Homeless animals face a growing lack of shelter space

“We simply cannot keep up with the demand with animals that are unwanted and unplanned.”

In Renton, a metal-roofed building surrounded with metal fencing houses the city’s six outdoor kennels that serve as temporary shelter for animal control officers to hold the stray dogs they find.

“I always joke that … I just need to buy some property and rent and make [a] shelter,” said Sgt. Craig Johnson of the Renton Police Department’s traffic unit patrol services, which manages the department’s two-man animal control unit.

A lack of shelter space for homeless animals serves as a regional, statewide and nationwide issue, said Sarah Davidson, Lifesaver Manager at the Seattle Humane Society.

Davidson said the pandemic-related shutdown of spaying and neutering through private clinics, along with high-volume low-cost spay neuter, resulted in an influx in unwanted and unplanned animal pregnancies — resulting in the number one reason for the lack of shelter space nationwide.

“We simply cannot keep up with the demand with animals that are unwanted and unplanned,” Davidson said.

“We’ve always wanted more capacity at our kennels, more suitable capacity so that we have more temporary space,” Johnson said. “You know, if I had an unlimited budget and I could write the checks, I would spend millions on huge buildings.”

Contracted through the Regional Animal Services of King County serving cities like Kent, Issaquah, Newcastle and more, King County animal control officers have a facility to house animals they find, Davidson said. In Renton, the city’s animal control officers operate through local police, Davidson said.

“Whereas our other animal control officers and other counties and cities do actually have a shelter, Renton … they don’t actually have a facility [and] they don’t do any adoption,” Davidson said.

Without a shelter, Renton animal control officers have limitations in terms of what animals they can take in, Davidson said.

The number of impounded and returned animals through Renton animal control has decreased annually from 2017 to 2023 as a result of changed processes, according to data from Renton animal control officer Tom Wilkinson.

In 2017, Renton animal control impounded 443 animals. By 2022, that number decreased to 224.

According to Wilkinson, changes to processes including the halting of taking in owner releases mid-2021, the halting of taking in stray cats (with the exception of cats in need of medical attention) in mid-2022, and the use of assistance from finders as fosters for the animals all decreased in numbers.

With a limited number of kennel spaces, Renton animal control officers have to be mindful of what dogs they take in, Davidson said.

After finding an animal on the streets, Renton animal control officers will attempt to identify an owner to return the animal. Without an owner, officers will have to locate space for the animal, calling shelters and asking for volunteers to take in animals found in the search for temporary housing.

“We’ve experienced more difficulty with locating suitable placement for these animals. You’ve probably seen it everywhere throughout the region — shelters full,” Johnson said.

“Small dogs are easily adoptable. … Some shelters will look at a small dog and go, ‘oh yeah, we’ll take that.’ It’s a five pound Chihuahua — we’ll have it out the door today,” Johnson said. “But if we have a 100-pound black lab, people will be like, ‘no, no, I don’t want that.’”

The department boards cats they find through a local veterinarian clinic.

Johnson said budgeting for increases in kennel space have frequently fallen in priority in budgeting processes.

“I’m just one of many groups in the police department, which are just one of many groups [in] the city who are striving to make things better for the community while operating with a limited budget,” Johnson said. “There’s only so much to go around.”