Humane Society grapples with overpopulation

You don’t have to go any farther than the parking lot to see that the Humane Society has too many unwanted animals on its hands.

The muddy parcel of land just south of the lot is crowded with dogs—dozens of them—housed in makeshift cyclone-fenced enclosures. Most of them have muddy Igloo-type doghouses in the pens, but even these small respites from the rain and wind are worn, and with two and sometimes three dogs in each pen, they’re more than crowded.

Inside, the shelter is just as bleak. There are cats stacked in small carriers almost to the ceiling in the lobby. The three-dozen or so dogs lucky enough to be placed in a permanent dog run inside the shelter bark over the noise of a single shelter worker working with a couple who are taking an animal home.

Shocked by the shelter’s overpopulation, Elizabeth Gonzalez, president of Chico Animal Rescue and Education (CARE), is leading an effort to relocate at least 35 dogs and cats to less-crowded shelters in surrounding counties.

Gonzalez, who has volunteered for years at the Humane Society, charges that the shelter—which has a maximum capacity of 150 to 180 animals—keeps unadoptable animals too long, leading to overpopulation and a miserable life for the animals. Currently, the shelter has 134 animals.

“No one wants to see these animals die,” she said. “But there comes a point, I think, where you have draw a line and say, ‘This is what we can do and this is what we can’t do.'”

Rich Parmenter, the Humane Society’s executive director, acknowledged that while the shelter takes a financial hit for keeping animals as long as it can (the city reimburses the shelter for only four days’ worth of care per animal, or $32, while the average stay for the animals is far longer than that), the goal of the shelter is to keep the animals until it can find homes for them.

But that “keep ’em all” policy has put the shelter out on a limb, financially. Just two weeks ago, it had to ask the city to repay a $42,000 loan early, citing rising overhead costs and low donations after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The loan originated in 1994, when the shelter paid for a major expansion and the city agreed to reimburse it for the construction. The city had two monthly payments, amounting to $42,000, left to pay on the debt.

Parmenter acknowledged that the shelter indeed can’t keep them all and, as proof, pointed to a recent shelter Board of Directors decision that limits shelter placement to six months for each animal. However, if there’s room, he said, the shelter will hold animals longer.

Gonzalez said she’s thrilled that the shelter aims at adopting out all the animals at the shelter but worries about the animals’ health after months of living in tiny cages. She emphasized that she doesn’t want to see massive euthanasia to thin out the shelter’s population but said that the unadoptable animals (those that are sick or have behavior problems) should be euthanized to make room for more adoptable animals.

"This isn’t a happy life for them," she said. "I think that’s something to be considered."