Alas — no room at the inn. Well, hardly any.
The Payson animal shelter has filled up in recent weeks with strays and abandoned pets, prompting workers there to at least temporarily turn away some voluntary surrenders of animals.
At the moment, the shelter has 70 dogs and 79 cats — a roughly 50 percent increase above the normal, average census.
“We’re pretty much full,” said Sarah Hock, executive director for the Humane Society of Central Arizona.
“We’re constantly moving animals in and out between rescues and adoptions. It’s a constant flow.”
She said the community’s economic woes have contributed to the problem, as families struggling to hang on decide they must move, or discover they can’t afford to keep their pets.
“A lot of it stems from the economic challenges for families here,” said Hock. “I do truly think that the economic conditions are still getting worse in Arizona. When it comes down to a choice between feeding your family and feeding your dog — people do what they have to do.”
The census has at several points this year risen to 100 dogs and 80 cats. The aging, mostly outdoor shelter has 38 kennels for large dogs and six kennels for small dogs, prompting a limited move to double bunking. The shelter has a room where it can stack cages for the cats, who take up much less space than the dogs.
The problem has worsened in recent weeks, prompting the shelter in some cases to refuse to accept a pet and suggest the owner check back in hopes a slot will open.
“When we get a huge influx of animals, we do have to say, unfortunately, ‘we can’t take new animals today.’ But we’re always wiling to work with the public. Just because we can’t take an animal today, doesn’t mean we won’t have an opening tomorrow.”
The rush of strays and surrenders has also strained the shelter’s preference for keeping any pet that’s potentially adoptable for as long as possible before considering euthanasia. The shelter has so far this year taken in 667 animals, of which they had to euthanize 242 — mostly dogs and cats with serious illnesses or behavior problems that make them very difficult to adopt.
“Thankfully, most of (the euthanasias) have not been for lack of space, but for medical and behavioral issues,” said Hock.
The shelter has contracts with Payson, Star Valley and Gila County to take in stray animals. But those contracts generally cover the costs for only the first 72 hours. After that, the shelter relies on donations. On average, pets stay for three or four weeks before they find a home. In some cases, the shelter keeps an adoptable animal for months.
The shelter has put a lot of effort into improving its relationship with rescue shelters in the Valley, which have the funding and facilities to keep animals that prove hard to place for longer periods. This year, the shelter has doubled the number of animals transferred to rescue operations from 30 to 60.
The shelter has also worked on developing more group housing for dogs that get along well with one another.
“We have phenomenal animals here,” said Hock.
“Coming from my previous shelter experience, I am amazed at the wonderful animals we have here. Our cats just basically do everything they can to get to you before you can open the door. They’re crawling all over you. Our dogs are just so social with the other dogs. They have play groups and play buddies out in the yard. Our animals just blow me away every day.”
Hock said the current lineup of furry residents includes Babygirl, who can do summersaults in mid-air and would make a wonderful, trained “agility dog.”
“For the right person who’s into fly ball, dog diving — all those different things — she’s going to make a phenomenal pet.”
Despite the overcrowding, the shelter has avoided any major disease outbreaks, even during the wet, cold winter.
The humane society is poised to begin work on a new, $500,000 indoor shelter. Unfortunately, the humane society had to scale back early, ambitious plans when fund-raising lagged, so the completed shelter won’t have many more kennel spots than the current design.
As a result, Hock said shelter workers are praying that the community will respond to the sharp rise in strays by adopting more of the abandoned animals.
The shelter is located at 812 S. McLane Road; hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily.