Life as an Animal Shelter Worker: The Stray Animal Dilemma

Most of the animals that enter shelters are strays. Reuniting them with their families isn’t always as easy as it seems.

It's heartbreaking when a stray obviously has a family but is not reclaimed. By: mac_ivan
It’s heartbreaking when a stray pet who enters the shelter obviously has a family but is never reclaimed. By: mac_ivan

For at least 48 hours, the name of every stray dog and cat who entered our shelter was either DSTRAY (dog stray) or CSTRAY (cat stray). And for those 48 hours, we waited hopefully for the dogs’ families to show up and take their pets home.

Sometimes the families came. Sometimes they didn’t. Below are 3 stories that come to my mind.

1. Max

In the summer of 2006, an unusual stray entered our shelter: a beautiful fawn Boxer. He had no collar and no microchip, but was neutered and healthy. Somewhere his family was missing him.

Per standard procedure, we situated the Boxer DSTRAY with a cage sign indicating that he was not available for adoption, but was looking for his family. Chances were high that he would be reclaimed before the end of the day.

But he wasn’t.

Boxers are not a common breed in shelters, and the moment DSTRAY was placed in the public view, everyone wanted to know when he would be available for adoption. We were bullied by people demanding to view him, to “buy” him, to have first “dibs” when he was “for sale.”

Two days later, the Boxer’s person burst through our front doors with a photo of Max dressed in a tuxedo. The woman had been out of town when her dog ran away. That’s why she wasn’t able to claim him immediately.

The photo, she explained, was of Max on her wedding day. He was their best man.

This video features a dog named Denver who was never reclaimed, but he must have had a family because he was so well trained:

Don’t Miss: Why Shelters Euthanize Pets

2. Panda Blue

During a bad winter storm one year, the animal enforcement officer brought in a peculiar, young Australian Shepherd. Neutered and recently groomed, he obviously had someone who cared for him, but there was something about this stray that wasn’t quite right.

As with many Australian Shepherds, his eyes were blue, but he didn’t seem to rely on them. In fact, he was unusually disoriented as we led him into the kennel. He responded to our touches but preferred to huddle, facing a corner of the kennel.

Before we could even enter his information in our system, we received the phone call. This woman had lost her Australian Shepherd. We said we had just received one. She said he is blind and deaf.

We checked our stray again:

  • He made no eye contact.
  • He didn’t notice our shadows.
  • He didn’t respond to noise.

The woman asked, in disbelief, if he had a crescent moon–shaped dark mark on his nose. We confirmed it.

Within minutes, Panda Blue’s mommy was crying over her reunited dog and the confused Aussie was suddenly jumping and howling with excitement. The woman said she had called every organization she could think of.

3. Toby

My husband and I were driving to meet my in-laws for dinner. We passed a dead dog on the side of the road — or at least I thought the dog was dead.

“He lifted his head up,” my husband said.

We took the next exit and turned around. The Beagle was still alive when we arrived, but it was nighttime, the highway was busy and the poor thing was at the edge of traffic. I had to wait, while he bled and suffered, for a moment of safety in between passing semis before I could lunge forward and grab his legs and yank him to me, hoping that he wouldn’t bite, despite my clamping on to his shattered back legs.

I placed him in the trunk of our car and met a shelter manager at a nearby veterinarian’s office. There the Beagle died from his wounds.

The orange nightingale collar is what identified him the next day when Toby’s person reclaimed his dog’s body.

Less than 5% of stray cats are reclaimed by their families. By:
Less than 5% of stray cats are reclaimed by their families. By: Humane Society of Jefferson County

Cats Go Unclaimed More Than Dogs

Happy stories like those of Max and Panda Blue are the ones that kept us positive, but reality is not always so sweet. Statistically speaking, stray dogs are reclaimed much more frequently than stray cats.

Of the stray cats that enter shelters, less than 5 percent are reclaimed by their families. The statistic itself is depressing, but the hardest part is seeing stray cats who obviously recently had homes waiting in cages for a family that isn’t coming for them.

You can help change the statistics:

  • Always reclaim a lost pet.
  • Encourage people to find other means to rehome their unwanted animals than abandoning them.
  • Take part in lost-and-found networks on social media.
  • Support your local animal shelter.

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Editor’s Note: “Life as an Animal Shelter Worker” is an occasional series of articles by Allison Gray about what it’s like to work at a shelter. There are thousands of animal shelters in the United States. Allison’s previous article in this series was “Knowing You Can’t Take Them All.”

Allison Gray

View posts by Allison Gray
Allison Gray gained a wealth of knowledge about animal welfare issues and responsible pet care during her nearly 5 years of work for an animal shelter. She is a writer, photographer, artist, runner and tattooed remedial knitter. Allison also has been researching, testing out and perfecting nutritious pet treat recipes in her kitchen for Petful since spring 2017.

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