With both the City of Houston and Harris County animal shelters bursting at the seams, both sides are coming together at a summit Wednesday to tackle the overwhelming flow of stray animals. Leaders are hoping to find solutions by focusing on the root causes.
The shelter that serves unincorporated Harris County was only designed to hold 12,000 animals a year, but for the last several years, they've been taking in around 25,000 per year. Because they’re a public shelter, they legally have to accept every animal that comes through the doors.
Leaders are hoping to fix the problem by going after the root causes.
While volunteering at Harris County's animal shelter, Shelby Roquemore has seen plenty of dogs and cats find forever homes. But with 60 to 80 coming in each day, not all of them will be so lucky.
“We’ve all been to the vet and seen how expensive it is,” said Roquemore. “A lot of the time (people who give up their animals) just don’t have the money to afford it anymore.”
Roquemore says around 29-percent of the strays picked up come from 10 ZIP codes, many in low income areas. That number doesn’t include the number of pets voluntarily surrendered.
The rate of “live release” -- meaning the animal was adopted or left the shelter with a rescue group a foster, or was returned to its original owner -- is at 59-percent so far in 2016. That’s up from a 46-percent live release rate in 2015 and a drastic improvement from a 26-percent rate in 2012, before the shelter’s current director started.
Both employees and volunteers say they do everything they can to save every animal.
"I have the easy job because I can go home and I can say, 'Well I'm just not gonna go in tomorrow because I'm upset about it,’ but the people that work here, they don't have that option,” said Roquemore. “That's what breaks my heart."
It's a similar story at BARC, the city's shelter. They take in an estimated 26,000 animals every year. BARC said it was forced to euthanize 6,385 animals in 2015. This year, an estimated 4,340 animals have been euthanized at the shelter.
During a September 13 Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, Roquemore explained the situation to commissioners and County Judge Ed Emmett, urging them to send out more mobile spay and neuter clinics into those 10 ZIP codes. Emmett told Roquemore he’d like to organize a summit to better coordinate efforts between city and county agencies, animal rescue groups and other animal nonprofits. A month later, that summit has become a reality.
"In a county that's got more people that 25 states, we need to coordinate,” said Emmett on Tuesday.
On Wednesday afternoon, Emmett and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner are holding that summit at NRG Park, an open invitation to all of the area's animal rescue groups and nonprofits to come together with one challenge: figuring out how to attack the stray problem at its root efficiently across an area that's larger than the state of Rhode Island.
"Our real goal is to try and get into the community cause sometimes we recognize it's hard for community members to come to us in a brick and mortar facility in a community as large as Harris County,” said Dr. Umair Shah, Executive Director of Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services.
Dr. Shah says they’ll consider options like spay and neuter programs, joint adoption programs, joint licensing to make it easier for the city and county residents to work together and an awareness campaign, all to help slow down the number of abandoned and neglected animals coming in.
Dr. Shah says long-term, the county is working on building a new shelter that will have much more room, better technology, and better amenities. It will be paid for with voter-approved bonds. However, Dr. Shah says it won’t be open until at least 2018.