills the water dish for Philostrate on a recent Saturday afternoon in Northampton.

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr fills the water dish for Philostrate on a recent Saturday afternoon in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr with Bart.

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr with Bart. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr with Bart.

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr with Bart. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr holds Titania.

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr holds Titania. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr holds Titania on a recent Saturday afternoon in Northampton.

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue President Jordana Starr holds Titania on a recent Saturday afternoon in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Euripides munches on some hay in her pen at Western Mass Rabbit Rescue on a recent Saturday afternoon in Northampton.

Euripides munches on some hay in her pen at Western Mass Rabbit Rescue on a recent Saturday afternoon in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 01-11-2024 4:31 PM

Less than 48 hours after a no-kill rabbit shelter slipped under its capacity, the organization welcomed four new additions looking for homes.

“We never stay below capacity (55 rabbits) for more than a day or two,” said Jordana Starr, who co-founded Western Mass Rabbit Rescue. “There’s not enough room in shelters, foster homes and rescues to meet demand.”

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue began in the summer of 2020 when Starr and Jessica Riel rescued a group of domestic rabbits in an East Longmeadow backyard. Starr and Riel continued to respond to social media posts about abandoned domestic rabbits and soon realized there was no rescue in the area specifically for rabbits.

Since then, the nonprofit based in Northampton has connected dozens of rabbits with new homes, but the end of pandemic lockdowns brought inflated veterinarian and pet care bills, less time at home for pet owners and a slew of newly adopted animals who are unspayed or unneutered. The result: a lot of rabbits surrendered and saved by the rabbit rescue but fewer adopters to take the furry friends home.

The rabbits in Starr’s care aren’t the only animals waiting for homes. Shelters and rescues around the region are overwhelmed with intake requests for dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs and all other pets in between.

The apparent surge in demand for animal adoptions and foster applications during the pandemic was a welcome development for animal rescues. While the pandemic adoption boom turned out to be a myth — data from Shelter Animals Count shows dog and cat adoptions were higher before the pandemic than during the lockdown — increased interest in pets allowed animals to move quickly out of shelters and rescues into new homes.

An estimated one in five households adopted a cat or dog in 2020, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

But many people who adopted pets during the pandemic underestimated the attention and financial commitment required to raise an animal. Combined with inflated costs of pet products and veterinary bills both during and after the pandemic, animal rescues have been flooded with surrender, rescue and rehoming requests.

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“The number of animals we’ve done intake on has increased over the year about 48%,” said Meg Talbert, executive director of the Dakin Humane Society. “We may have several hundred animals in care that we’re giving medical care to or are going through an adjustment period. The number of animals we had in the summer was around 400 animals, between Dakin centers and foster families.”

Without the pandemic-level enthusiasm for adoptions, animal rescues and shelters are consistently at capacity and strapped with the financial burden of rising pet care costs.

The commitment

Starr said Western Mass Rabbit Rescue constantly receives rehoming requests from pet owners who misjudge the commitment of a rabbit. Bunnies are commonly seen as low-maintenance pets, but in reality these furry friends act more like a dog than a guinea pig. These critters live up to 12 years and require an open pen to play in, toys for enrichment and a plethora of cardboard, hay and treats to chew on.

Between the animal’s desire for cuddles and wandering mouth ready to chew on the first houseplant or cable in its path, rabbits need lots of attention, a fact that Starr says inspires a lot of her surrender requests.

“They no longer have time for them and want them to have a better home,” she added. “Unfortunately, they don’t realize that’s not what they’re doing. They aren’t giving their bunny a better home; they’re surrendering them to a rescue.”

Surrenders and rehoming requests aren’t the only cause for the increasing number of pets winding up at rescue centers. During the pandemic, spay and neuter procedures were considered elective operations. The most common and effective tactic to control cat, dog and rabbit populations ceased for more than a year, allowing pets to slip out and come home with an unexpected litter.

Worse, according to In Honey’s Memory founder Anna Zina, are renters whose leases prohibit pets but they adopted one anyway. Once evictions began again after the temporary suspension during the pandemic, tenants left their animals behind.

“I think the biggest issue post-pandemic is a lot of people got pets and then, because it was during COVID, landlords couldn’t force [tenants] out,” Zina said. “People take in pets who may not be allowed to have pets. Those pets aren’t spayed or neutered, so when they leave those pets behind, there’s a perfect storm.”

‘Part of the family’

As a one-woman cat rescue out of Huntington, Zina can handle 20 cats before it becomes difficult to give each animal the attention, food and medical care required. For Zina, it’s about the animal’s quality of life rather than the number of cats she can save.

As a result, she’s become the community’s cat resource. She drove a foster kitten with two cataracts to the vet while the foster parent worked. She provided hyperthyroid medication for a cat. She even helped a cat owner stop their cat and four other strays from peeing on their property.

“When you adopt from me, you adopt from part of my family, so I’m always in touch with them because they’ve become part of my family,” Zina said. “Loving a cat or dog isn’t just about loving; it’s about caring for them though regular vet visits and good nutrition.”

In Honey’s Memory has a small but mighty network: One of Zina’s adopters donated a chicken coop for a cat who must stay outside, and another is connecting Zina to contractors who can built a roof for her shelter. Community donations and fundraiser support keeps the small, no-kill, open shelter afloat and helps larger rescues like Dakin Humane Society keep up with higher intake numbers.

“We are seeing the flip side of people struggling with the economy. People have lost their homes, bills are going up and it’s led to families having to make difficult choices to return their animals to Dakin,” Talbert said.

Unlike the smaller shelters, Dakin’s adoption numbers continue to parallel intake numbers. Talbert explains that the nonprofit hired more staff in anticipation of the increase in animals, but Dakin’s network of fosters, volunteers and partner rescues alleviate much of the burden of higher intake numbers. Community members and staff share photos of animals up for adoption. Donations from volunteers and donors help offset the cost of vet bills, and partner rescues take animals when Dakin is at capacity.

“Our community, foster families and certainly our staff have all risen to the occasion to care for a higher number of animals this year,” Talbert said. “The community really allows us to react to this increase in intakes and care for these animals. It makes a world of a difference.”

Western Mass Rabbit Rescue has grown its community quite a bit since its founding, another reason behind the rescue’s intake uptick. However, adoptions occur a lot slower than Dakin: a brown bunny named Aphrodite has been in the rescue’s care for over two years. White rabbits with red eyes like Lammas, who’s been waiting for a home for a year and a half, are particularly hard to adopt out even with her network spreading the word.

“They are much harder to find homes for despite the fact that they act like silly, goofy dogs,” Starr adds “People think Monty Python, but it’s more like a golden retriever.”

But Starr isn’t discouraged by the challenge.

“We need more adopters! More of those wonderful human beings that come,” Starr said. “I know that they’re out there, we just need to find them.”

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.