Smithtown animal shelter director Leigh Wixson peers at a kitten at...

Smithtown animal shelter director Leigh Wixson peers at a kitten at the shelter. Wixson says the shelter has more animals than normal up for adoption. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Pet owners are trying to put rabbits, guinea pigs, cats and dogs up for adoption at Smithtown’s animal shelter at an alarming rate, the town's shelter director said.

Leigh Wixson said her team started to observe a "huge uptick in calls to surrender" animals, including calls from nonresidents, last summer.

She speculated the increase might be tied to the pandemic, as people returning to office work or readying for a move find themselves unable or unwilling to care for pets, though officials in several other Long Island towns that operate shelters said they had not seen significant changes to shelter demand in recent months.

Smithtown animal shelter director Leigh Wixson with Parker, 11, a Chihuahua...

Smithtown animal shelter director Leigh Wixson with Parker, 11, a Chihuahua mix, whose owner died of COVID. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The Smithtown shelter, smaller than those in many neighboring towns, houses only dogs and cats from within the township. It has a population of 10 dogs and 61 cats, up from 44 cats in July, she said. A waiting list to surrender cats for adoption now has 20 names on it; typically it has five or six. The wait list for dogs has only a handful of names on it, but some of the dogs at the shelter, born before the pandemic lockdown and recently surrendered, face bleak adoption prospects because they behave aggressively or have not been house trained. "It’s a pattern where the owner decided to become a pet owner but didn’t research how to train the animal," Wixson said.

Also troubling is that town animal control officers are encountering stray animals that appear to have been recently abandoned, she said. These include a domestic rabbit, a bird and numerous cats that "come right up" to the officers, she said. "They’re looking for someone to take care of them."

Those cases, she said, are "discouraging and disheartening. I go home a little less sure of humanity some days." The town sent the small animals to shelters equipped to care for them and took in the cats.

Steve Zeidman, who blogs at PetPoint, a website that tracks data from 1,136 animal welfare organizations across the country, found no evidence to show that either a national pandemic surge in animal adoptions or a surge in surrenders ever happened; stories of those supposed trends are "completely untrue," he wrote.

Huntington, Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay officials said they had not seen any significant change in shelter intakes. Chris Elton, Babylon Animal Shelter director, said he’d seen no change for dogs and cats but had seen a "dramatic" increase in rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters surrendered to the shelter, though he did not know if there was a pandemic link.

Others in Long Island’s animal welfare community said they were dealing with spikes similar to the one in Smithtown.

"Both the amount of animals that come in in need of rescue and the amount of people looking to rescue has gone up," said Michael Sarrosick, dog program manager at privately run Little Shelter, in Huntington, where the dog population last week was about 50, up from the typical 35.

Phil Smith, who trains Smithtown shelter dogs and is head trainer for Michael’s Pack, a training service with offices in Mineola and Oakhurst, New Jersey, said since October he has fielded as many as 20 calls a day from anxious owners of young dogs adopted early in the pandemic.

Often, he said, "People who went and adopted them didn’t realize what they were taking on before they had to go back to work."

National Shelter stats September 2021 vs. 2020

Cats: Intake 72,542, down 5.2%

Owner surrenders 19,161, down 7.4%

Dogs: Intake 61,152, up 4.7%

Owner surrenders 13,793, up 1.2%

Source: Petpoint Report

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