Shelter Staffing Crisis: How We Got Here, and What to Do About It

Jen Reeder

We’re in the midst of the phenomenon known as the 2021 Great Resignation, with millions of Americans quitting their jobs after rethinking their priorities during the coronavirus pandemic. While it has affected many industries, animal sheltering has been hit particularly hard.

A survey by Best Friends Animal Society of 187 shelters from July 28-August 6 found staffing shortages at a whopping 87 percent of organizations that responded, with 71 percent citing the reason for the shortage as “Unable to recruit, hire, and maintain staffing levels.”

So how did we get here – and what can be done?

Several compounding factors created a “perfect storm,” according to Kristen Hassen, director of American Pets Alive! and co-founder of Human Animal Support Services, an international collaborative of over 1,000 animal welfare professionals.

Prior to the pandemic, shelters already faced chronic understaffing issues, particularly with frontline workers such as animal control officers, veterinary technicians, adoption counselors, and kennel techs, who contend daily with trauma exposure, she says.

Then 2020 ushered in a temporary relief period during Covid, with intake significantly down and shelters emptier. A lot of new employees started working at animal shelters.

“They never knew what sheltering was like in 2019,” she said. “They knew a world in which the shelter wasn’t over capacity, and it seemed like we could solve the problems and we could do the community programming. Then when this summer hit, there was a shock wave that went through shelters, and all of a sudden, shelter workers became completely overwhelmed again.”

The mass exodus of employees began in early to mid-summer. Hiring processes at shelters – particularly government shelters – can take two to four months or longer, so it became nearly impossible to keep up with hiring, onboarding, and training, Hassen says. Plus, there’s a plethora of entry-level jobs in a variety of industries, many of which offer higher pay and less stress.

Pet Health Data showed transport decreased this summer by 13 percent from 2020 and 31 percent from 2019, which meant not as many animals moved out of shelters that really struggle.

When care standards can’t be met, it exacerbates the problem by contributing to compassion fatigue and trauma for workers who want the best for animals, Hassen says. In some shelters, pets might not get as much enrichment and attention – or worse. A stark example is viral photos taken this June at the City of Laredo Animal Care Services showing animals dead and suffering from neglect due to understaffing, which led to a massive public outcry.

“I use that as an example not to condemn them, but because I don’t know that people really understand how bad it is,” Hassen noted.

Facing the Crisis

Increased funding for shelters would clearly be a step in the right direction. Aimee Gilbreath, president of PetSmart Charities, says the organization is donating an additional $1.2 million to struggling shelters through the end of the year to help with staffing shortages. But she feels government agencies and communities should step up support for animal welfare organizations.

“If we – as communities, as funders, as government agencies, as citizens – want animal welfare organizations that provide a full suite of community support services, we have to fund them,” she says. “And the sad reality is whether it’s pre-pandemic or whether it’s now, most communities are not investing in their sheltering systems at that level.”

She has seen shelters successfully increase their funding by being candid with all their audiences, including donors, volunteers, social media followers, and government agencies.

“Saying, ‘Here’s where we need help. Here’s what would make a difference. Here’s when the city council meeting is about next year’s budget – come make a comment. We would love to be able to give this particular animal extra medical care, but it’s going to cost X amount. We would love to be able to support a community food bank, but we don’t have enough food available to meet the demand. Can you donate?’” she suggests. “The animals come from the community, and the animals go to the community. So the shelters can’t succeed operating as an island.”

Holly Sizemore, chief mission officer at Best Friends Animal Society, says shelters shouldn’t be vilified for not being able to pay more. She would also like to see increased government funding – and a fundamental change in the way it’s typically allotted.

“Sadly, there are still too many animal shelter budgets that are predominantly based on revenue generated by the number of animals taken into a shelter,” she said. “It incentivizes you to be taking in animals in order to pay your bills, when in fact our mission has an absolute conflict: We want to keep as many animals out and safe in the community and provide the services that will make pets and people successful, so they never have to enter the shelter in the first place. And that’s where governments need to catch up.”

Residents expect more than a “pound” now, she notes. Best Friends works with shelters around the country to try to achieve a 90 percent save rate benchmark throughout America by 2025. Programs that help toward that goal include intake intervention programs, safety net programs such as pet food banks, free and low-cost veterinary care, and access to training and behavioral resources – and housing resources.

“Some groups out there pay people’s pet deposits for them, but wouldn’t it be great if our local, publicly funded housing mandated that it had to be pet-friendly?”

During the staffing shortage crisis, Best Friends has been challenging organizations to look at their bottlenecks and ask, “Is this the way we should be doing it right now?” Sizemore said one admittedly controversial idea is not spay/neutering prior to adoption to free up fosters and prioritize animals with immediate medical needs. Adopters would sign a contract pledging to spay/neuter their pet.

“They’re basically fostering to adopt it until that spay/neuter is done,” she explained. “We have a lot more technology now to help people comply with getting an animal spayed/neutered after they adopt it.”

While Sizemore is quick to note she’s not an HR expert, she suggests proactively recruiting diverse candidates and highlighting the rewards of working in animal rescue, sharing testimonials from enthusiastic employees, rather than writing job descriptions that simply mention requirements like, “Must be able to lift 30 pounds.”

“The thing we have in animal welfare is this wonderful, common goal of wanting to save more lives, and we can go home at the end of the day knowing we worked really hard. We didn’t get rich, but we made a difference, and we saved a life,” she says. “We are making the world a better place for people and pets.”

It’s a sentiment that could attract new people to the community and motivate others to stay, despite the challenges. HASS’s Hassen hopes longtime rescue advocates will continue to fight the good fight, including pushing for pet-inclusive housing – “I think housing is the big fight of the next decade” – and working to help keep pets in homes.

“We can’t just keep leaving the movement. Although in some cases for mental health that really is the best decision, but more of us need to stay and speak out against what isn’t working and what’s broken,” she said. “Animal shelter workers probably have the strongest voice they have had in my lifetime, and we need to start using it. Start questioning everything we’re doing and trying to do it better.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Award-winning journalist Jen Reeder is former president of the Dog Writers Association of America.

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