Pet Peeves

Accepting, fostering and rehoming Sacramento’s abandoned pet population is a full-time job

Back Article Dec 28, 2017 By Willie Clark

Even though some of the animals at the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary are illegal to keep as pets in California, people still figure out a way to get their hands on them, according to Jill Lute-Faust, the sanctuary’s lead senior zookeeper.

“The exotic pet trade is huge and people can get everything from a hedgehog to a tiger very easily,” Lute-Faust says. “It’s not hard. Whether it’s illegal or not, if people want something they get it.”

The sanctuary works with a wide range of critters, including injured animals, illegal pets or domestic pets that their owners decided they didn’t want or are unable to care for. The facility currently houses everything from a prairie dog, to macaws, kinkajous, parrots, monkeys and black bears. “All of the animals that live here, they really can’t live anywhere else,” Lute-Faust says.

But the sanctuary’s capacity is limited: “We’re pretty much always full,” Lute-Faust says. For the most part, the only way space opens up is when an animal dies, and they accept less than 1 percent of the animals that are brought to their attention.

“We [already] have animals that need homes,” Lute-Faust says. “We don’t need to contribute to the pet population with exotic pets as well.” And as Sacramento continues to grow as a city, so too is it important to remember the needs of its pet populace.

Realities of Animal Shelters

Supporting Sacramento’s pet population is far from a new endeavor: The Front Street Animal Shelter dates back to the 1850s, according to Manager Gina Knepp. The facility is a municipal shelter — part of the City of Sacramento — but is also supported by the nonprofit Friends of the Front Street Shelter.

“We don’t need to contribute to the pet population with exotic pets.”Jill Lute-Faust, senior zookeeper, Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary

“Our primary focus is to take in lost, stray, abandoned, injured, sick animals that end up away from their people for whatever reason and either get them back to their rightful owners if that’s appropriate, or get them new homes,” Knepp says.

That’s no small task. Across Sacramento county, every year 35,000 animals enter either Front Street, the County of Sacramento’s shelter or the Sacramento SPCA. In 2016, nearly 11,000 dogs and cats came into the Front Street shelter, with 9,180 leaving, either as adoptions, transfers or were returned home. This follows a continual — but drastic — increase in animals leaving the shelter since 2011.

“If you just look at the City of Sacramento, it’s estimated that 250,000 cats and dogs live in the city limits … that’s pets that people own, so the volume is tremendous,” Knepp says.

While that 35,000 number includes lost animals or those relinquished by their owners, it also includes abandoned pets. It’s not unheard of, Knepp says, for people to drive up to one of Sacramento’s shelters and just leave the animal behind. Front Street’s cameras also often show people, under the cover of darkness, dropping animals off in boxes, leaving them tied to the doors or even going as far as to toss them over the fence. “It’s a crime, but most people don’t look at it that way, and don’t realize they’re A: breaking state law, and B: leaving a living creature to fend for itself,” Knepp says.

Pet abandonment doesn’t always happen at the shelters, either. Knepp mentioned that grocery stores will call them about pets who have been tied up outside and left. And during evictions, it’s “extremely common” for the tenants to leave the property without their pets, she says.

Knepp also stresses honesty for people who have to surrender their animals, and says they don’t have to be scared about being judged: “We want to help people and their pets. It’s not just about the animals, but it’s about the people who love them and own them.”

No Room At The Inn

Without their owners, some domestic animals may be able to survive in a new humanless environment, but for others the situation is much more bleak. “By putting an unneutered male cat back into the wild, he now has a biological imperative to hunt for and capture territory,” Sacramento SPCA CEO Kenn Altine says. “And he will attack every other unaltered male out there.”

The SPCA has recently changed how it accepts owner-surrendered pets: It now uses a scheduling-based program with discounted surrender fees, which has reduced the numbers of such animals coming into their facility by about half. In the last four months of 2015, 1,234 animals were surrendered, and after the change over the same period in 2016, that number was 740.

Not being a super easy out for pet owners, “really sort of changed that dynamic,” Altine says, “and people were incented to solve their problem.”

For Front Street, space is always an issue. “We play Jenga every single day, shuffling animals around,” Knepp says. All of those animals that come in need to go somewhere, which means the shelter has to then have that same number leave daily in order to avoid euthanizing animals.

“That’s a horrible reason to put an animal down, just because there’s too many coming in and there’s not enough beds at the inn,” Knepp says.

That space, or lack thereof, is continually on Knepp’s mind, she says. “Every single night and every single morning I look to see, ‘Do I have enough space to make it to the morning in case the animal control officer brings animals in during the night?”

Animal Instincts

The needs of Sacramento’s animal population also expand past the capacity of Front Street. It uses foster homes, and at one point during last kitten season, had over 900 cats in foster homes. Without those foster owners, these cats would have been put down. Over the course of 2016, over 3,400 cats were in such foster homes. The municipal shelter even transfers dogs to other states to deal with its canine population.  

“I’m very proud of all of the shelters in our region, because we have really flipped things around,” Knepp says. “I do not euthanize an animal just because I don’t have space.”

Front Street isn’t alone in its efforts, however. Founded in 1993, Sacramento’s Happy Tails is a no-kill shelter run mostly by volunteers, with an animal focus on felines.

“Our mission, basically, is to help those animals that can’t help themselves,” says Sarah Tomaszewski Farias, a member of Happy Tails’ executive board. “We do try and focus on animals that are in really dire straits.”

Happy Tails accepts animals directly from the community, and their phone rings daily with calls about animals that need new homes.

Happy Tails has around 300 animals every year leaving the shelter as adoptions. And if you have a pet — or more than one — at home, you already know what an undertaking they can be. But Happy Tails has this on scale, and tends to have around 20-30 adoptable cats at its shelter, not including its feral or unadoptable cats housed there.  

Younger cats present another problem: some of the kittens still need to be fed by bottle. “That is a big undertaking because they need to be fed five times a day,” she says.

Other groups assist the organization with the bulk of that feeding, but making space for new animals is also an issue. Sometimes — like during kitten season — it just isn’t able to take in new animals.

“Basically, we have a certain amount of foster homes, and when those are all full, we have to wait until animals are adopted out and space is available,” Tomaszewski Farias says. The physical center is limited by space, as well.

Ultimately, Happy Tails’ goal is to be able to help any animal they come in contact with, so that no animal is turned away, “but unfortunately at this point, we definitely have to do that. And again, we try and prioritize animals that are in the most dire situation,” Tomaszewski Farias says.

While it might be easy to throw stones and condemn pet owners, Lute-Faust, of the Folsom sanctuary, offers up that isn’t the best course of action.

“You have to make them see it from the animal’s point of view, because the animals are the biggest stakeholders here. That’s why it’s really important for people to not get judgmental and criticize,” she says. “If we don’t change the people’s behavior and mindset who are doing this, then we will never make a change.”  

This story is part of the 22nd annual Capital Region Cares, Comstock’s special publication dedicated to nonprofits and charitable giving. You can order the 2017-2018 edition online here. To submit your nonprofit success story for consideration in next year’s edition, fill out this online form.