Skip to main content

West Valley City Journal

Over the fence: No vacancy at South Salt Lake’s animal shelter

Feb 06, 2023 03:18PM ● By Zak Sonntag

On a December afternoon, in the kennel room at South Salt Lake Animal Services (SSLAS), 22 dogs erupt in a fit of cacophonous barking because Jackson Wood, animal care volunteer, has entered the room with a leash—each of the dogs, no doubt, hopes the leash is for them.

Moments later a Great Pyrenees named Spaghetti bounds down the hall and leaps out the backdoor to take a turn in the yard, a massive white tail wagging vigorously behind him.

The excitement may seem typical of a 2-year-old canine, but it’s a stark contrast to the dog who was brought to the shelter a week before, malnourished and dangerously thin, with gouge wounds in his neck from a pinch collar.

“When he first came here, none of this would be happening. He wouldn’t let you pet him, he was skittish and afraid. He’s come a long way,” said Jenica Laws, Animal Services supervisor, who explained that many animals are brought to the shelter neglected, abused and malnourished.

If Spaghetti is a testament to successful work of civil servants like Laws, the daunting truth is that this Great Pyrenees is just one of the bourgeoning number of strays who’ve pushed shelters to capacity across the state—according to data from Best Friends Animal Society—and with adoptions becoming further and fewer between, providers like SSLAS are working to understand causes of the surge and find new ways to get animals help.

Uptick in abandonment

One reason for overcapacity at kennels today is related to the uptick in animal ownership during the COVID-19 pandemic, as households acquired pets both as a way to cope with the stresses of lockdown and also because work-from-home lifestyles made ownership more feasible, animal experts say. 

But now many of those same owners have surrendered or abandoned their animals as the whipsaw return to pre-pandemic lifestyles made pet caretaking more difficult, according to SSLAC.  

“A lot of what we’re seeing is that people said, ‘Hey, I got a pandemic puppy. Turns out I’m not home as much as I was,’” said Julie Taylor, communications and outreach manager for the city of South Salt Lake. 

“Now that many have transitioned back into the office you're seeing some increased behavioral dilemmas. When there is separation anxiety or pets are not getting their exercise, they tend to be a lot to handle,” said Taylor, who believes behavioral issues are a significant contributor to the increased strays and surrenders and says the challenges are especially evident in canine populations. 

In addition to having less time at home to be with animals, Taylor says that many pet owners have abandoned or surrendered animals due to financial hardship.

“I think you have the possibility that folks in this extreme housing crisis, and with the cost of living in general having gone up, who can't necessarily afford to feed their pets. It's become an expense that's beyond their budget. I think we're witnessing some of that with strays and abandonment,” Taylor said.   

Compassion fatigue

Worse still, the psychological toll on animals only increases with abandonment as the trauma of orphanage and malnourishment intensify. And while admission to a shelter will return many animals to health, the emotional hardship doesn’t end there—and it doesn’t stop with the animals.  

“A major problem in our work is compassion fatigue. We put our heart and soul into these animals. We love them from the first day they arrive. We come in and take care of these animals day-in-day-out,” Laws said. “But we see a lot of horrible things in this field, with neglect and abuse cases. We feel for those animals and it can be overwhelming, so we get a lot of compassion fatigue.”

To address their own emotional exhaustion, animal care workers rely on professional counselors and supportive relationships with city employees. Laws described the atmosphere at animal services akin to a family who provide a shoulder in times of fatigue. 

Crowdfunding for animals

Compassion has also driven workers at SSLAS to find creative solutions to help animals in need.  

A poignant example is seen in the story of Malin, a 3-month-old Yorkie-Pomeranian who was thrown from a moving vehicle, according to an eyewitness, resulting in two broken legs and five broken ribs. To save Malin’s life required a $10,000 surgery, a sum beyond SSLAS resources. 

In desperation, leaders at SSLAS tried something new and put out a plea for help on Facebook. The community response was remarkable, showing that compassion goes beyond the walls of SSLAS.

“We raised the funds in a day, and even exceeded the $10,000. She had surgery that day,” Laws said.

SSLAS hopes the crowdfunding success can be replicated for other animals at the shelter, including a 1-year-old Great Dane named Bubbas, who’d been found with a broken foot that healed crookedly and now requires corrective surgery.

“Without our volunteers none of this would be possible”

SSLAS relies on a team of volunteers, who clean kennels, exercise dogs, and provide much needed emotional attention to animals. 

“We only have three animal officers here and one front desk. Without our volunteers none of this would be possible. These animals have been neglected and abused, and the volunteers help get them acclimated, take them out on hikes up in the mountains, play with them outside, clean their kennels,” Laws said. 

Volunteer Wood, a student at Cottonwood High School, has been a critical part of the shelter’s training efforts.

“I’ve lived with animals throughout my life. I’ve grown to love them and love being with them. And when I heard they were short staffed, I decided I wanted to help,” Wood said, pulling Spaghetti, the Great Pyrenees, into a cuddly hug. 

Wood explained that after arriving at the shelter Spaghetti was scared and averse to humans. So Wood began sitting patiently with the dog in its cage. Eventually, he had a breakthrough and was able to remove his pinch collar. 

Now when Wood enters the kennel, Spaghetti lunges emphatically into his arms.

In his time at the shelter Wood has witnessed a number of breakthroughs. The animal that affected him most was Mamba, a pit bull who was brought in emaciated and demonstrably afraid of men—a trait that Laws says is common of dogs who’ve been physically abused. 

With the same patience shown with Spaghetti, Wood has slowly retrained Mamba to be comfortable around males. 

“The fact that he’s no longer afraid of men,” Laws said, “that is huge!”

What happens if strays continue to increase?

With SSLAS and other shelters in the region experiencing full kennels, more resources will be needed to maintain no-kill policies while finding homes for the growing number of orphan animals, service workers say. But with shelters just one of many public services competing for funding, expanding animal services remains an open question.

No immediate plans exist to relieve pressure at SSLAS, but Taylor, the city’s communication and outreach manager, expects to see additional funding requests for animal services in the coming budget season. 

“I anticipate this will be on the list of wants and needs. Anytime we see a need and we’ve met capacity, then absolutely (animal services) will be up for discussion here in the spring as we move into budgeting and assess our needs,” Taylor said.

As for Malin, the Yorkie-Pomeranian, following her life-saving surgery she found a new permanent home—with Laws who, now along with Malin, has four dogs and four cats.