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Coachella Valley animal shelters see worst overcrowding since pandemic

What do we do with a sweet dog like Hercules?

Brought in as a stray, with his past a mystery, 2-year-old Hercules is now the longest residing dog at the Coachella Valley Animal Campus.

The average length of stay here is only 13 days.

Hercules has been here more than 100.

"Animals aren't meant to live here. We're meant to be a very temporary place," said Jackie Schart, the Deputy Director of Operations and Program for Riverside County Animal Services.

And so – Hercules waits.

Hercules is a husky-shepherd mix, part of the strange trend of huskies and shepherds flooding shelters across California, where it used to be pitbulls and chihuahuas.

But there's one big difference now... 

 "What has changed there is the fact that we're seeing many, many more big dogs, less smaller dogs come in, and the big dogs aren't moving these days," Dan Rossi, the Executive Director of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter.

The larger kennels at the shelters usually house big dogs, with the expectation of one dog per room. But the overcrowding has become so severe lately that they've been forced to double up, keeping in mind, Palm Springs Animal Shelter and Coachella Valley Animal Campus cannot turn any dogs away because they are municipal shelters. 

Palm Springs Animal Shelter is set up to house 42 big dogs, but as of April 2024, the facility is over capacity at 70. Coachella Valley Animal Campus can fit 80 large dogs, but it's currently crammed to about 150. 

"It's just been daunting for us, especially when it comes to big dogs," said Rossi. "We just can't keep up."

The tough economy has forced many people to change living situations or to downsize, per animal shelter staff, meaning people have returned animals because they no longer have the financial means or space to care for them. Inflation has been straining family budgets to care for larger dogs. 

On top of that, most HOAs in Coachella Valley don't allow dogs over 30 pounds. According to the Community Associations Institute Coachella Valley Chapter, up to 80% of the Coachella Valley lives in some type of community association – eliminating a vast majority of the Coachella Valley as possible adopters. 

"It really does come down to spay and neuter and having the resources to get animals spayed and neutered, to really stop the flow of animals that are coming into the shelters these days," said Rossi.

Enter Dr. Kelly Byam, a Palm Springs veterinarian on a mission to help solve the spay-neuter crisis. 

"It's a whole new program to teach veterinarians these techniques that are used in high speed, high volume, high quality spay and neuter," said Dr. Byam who is part of the California Veterinary Medical Association.

A new state bill she advocates, sponsored by the California Veterinary Medical Association, would train veterinarians to do spay and neuters by a significantly faster technique.

Veterinarians can take up to two hours to spay a dog, but this new technique would reduce it to about 15 minutes, making a vast difference. But as of April 2024, the bill has not moved in the state legislature – withe advocates hoping it makes it out of committee review.

Compounding the problem is the severe shortage of veterinarians nationwide. That dearth is especially felt in our desert. The Coachella Valley only has about 35 vet clinics, which is about half of the ideal number for the population. The valley's only 24 hour animal emergency hospital, VCA Valley, recently shut down its 24/7 emergency department operations.

VCA Valley released a statement to News Channel 3 following the broadcast of the story, reading: "VCA Valley Animal Medical Center is still in business and partners with the desert animal hospitals and shelters to provide Urgent and Emergency veterinary care. Our Patient Care Team is available every day, except for Wednesdays, from 7 a.m. – midnight. Our dedicated veterinarians and technicians lead with kindness and compassion and has a combined 450 years' worth of professional experience that we offer to the Community every single week." 

Veterinary associations have pinpointed burnout, expensive vet school tuition which can leave students with debt up to $400,000 or more, low starting salaries, long hours and more as reasons for the shortage. The severe lack of veterinarians has been plaguing the nation – including the Coachella Valley – for years, with the pandemic resulting in many vets leaving the field.

"Before Covid, we used to have more than a dozen contract veterinarians, and that was huge," said Schart. "That's how we were able to do our local wellness clinics. That's how we were able to do mobile clinics. [But] we went down to two contract surgeons."

Compassion fatigue is also a major factor, defined as burnout that happens from caring for others and their emotional pain. It's especially tough at county shelters – many of which are struggling to hire veterinarians.

"We need to make the shelters a better environment for all the people that work there, because it's also soul crushing to do euthanasia after euthanasia. And I can tell you, it's even hard for me when I have to do more than one euthanasia in a day," said Dr. Byam. "So can you imagine doing that all day long?" 

But advocates say this is a community problem and that the public can lend a helping hand. 

Foster animals if you can. Get them out of the shelter. 

Become a microchip scanner volunteer in your community. If someone finds a lost pet, they'll bring the pet to you to scan, instead of driving -- sometimes hours -- to the county shelter. 

The farther the pet from home, the smaller the chance of reuniting. 

About 80% of animals brought into county shelters are lost pets. But only about 2% find their way back to their owners, according to Riverside County Animal Services.

"Be nosy neighbors. Your might help the dogs get home because once they get here, it's too late. They're here and now they're stuck," said Schart.

Animal advocates have accused the county shelter of unnecessarily euthanizing treatable dogs because of overcrowding. 

The county has responded, saying euthanasia is always a last resort. Certain animals, often deemed dangerous or sick with contagious diseases, are "red-flagged" for euthanasia; animal services staff have put out a call to the public, saying they need the community's help to save animals flagged for euthanasia. For example, public donations could pay to fix a dog's broken leg for which the county doesn't have resources. In response to becoming a no-kill shelter, the county has said it is not realistic to allow every animal brought in to live indefinitely at the shelter because it would create unlivable and illegal conditions. 

If you are interesting in adopting a pet or in donating to a shelter, you can visit Palm Springs Animal Shelter, the Coachella Valley Animal Campus, or Animal Samaritans.

An update to this story: We've learned Hercules, the dog featured in the story, has how been adopted. 

Article Topic Follows: In-Depth

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Angela Chen

Angela comes to the Coachella Valley as KESQ’s morning anchor after teaching graduate school classes at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication. Learn more about Angela here.


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