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On Oct. 21, the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter received a visitor who had driven all the way from San Diego. She had lost her home to divorce and could not find housing that would allow her to keep her two Great Pyrenees dogs.

Determined to find a place that would guarantee the safety of her beloved dogs, she arrived at Santa Cruz County’s open-door shelter out of desperation. She had been calling shelters throughout Southern California and beyond — even neighboring states — only to find that most shelters have closed their doors to new intakes. During the pandemic, nearly one in five households adopted a pet. But the pandemic also disrupted veterinary services, and many pets did not get spayed or neutered. Shelters everywhere have, unfortunately, now been swamped with surrendered animals.

The Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter was the only shelter that would accept this distraught woman’s beautiful dogs, Max, 3, and Mia, 4. After saying her goodbyes, the woman surrendered them to us, and they now await their next home.

We are proud of our open-door policy and continue to maintain it because it reflects our values. We also know our animal population is up over 50% from two years ago. This has created operational difficulties for staff, volunteers and management, some of which were highlighted in a Nov. 9 Lookout op-ed.

Across the nation, animal shelters are seeing increases in surrendered animals, straining their abilities to execute their mission. Many shelters are in a crisis. The easy thing for Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, and the joint powers board that governs it, would be to close our doors, as so many other shelters have done. We have chosen not to do that, even if it means we are struggling with record numbers of homeless animals.

Why? Because we made a commitment to the community to practice socially conscious sheltering, which embraces nine key tenets to work toward homes and medical service for every pet. We also assist families when crises occur, as we did during the CZU fire and other disasters by sheltering evacuated animals. We do not turn away any animal that comes to our door, no matter what issues the animal might have. Even in these difficult times, we will not waver from these values. We believe our residents expect that of us.

The story of Max and Mia is unusual only because a very small number of the shelter’s intakes come from outside the county. We are focused on the local pet population and look forward to a day when the current crisis eases and we are able to begin offering a full suite of low-cost services to the community once again.

Animal shelter staff and management are working through these difficult and challenging times together. Without our staff and invaluable volunteers, we could not offer the excellent level of care that we do. As public servants, we are called upon in times of crisis, and this is one of those times.

We have funded four new positions since 2020, representing a 14% increase in our workforce. To encourage adoptions, we regularly run adoption promotions with reduced fees. In October, we even offered a “choose your own price” special. We do this while continuing to provide our full set of adoption services — vaccinations, spay or neuter surgery and microchipping — even though the reduced fees don’t cover the rising costs of those services.

The Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter
The Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Through Dec. 3, we are offering a “Home for the Holidays” adoption special. The winter holidays can be a great time to take home a new family member, since a few days off from work or school can help pets bond and settle into a new home. Adoption fees are half off — these fees do help us meet our mission — and there’s no fee at all for dogs and cats 6 years and older.

We are also pleased to announce that on Nov. 28, Dr. Maris Brenn-White will become our new shelter veterinarian — a position that hasn’t been filled since December 2020. Since February, Brenn-White has been one of several contracted veterinarians who provide 50-70 hours of care to our animals each week, and we are incredibly lucky to get her.

We are committed to promoting humane treatment and fostering a compassionate approach to animal welfare. How we treat our animals says something about how we should treat each other — with compassion, care and an understanding that each life has value.

But it takes an entire community to make this approach a success. You can help, first, by being a responsible pet owner: Prevent accidental litters, ensure your pet is vaccinated, microchipped and wearing identification. If you are considering a new pet for your family, consider adoption first.

These simple actions help relieve the burden on shelters. And if you’re able to volunteer, foster, or donate, those contributions are literally life-changing and life-saving.

Jon Bush and Emily Chung are members of the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter board of directors. Jon is the chair, serves as the deputy chief of the Santa Cruz Police Department and has a dog and a cat at home. Emily is the public health director for Santa Cruz County and has two cats and a dog at home. All pets were adopted from shelters.