Animal shelters experienced a spike in intakes after Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted the eviction ban moratorium in October.
Jennifer Bitner, executive director of Pensacola Humane Society, said there’s been an increase of shelters asking for assistance in pulling at risk animals in the last six weeks. And the nonprofit’s help team has noticed a trend in pet owners needing housing assistance.
“During the late summer/early fall, we experienced a lull,” said Bitner. “Not that the shelters were empty, but they weren’t reaching out for assistance. Then all of the sudden there was a spike. In conversations with our help team, we attributed it to the lift on the eviction ban.”
When DeSantis let the eviction ban expire in October, he said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had imposed its own national order that prohibits landlords from evicting tenants who submit a declaration and attest that they cannot pay their rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But if that CDC moratorium were challenged or expires in January, it leaves tenants unprotected.
Even outside of a pandemic, housing is a constant issue for pet owners and shelters. According to the Best Friends Animal Society, housing is one of the top reasons people cite when surrendering a pet to a shelter.
“In some cases, original owners might sell a property and new landlords won’t accept pets,” said Bitner. “Sometimes, you get a notice so quickly there’s no time to make other arrangements.”
At the Santa Rosa County Animal Shelter, Jessica Gutmann, manager of shelter operations, said there hasn’t been an increase in calls for owner surrenders, but she did notice a “slowdown” of adoptions during November.
In March, the shelter began suspending owner surrenders indefinitely. Escambia County Animal Shelter is also not accepting owner surrenders.
Gutmann said owner surrenders are accepted in “extenuating circumstances” but that the shelter is working to try manage animal flow by asking owners to hold off on surrendering or making an appointment. Staff also tries to work with pet owners on ways to help them keep their pets.
“Municipal shelters don’t have a lot of funds to help offset costs, but we can point owners to resources such as low-cost, spay-and-neuter programs or pet food pantries,” she said. “Housing is a big hurdle for animal welfare organizations because there’s so many restrictions.”
The same goes for Panhandle Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), the nonprofit holds the control for Okaloosa County’s animal control and is also an animal shelter. Director of Animal Operations Colleen Cobb said she’s experienced firsthand how difficult it can be to find housing with pets.
“I’ve called on houses and say right away, ‘I have two dogs’ and then I hear ‘no thank you,’” she said. “Definitely, a majority of our owner surrenders are housing circumstances.”
Cost is also a major issue when it comes to “rehoming” people and their pets.
“When you look at pet deposits, it’s not usually covering all pets,” said Cobb. “And sometimes, a pet deposit is just extending the cost for rent.”
Lifting the eviction ban didn’t necessarily create a problem that didn’t already exist, said Bitner.
“As an industry, we’re always trying to come up with ways to keep the pets and the people together,” she said. “That’s what makes sense. They’re family.”
It was with that goal in mind that PHS opened its Pet Resource Center, located at 817 Beverly Parkway, where staff from the Humane Society’s Safety Net Team will be available to help connect pet owners with help. The center just opened earlier this month and has a pet food pantry and supplies for families in need. Other area pet food pantries, such as 400 Paws and A Hope, have been essential resources when families have lost income during the pandemic.
In 2021, Bitner said animal advocates across the state are looking for ways to help meet the ongoing challenge of housing — as well as other issues. But it’s nothing that can be done alone.
“All of the local shelters work very well together and help one another,” said Bitner. “That’s our top line of defense. Things are going to change because that’s how we make progress.”
If you’d like to take home a pet this holiday season, you can become a temporary foster for pets at Santa Rosa County Animal Shelter from Dec. 23 to Monday, Dec. 28 and for Pensacola Humane Society. You can also foster or adopt a pet from PAWS where adoptions are currently $20.