Pet adoptions dwindle in Aspen, high country, as abandonments rise |

Pet adoptions dwindle in Aspen, high country, as abandonments rise

Kimberly Nicoletti
For The Aspen Times
Fred on Buddy's back, Hani in the front, after we picked him up.
Kimberly Nicoletti/For The Aspen Times

On a road trip from Arizona to Colorado, the vehicle ahead of us pulled over as it approached a hill. My parents and I arrived just in time to see a person dump a dog out, and abandon it. The dog ran after the truck, which immediately sped away, leaving him on the side of Highway 160, in the middle of a desert.

We hadn’t seen houses or signs of life for the prior half hour of driving. No snow or water existed for a dog to survive in this desolate part of Arizona, and, as it turned out, we drove 30 more minutes before we saw two trailers off in the distance — the only sign of life.

Fortunately, the abandoned dog turned around once it couldn’t catch the dashing vehicle and headed our way when we pulled over. It accepted a treat from my dad and looked me in the eye, cocking its head as only an adorable puppy can.

We coaxed it into our overpacked car, which contained two other dogs (one mine, one my parents) and a ton of luggage. Desert, as we temporarily named him (and, indeed, it was an unneutered male), promptly sprawled his 56-pound body across the backseat, resting his head on my lap. At one point, my parent’s 17-pound dog, Fred, laid down on top of Desert, and Desert just mellowly let him ride on his back.

During the nearly nine-hour trip home, I fell in love with Desert. I kept waiting for some behavioral problem to emerge: a potty accident, a growl (particularly when my “only child” dog growled at him when dinnertime came) or pulling on a leash during walks. Nothing. He just kept looking up at me with those big, brown eyes.

When we returned home that night, it was obvious he had never had a bath, but even that went pretty well, after he watched us give our dog, Hani, a bath.

Needless to say, the next morning, I couldn’t bring myself to cart him to the shelter. Instead, I searched for rescue organizations to find him a foster parent because we couldn’t be his “forever” home — and he was clearly comfortable in a home.

What I learned in the nearly two weeks we kept him: Adoption rates at many local shelters have significantly declined, owner surrenders have increased, and rescues are full.

Buddy comfy in front of the slider.
Kimberly Nicoletti/For The Aspen Times

Surrenders and adoptions

“Last spring, we had a huge amount of surrenders — about two dogs a week. We haven’t seen it that high since 2000,” said Meg Leroux, Summit County Animal Control & Shelter operations manager, adding that last spring, their typical abundant transfers from out-of-state kill shelters “came to a screeching halt” due to lower adoption rates. But since January, that has been picking up again.

While Eagle County Animal Shelter has only seen a slight increase in available pets for adoption, Summit County Animal Control and Shelter has seen a 43% increase in owner surrenders from 2021 to 2022, and The Aspen Animal Shelter is seeing “the slowest adoption rate,” said Director Seth Sachson, in his 30-year history there.

While the number of strays coming into Summit County has decreased, Animal Control Director Lesley Hall “did notice animals were spending longer times in the shelter and not getting adopted as quickly,” she said, particularly in the last quarter of 2022 and this year. Dogs now average 25-day stays, and cats average 36 days, which vastly differs from the beginning of the pandemic — and typical years — when average stays were 11 days, she said. At Eagle County Animal Shelter, dogs remain a couple of weeks, with puppies obviously going faster.

During the pandemic in late 2020, my husband and I searched for months trying to adopt our current “only child,” Hani. As soon as dogs, especially small, young ones, popped up online, they got adopted. We lucked out on Hani because her first adoptive family gave her up in a day, after their child cried from her puppy-type nipping.

Hall, who has been with the Summit County Animal Shelter for 34 years, saw the “most ever” adoptions in 2020, totaling 669. In 2021, the number dropped to 573, and last year, it went down to 522. Cat-only adoptions have been doing better than dogs in the past year, which is an “odd trend,” she said, seeing that dogs usually do better.

“I guess cats are easier when people are going back to work,” she said.

What’s going on?

“During the pandemic, people had time on their hands,” Sachson said. “They were working from home or their business had shut its doors. We were all moving at a much more relaxed pace and had more time to spend with dogs. Once many of us got back to life as usual, many dogs have taken a backseat to other priorities.”

After more than 20 years at the Aspen Saturday Market offering dogs for adoption, The Aspen Animal Shelter had its slowest year ever last summer, he said.

“It could be a million confounding variables that have nothing to do with COVID,” Sachson said.

But one thing’s for sure: Both Aspen and Summit County animal shelters have taken in fewer dogs this year because adoption rates have slowed so much. Mountain shelters regularly absorb homeless animals from other states (often Texas, New Mexico and Kansas), where they would otherwise get euthanized because their time is up (usually after two weeks).

“The number we’re been bringing in trended down because we don’t have the space to take animals from our transfer partners,” Hall said. “We weren’t moving as many animals. It became a nationwide problem. Higher volume shelters were ending up euthanizing them because of space.”

In 2020, Summit County brought in 514 animals from kill shelters. In 2021, that dropped to 452, and last year, it went down to 335. But there is hope.

“We’re starting to open up again. We’re taking in more transfers, and hopefully, that keeps happening,” Leroux said. “Hopefully, we’ve finally reached the end of COVID dogs that people gave up on when they had changes (with work, and social events, ramping up again).”

Meanwhile, Eagle County Animal Services had its best adoption year ever in 2022, with 532 animals, manager Rhiannon Rowe said. Eagle Valley Humane Society hasn’t received a lot of owner surrenders, and they are still bringing in dogs from other areas; about 200 animals are adopted from there annually.

“Our pets are getting adopted very quickly,” said Eagle Valley Humane Society director Char Gonsenica.

Though Eagle County has seen a slight influx in pet surrenders recently, “it’s nothing we wouldn’t anticipate,” Rowe said, especially after “hearing from the Front Range that it’s going to be crazy.”

As Sachson said, the reasons for surrenders and lower adoption rates vary, but many point to housing issues. Of course, it used to be worse: Gonsenica has worked for the Eagle Valley Humane Society for 24 years. Back then, she’d see an onslaught of pets surrendered after the ski season.

Now, surrenders occur year-round, largely due to landlords’ and home-owner associations’ no-pet policies. Shelters like Eagle County are trying to address the situation by looking at “how we can show pet owners to be more responsible for what’s going on and why landlords are so hesitant to rent to pet owners — is it because of a bad experience with renters not cleaning up?” Rowe said, adding: “We want to bridge the gap and understand what we can do and show that having a pet is so helpful for people. It helps with mental health issues, and pets are so wonderful to come home to because it’s your buddy. Pets bring us so much happiness and joy.”

Board members of Lucky Day Animal Rescue in Aspen have been talking about how the cost of owning pets has increased, particularly when it comes to veterinary costs, said President Kelley Brenninger.

“We try to keep our adoption fees at some of the lowest in the state, but we had to raise them because of vet costs. It’s getting to the point that only the wealthy can vet their dogs,” she said, adding that adoptions are down now, “but they were so up during COVID (when adoptions tripled), it’s hard to gauge.”

She usually sees adoptions increase in spring and summer, since it’s more comfortable to potty train dogs in warmer months. The rescue fosters an average of 10 dogs at one time, and usually they’re in foster care for a maximum of three weeks, she said.

Buddy, Hani and Fred hanging out in the living room.
Kimberly Nicoletti/For The Aspen Times

Encouraging adoption

Foster families, shelter employees and volunteers work with animals to make them more adoptable through socialization and training. The Eagle Valley Humane Society offers free dog behavioral classes, which helps prevent owner surrender, Gonsenica said.

“It takes a patient person. Dogs need to decompress,” Brenninger said. “People expect it to be perfect right off the bat, but it’s a soul that has its own individual personality. The joy of seeing a dog go from A to Z is so irreplaceable — to get a dog from hiding in their crate to a pet dog to going to the store with you doesn’t happen overnight.”

Since new pet owners have more resources and, as a result, give up their new pets less often, a greater number of dogs that end up in shelters tend to have behavioral issues, which their former owners have given up on, Gonsenica said. But obedience classes can completely turn a dog’s behavior around.

“We don’t get a lot of dogs surrendered because we can help them get through behavioral problems,” she said.

The Aspen Animal Shelter has been experimenting with ways to promote adoptions of larger, older and often less-than-perfect dogs. They’ve decided to take in fewer transfers from outside Pitkin County. Normally, they accept about 250 annually. Still, they’ve still taken in more than 100 in the last 12 months.

“We took in less this year because adoption rates were slower, and with our existing population, we didn’t want to flood the market with cute puppies and have such a desirable supply (overshadowing the harder-to-adopt dogs). Nobody talks about or wants to adopt dogs that aren’t turn-key — that aren’t house trained or are not good with other dogs or are 8 years old and wary of strangers,” Sachson said, adding that the shelter doesn’t advertise some of its more problematic dogs because they’re not the right fit for 99% of the population. But for that 1%, they’re an amazing fit. When he spots a good opportunity, he encourages the match, talking about how “you can see the twinkle in people’s eye when they say, ‘Tell me about her.'”

When the first wave of COVID-19 shut down interstate transportation of dogs, Sachson got a glimpse of “what it felt like not to fly a million miles a minute with dogs getting adopted — when we were not inundating ourselves.” He decided to run a trial period of 12 months, in which he avoided bringing in adorable puppies from out of state and instead focused on “adopting out dogs I never thought would be adopted.”

He discovered that people often didn’t look further than the cutie pies, but now that his supply comprises of mostly harder-to-adopt dogs, people are taking more time to get to know them, and they’re falling in love (and committing to training them). A similar phenomenon happened at the beginning of the pandemic, when supply was low and people paid attention to “less-desirable” dogs.

“If you’re looking at success as quantity of dogs adopted, then we’ve failed — we’ve had our worst year ever. But if you’re looking at quality and adopting out our existing population, we’ve had our best year ever,” he said. “We still never refuse any animal from Pitkin County, but we used to overflow, and it was insane. We couldn’t keep up. Sure, we’ll go back to pumping dogs through here — we used to have dogs living in the office. Now we’re filling every kennel, but we’re not going crazy and for now it’s a nice rhythm. However, if we adopt out this existing population, heck yeah, we’ll keep pumping goodwill dogs through here.”

Hani and Buddy.
Kimberly Nicoletti/For The Aspen Times

From abandoned to a good home

Indeed, taking in a dog that has been discarded isn’t always an easy task. I quickly discovered I needed outside help. I was out of my depth with Desert, whom we quickly renamed Buddy (since he followed us around everywhere and just wanted to love and be loved).

First, I found a flea (and, as the vet said, where there’s one, there’s more), so we treated him and my dog for ticks and fleas. The next day, I found a white worm on his, let’s say, backside, so I returned to the vet and put him and Hani on deworming medication (Lucky Day Rescue kindly stepped in to pay the $38 for Buddy, since I had paid all the other vet bills for exams, vaccines, etc.). The following day, I happened to run into a veterinarian friend, who told me the scabs on his paws could be ringworm, which was alarming (fortunately, they weren’t). I was spending at least three hours a day on social media trying to spread the word about Buddy needing a home — and calling rescues, attempting to get some traction. I spent well over 16 hours total decontaminating my house, in case worms, fleas or eggs lingered.

And yet I totally loved Buddy and wanted to do everything I could for him. After about a week, I had found a few people who wanted to meet him. The first meeting went well, but the couple decided to pass.

It was the second meetup that made me nervous, and ultimately caused me to consult the shelter. 

Buddy had been great with Hani and my parent’s dog — he was docile and played with Hani extremely gently, always pausing and looking at me to see if what he was doing was OK. So I was shocked and worried when he growled while meeting a bigger dog during this second meetup. We tried the same thing with a few other big dogs, and his growl rate was about three out of five. I realized I didn’t have the time or training skills to work with him. I suspected bigger dogs had bullied him (or worse), since the top of his ear had jagged scars from bite marks. Suddenly, the optimism I had about finding him a home myself dwindled. An emotional rollercoaster ensued as I struggled with what to do next, and continued to try to get a hold of a rescue that could help.  

After long talks with the supportive folks at the animal shelter, I decided to keep him for a few more days (I had him for 12 days total), and take him into the shelter the last second I could, the night before he was scheduled for neutering. They thought neutering would help the growling, which they also thought could be related to feeling unsafe with big dogs on a leash — something that could successfully be worked with through training. 

I had been talking to a couple in Salida who expressed strong interest in adopting him, and my two options were: Send Buddy to my parents’ house in Denver while we went on our scheduled vacation for a week and therefore delay his neutering and meetup with the Salida couple for over a week, or give him to the shelter, get him “fixed,” and hope and pray the couple, who had already filled out an adoption application, immediately fell in love with him like I did.

Turned out, his big brown eyes and sweet personality won them over, too. He now takes runs with his new mom and has a loving dad in Salida.

It literally took a village to save this dog. Nearly a hundred people commented on my social media posts keeping them front and center on people’s feeds for days. It got to the point where I couldn’t go anywhere without someone telling me they had heard about Buddy (because I, who am naturally an introvert and hate self-marketing, became the world’s biggest blabbermouth, praising the personality of this dog and looking for a good home for him). Friends, rescues and the shelter helped guide me, until LaRae Bradbury welcomed my temporary Buddy into their Salida home for good.

“There is no greater joy than seeing the love and gratitude in a dog’s eyes and experiencing the love we feel in return,” said Bradbury, who named her new four-legged friend Auggie. “Rescue/adoption has opened our eyes. It has helped us realize that there are countless animals that are already out there in need of good homes, not to mention the obstacles that come with purebred animals. Rescuing those in need is a great thing. Please consider these options when contemplating getting a pet. You won’t be disappointed.” 

Buddy was dumped on the side of a desolate road in Arizona.
Kimberly Nicoletti/For The Aspen Times