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Inside a Hillsborough animal shelter, overwhelmed by an unseasonable surge

In most years, December marks the beginning of the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center’s slowest period.
Baleigh Simpson, 19, holds a cat she is meeting for potential adoption.
Published Dec. 4, 2021

TAMPA — The black kitten in kennel No. AC-57 came nameless to the shelter on the last day of November, aged nine weeks and weighing 2.7 pounds. The staff christened him Darwin. Preening in his cage, he stretched his paws through the metal slats and showed off the tuft of gray on his chest.

As the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center whirred to life Wednesday, he was one of its 374 feline and canine inhabitants, a figure that placed the shelter at nearly double its intended capacity. Approaching what is normally its slowest time of year, the shelter, the largest in the region and one of the biggest in the state, is still taking in animals faster than it can move them out. The people in charge can’t figure out why.

The shelter’s director, Scott Trebatoski, dreads the possibility that the intake rate keeps climbing through the winter. He worries about his staff, stretched thin and so busy tending to the animals’ basic needs that they often don’t have a spare 15 minutes to play with a cat or take a dog for a walk.

“You can come in and do your job,” he said, “but you are more like a warden.”

The place on Wednesday had a low hum of synchronized motion. Volunteers ferried dogs between kennels and the playground. In the guts of the mazelike facility, workers fed blankets, towels and quilts from a Sisyphean laundry pile into industrial-grade washers.

A cat and a kitten lie together at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa on Wednesday.
A cat and a kitten lie together at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa on Wednesday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Mali Harden, an animal care assistant, was cleaning the kennels around Darwin with practiced efficiency. “He’ll be adopted by the end of the day,” she said, as she emptied the contents of a litter box into a trash can.

Cute, charismatic kittens come and go fast; puppies, even faster. As for the rest of the animals, the shelter works to socialize them, treat their wounds and ailments, and play matchmaker, finding homes that align with their personalities.

Usually, spring and summer are busy, but the rush tapers off in autumn, as kitten season ends, and the holidays mark the slowest time of the year.

Related: Photos: Overcrowding at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center

Trebatoski has pored over intake data but can find few trends pointing to what has made this year so markedly different. Surrenders due to housing changes are up slightly, he said, but they’re offset by a drop in people giving up pets they don’t have enough time to care for. All the other proportions are stable — it’s just more of everything.

The first year of the pandemic carried surprising blessings for the shelter. Trebatoski said adoptions surged early in the pandemic, as more people found themselves lonely, stuck in their homes with time on their hands. One rescue coordinator at the shelter said that, on some days in 2020, it had fewer than 20 animals.

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Trebatoski and many of his peers feared that new pet owners would return their animals as the world reopened, but he said almost none of the recent intakes are animals adopted last year.

Related: Tampa Bay's adopted pandemic pets didn't all get returned to shelters after all

News reports have chronicled near crises of late at shelters across North America: a shelter in Ontario inundated with rabbits; a no-kill facility in Atlanta that’s had to turn away animals in line for euthanasia at other shelters; a Humane Society in San Diego desperately searching for foster homes. Some of those places have blamed particular trends, such as changes in animal transportation or a nationwide staffing problem. Trebatoski said the Hillsborough shelter is about 20 percent below its ideal staffing level, but that doesn’t explain the intake surge.

Skyler Jean Pierre, 20, of Tampa, meets a cat he named “Cornflake” at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa on Wednesday.
Skyler Jean Pierre, 20, of Tampa, meets a cat he named “Cornflake” at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa on Wednesday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Comparing the Hillsborough shelter to its counterpart across Tampa Bay deepens the mystery.

Pinellas County Animal Services’ shelter has hovered around 50 to 60 percent capacity, said its director, Doug Brightwell. Both shelters are public, stayed open during the pandemic and are “open access,” meaning they don’t turn away any cats or dogs. Brightwell pointed to some programs he believes have helped, including a “return-to-field” effort around feral cats that cut cat intake in half. But even that doesn’t account for the discrepancy between the two shelters.

The Hillsborough shelter, sandwiched between the county jail and a facility that turns trash into energy, is a dense maze of corridors and kennels, cubicles and veterinary rooms.

Volunteers participated in a constant relay, fetching a dog from its kennel and taking it to the fenced-in green expanse, returning another dog, back and forth for three hours, 9 to noon.

Meanwhile, the rescue coordinator was sending out mass email pleas to the 200-plus rescue groups the shelter works with. Across the building, a veterinary team bandaged a sedated mastiff’s glistening pink road rash, while a cat with a fractured palate peered from its kennel and waited to be intubated. The animals were named after grocery stores or snakes or Star Wars characters; people were calling them “baby” or “bud” or “hon” or “little lady.”

Monika Steidl, who next month will mark 15 years of volunteering here, has learned not to get too attached to the animals. But she worries about finding homes for all the animals in this recent surge, and what could happen to them otherwise.

In recent years, after a push to make the shelter less like a pound and more like a pre-adoption waystation, more than 90 percent of animals have left here alive. Most recent cases of euthanasia involved animals who were too sick or hurt to return to a reasonable quality of life, or dogs who posed a threat to public safety, Trebatoski said. But he noted that the shelter has euthanized animals due to overcrowding in the past and it could be a concern in the future, especially if the shelter receives an especially large, sudden influx of animals.

A dog looks on while at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa on Wednesday.
A dog looks on while at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa on Wednesday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Steidl guided a dog through a series of chain-link enclosures and into a large yard.

Rafael Fontan lingered in a corner, a spray bottle dangling from his cargo pants. The tattoos on his biceps say “Every Dog / Every Day,” a motto of the dog-enrichment program where he used to work, which holds that letting dogs play together daily is essential to understanding and socializing them. Lately, though, the shelter has been so overcrowded that “every dog, every two or three days” would be a more accurate description.

Until two years ago, Fontan traveled from shelter to shelter with the enrichment program, Dogs Playing for Life. He’s gotten the itch to go on the road again, so he’ll leave his job at the shelter at the end of the year. His eyes scanned the grass, like a teacher watching kids at recess, focused but a little wistful.

“I want to see them all leave before I leave,” he said.

Inside the shelter, people were trying to figure out how to make that happen. The previous weekend, they’d had success with an event focused on older animals. They would keep working the email lists, posting the cutest photos online, trying to perfect the art of animal matchmaking.

A few potential adopters had wandered into the front room, greeted by a chorus of meows from cats named Costco and Bat Woman and Ralph. And yes, Darwin was still there, but now the information sheet clipped to his kennel was stamped “Adopted,” just as Harden had predicted. He would be gone soon, and just as soon there would be another cat to take his place.

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