Gimme Shelter: Overpopulation remains an issue for Tuscaloosa shelter

Laura Testino

A search for “dog” on the Alabama Student Ticket Exchange Facebook page will return more than 70 results dated since the beginning of May, when the last spring semester ended, and even more before that. Amongst these posts, users are advertising to the group of more than 36,000 that their dog crates are for sale, that they found a lost dog or that their own dog is now for sale.

In response to students selling dogs that can’t come home with them for the summer, live in their new apartments, or are too difficult to care for, a few Facebook users have made their own forms of public service announcement posts. One such post, telling students who get pets to be “ready for the long haul,” garnered nearly 600 likes.

“I think one of the reasons why I get so mad about [the posts in the Alabama Student Ticket Exchange page] is because I did make those mistakes of getting a cat and having to give it up and stuff like that,” said Sammie O’Brien, who is now a junior majoring in public relations. “I was the impulsive, animal-wanting freshman, and I do regret it.”

According to Jessica Pierce’s “Run, Spot, Run,” a book published this year about pet keeping, pets in the United States have outnumbered humans since the mid 1970s. Currently, the United States’ entire pet population is about 470 million, which is much greater than the human population of 316 million. With so many pets available, it becomes easier for them to wag their tails right on into homes, including those of college students.

As a freshman, O’Brien was 19, the minimum age for adopting a pet from the Tuscaloosa Metro Animal Shelter. After rescuing a stray cat from a friend, O’Brien also adopted a dog from TMAS toward the end of the year. Although the animal shelter doesn’t keep a tally on the ages of animal adopters (this would have to be done legally through a survey, rather than as part of the official application), Jennifer Earp, the TMAS director, estimates that about half of the adoptions are to younger people, which, for the year 2015, would be about 525 animals.

Earp considers operating the shelter in a college town to be a general plus, with the exception that young adopters sometimes return animals to the shelter.

“We do see returns because of poor decisions, not realizing the responsibilities,” she said. “The majority of those, whether they are students or not, are younger people.”

O’Brien had plans to keep her dog for sophomore year, but it was hit by a car over the summer while her previous roommate was taking care of it. She couldn’t bring the cat home because of a family member with allergies, so a friend’s mom adopted it.

Earp and Tara Freeman, the adoption coordinator, said they review the responsibilities of being a pet owner with all adopters and tailor the process and advice to the adopter’s lifestyle, discussing different challenges present for a student, single person or family home, for example. The entire process takes around 30-45 minutes once it begins, and the application includes questions about the status of pets being allowed in the adopter’s apartment or home.

“Once I’ve got all of the paperwork printed out, I come into [the adoption room] and go over the information about the animal that we have, the way it will be at home over the next few weeks, and then answer any questions they have.”

After returning her sophomore year, O’Brien, someone who grew up having dogs and horses at home, knew she needed to have one. She got Colt, a German Shepherd, for her boyfriend, knowing that it would often stay at her apartment. Shortly after, in October of 2015, she got her dog, Baxley, the runt in a litter of Great Danes. In order to save money for dog expenses like food and vet bills, O’Brien got a job at The Cypress Inn before she got Baxley and still works there. The extra funds have helped when the dog contracted canine parvovirus and a second time when she needed x-rays.

As an out-of-state student from Connecticut, traveling airlines with her dog will be easier now that Baxley is designated as an emotional support animal, O’Brien said.

“I never knew my anxiety was so terrible until I went home, and we lost my family Golden Retriever in May, and my anxiety skyrocketed,” she said. “Because I’ve always had animals around, and it was always a huge help, so I went to my therapist.”

A prescribed emotional support animal requires a note from a doctor in order to be honored by airlines and apartments buildings, O’Brien said, and isn’t the same as purchasing a certificate from a website. For out-of-state students who are not in need of an emotional support animal, traveling can be even trickier and more expensive, which is something Earp and Freeman address with out-of-state students who adopt.

Earp and Freeman recommend volunteering at the shelter or participating in Happy Hour to students who would like to be with animals but don’t have the time or finances to support one on their own. Earp started the Happy Hour initiative as a way to increase human interaction between dogs up for adoption and to drum up interest in adopting.

“Never take an animal lightly,” Earp said. “It’s easy to fall in love and think they’re cute, but the responsibility, it’s like taking care of a child, in every way. You feed them, you have to take them out, play time on a regular basis. Time and affection is huge.”

So far, Happy Hour, amongst other education programs and initiatives, has aided in increasing the number of adoptions. Last year at the end of June, 527 animals had been adopted. At the end of this June, 665 animals have been adopted from the shelter since the start of the year.

Overpopulation remains one of the root problems at the Tuscaloosa Metro Animal Shelter, Earp said, and likely won’t change until laws or regulations are put into place. Though funding could help, if there aren’t enough homes available for the animals to go to, they money will only do so much, she said. In comparison to the rest of the United States, the number of animals in the Tuscaloosa Metro Animal Shelter is almost exactly average. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports that 7.6 million animals enter shelters every year, which is about 2.4 percent of the population. TMAS took in 5,230 animals in 2015 to Tuscaloosa County’s population of 203, 976, which is about 2.56 percent.

“You can’t create more homes, because there’s already too many animals in homes already,” Earp said.

Earlier this August, many news outlets reported that the shelter was at capacity, which is not different from any other day of the year, Earp said. The shelter can turn away citizen intake when intake from animal control increases, which typically happens over the summer months.

“Whatever day of the year it is, it doesn’t matter if it’s a slow time,” Earp said. “We might take in 200 animals in one month, or 433 at a higher month, but every month that we take in any animals, we’re always at capacity. When our intake is a little slower, we can hold animals longer, so our adoptions will be higher, and then we take a few more. But our intake is still going to be lower, even though we’re at capacity.”

The shelter took in 5,230 animals in 2015, and received 1,916 by the end of May this year. Stray animals stay in the shelter for 7 days before the ownership switches to the shelter. Afterward, the animals face no time limit at the shelter, but after 3-4 months of staying in a shelter, they aren’t as healthy, Earp said. Last year, the shelter euthanized 2,942 animals. In the future, Earp said, the shelter’s statistics will differentiate the types of euthanized animals as healthy or sick.

TMAS tries to do their own part in population control by spaying and neutering all animals that are adopted. The Tuscaloosa Spay & Neuter Incentive Program, known as TSNIP, was founded in 2013 and is making efforts to control the feral cat population by spaying and neutering feral cats and then returning them.

The shelter is also hoping to expand to the building next door so that they have more space to give greater separation between dogs and cats and set up separate office areas to create a healthier environment for the animals.

UPDATE (8/29/16): This story was edited to more accurately reflect the nature of emotional support animals.