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Stronger enforcement of a Nebraska Humane Society policy to deter owner-surrendered pets except in emergency situations is creating huge problems for already strapped rescue groups in the Omaha area.
“People have nowhere to put their animals,” said Joni Cisney of Homeward Bound in the Heartland Animal Rescue Inc. “Everybody is full to the brim. It’s so horrific out here, and animals are suffering every day.”
Most small organizations like Cisney’s don’t have the resources to handle the influx of pets created by the Humane Society crackdown. A tough economy and people returning to work after the pandemic have heightened the problem.
Terri Larson of Muddy Paws Second Chance Rescue said she receives calls every day from people who have tried to take a pet to the Humane Society and have been turned away. Instead of the usual 120 to 150 animals on her books, her rescue now has around 240.
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“There are no options for people,” she said.
Pam Wiese, Nebraska Humane Society vice president of public relations and marketing, said her nonprofit organization is facing the same challenge as the smaller rescue organizations. There simply is not enough room.
Even with some newly created kennels, the Humane Society is nearly full with 575 animals, down from last month’s 675. A certain number of kennels have to be saved for cruelty cases or the stray animals that the Humane Society is obligated to pick up through its contract with the City of Omaha and Sarpy County.
Wiese said it’s been a long-standing policy to try to divert owner-surrenders. It’s just been followed more strictly post-COVID. Part of the problem, as with many companies, she said, is that the Humane Society has struggled to fill open staff positions.
“We’re trying some new things to divert people from leaving animals at the shelter,” she said. “What we’re really trying to do is use us as a last resort instead of a first choice.”
That may mean asking an owner to list a pet on the Humane Society rehoming website and keep it until it’s found a new home, asking friends or family for help or posting on social media about an animal needing a home.
A pet food pantry, for instance, can provide help for people who can’t afford to feed their animals.
“As opposed to bringing in a pet, and saying, ‘I can’t have it any longer,’ we’re trying to help people rehome on their own if at all possible. If they can’t and have tried all of the resources, then we will take the pets,” Wiese said.
The Humane Society also is recommending rescue groups to owners who can’t keep a pet, which adds to the overwhelming influx to those organizations.
It’s a mess, said Debbie David, owner of Hands, Hearts and Paws Rescue.
“Adoptions are incredibly slow,” she said. “Requests for intake whether it be shelters or owner surrenders or puppy mills are at an all-time high.”
Eryn Swan, who operates Hops + Co. Small Animal Rescue, said pet overpopulation has always been a problem. But it seems to have grown worse the past few years.
Rescues are trying their best to answer the need, but Swan said there always seems to be more animals than they can handle. That the Humane Society is following a stricter policy isn’t helping.
“We feel like we’re bailing out a sinking ship with a shot glass,” Swan said. “Spay and neuter is everything. That’s going to limit the number of animals out there.”
However, the Humane Society closed its low-cost spay and neuter clinic in April, again due to staffing shortages, Wiese said. It is also not spaying and neutering all the animals it adopts out.
All cats are being fixed, as well as bully breeds, puppies and dogs with behavior issues. Those with no issues are being done when possible. But she said waiting to be fixed can hold up the adoption process and slow the creation of a space for another animal.
The Humane Society doesn’t want to have to euthanize any animals to create space. Right now, they have an 86% live release rate.
Owners are being offered a voucher for $500 for spaying and $300 for neutering instead of those procedures being done by the Humane Society. Wiese said $52,800 in vouchers have been redeemed in 2022.
A spot check of the costs involved in spaying a 1-year-old, 35-pound dog ranged from $110 to $600. One animal hospital said it had no openings until January.
“We’re asking the public to step up and make an appointment with their veterinarian,” Weise said. “We’re hoping the public does that. The redemption rate shows that the public is doing this. We don’t have another answer.”
Homeward Bound’s Cisney said the spay and neuter clinic was crucial for rescues, especially those working to contain the high number of feral cats in Omaha.
“What we really desperately need out here is for the Humane Society to come out with a lot of us to do spays and neutering,” Cisney said.
Swan said it’s too easy for even the best-intentioned owner to accidentally let a pet out or have it escape from a yard while it’s in heat and become pregnant.
That animal would then contribute to the overpopulation problem. Swan said that risk is too high not to provide that service.
“To me, it’s just scary and not the responsible thing to adopt out animals that are not spayed or neutered,” she said.
The Humane Society recently hired another veterinarian and veterinary tech and plans to add another to reach its usual staff of five. That will enable them to spay every animal that is adopted. Wiese said the spay and neuter clinic will reopen, likely in 2023.
Wiese said she understands that rescues are feeling frustrated with the Humane Society. Swan said the shelter needs to operate with more transparency, especially with rescues.
“You guys are the one with all the huge funding and giant volunteer base and you are handing out our names where we have nominal budgets and limited fosters,” Swan said. “It doesn’t feel good.”
The Nebraska Humane Society has a budget of $14 million per year, with about 40% coming from donations. But Wiese said it also has a utility bill every month of $40,000.
“That’s just some perspective,” she said.
Muddy Paws’ Larson and Homeward Bound’s Cisney said they are doing everything they can to help pet owners in a bind. Larson said her rescue assists with medical expenses and offers free behavioral training for its animals. They spay or neuter every adopted pet.
Larson said her group’s medical expenses were $70,000 the past few months, due in large part to the rehabilitation of dogs with parvo that it does in conjunction with the Humane Society.
But Larson said owners have to step up, too. She recommends getting training if having issues with a pet or not waiting until the last minute to find a new home for a pet if they have to move and a dog or cat can’t come along.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people think pets aren’t a commitment for the life of the pet,” she said. “I think that’s part of the problem. People aren’t problem-solving and working through some of the issues with their pets. They figure, rehome them.”
Cisney said something needs to be done to ease the situation because it’s reaching a breaking point. Rescues fear that Nebraska will have the same issue as some states in the South, which have much larger problems with stray animals.
“It’s absolutely horrifying,” Cisney said. “It’s not the good life. The animals are getting the shaft and nobody is paying attention. It’s really damaging and dangerous.”