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Brewski, a “very smart” and energetic Labrador retriever/bull mastiff cross, already knows the “sit” command and how to shake with both paws, according to notes on his kennel at the Bernalillo County Animal Care and Resource Center.
The year-old pup is just waiting for someone to take him home and teach him better leash manners – and, OK, maybe also support his squeaky toy habit.
The more subdued Bruiser, meanwhile, is biding his time in a nearby kennel that says “I’m depressed. Hang out with me.” Note to potential adopters: the senior Rottweiler mix has an affinity for big comforter blankets.
Bruiser, Brewski and such shelter-mates as Athena the Chihuahua and Panda the American pit bull terrier are among 9,500-plus animals the county has taken in since it opened its shelter just over two years ago – numbers indicating the county already has outgrown the $7.8 million facility at 3001 Second SW.
“Originally, the building was built for about 2,500 animals (per year),” said Misha Goodman, director of the county’s Animal Care Services Department. “We have far exceeded that number.”
National data shows that shelters around the U.S. took in significantly fewer animals in 2020 as the pandemic prompted many to alter their protocols. Bernalillo County was no different.
Last March, it began limiting stray intake and encouraged citizens who found animals that were not injured or ill to take steps themselves to locate owners or place the animals in new homes.
Even so, the shelter received 3,880 animals in 2020 – about 17% fewer than the previous year, but still well above expected capacity.
The daily population ebbs and flows; Goodman said conditions are OK presently, but had been what she considered overly full earlier this month. Despite the strain, she said staff continue to get animals out the door – including via transfers to other facilities – and ensure that in-house animals are getting proper care.
“I believe they are. I think it could be better – I always think it could be better,” she said.
The shelter is in the process of hiring more staff, including a second veterinary team and additional kennel attendants.
But more animals, employees and veterinary procedures than expected will also necessitate more physical space, and the department is starting to explore expansion.
The county will use $500,000 in bond sale proceeds to fund a study on space needs and design work for extra space. Goodman said options could include adding to the existing building or opening a satellite facility. But finding the funding to build anything may not happen quickly; it usually takes the county multiple two-year bond cycles to accrue sufficient funding for large capital projects.
Greg Perez, deputy county manager for public safety, said leadership recognizes the urgency and will prioritize animal services in its 2022 funding requests to the New Mexico Legislature. He said officials are also looking for shelter expansion money elsewhere.
“We definitely see the need,” he said, but noted that any actual project is still likely a few years away.
In the meantime, the county continues transferring some animals to other facilities, including some outside the state. In fact, to boost its transfer capacity, Animal Care Services is currently working to rehabilitate a former jail transport vehicle as an animal shuttle.
Goodman said she is also requesting a few more employees, including someone to help with community outreach and animal placement.
On-site adoptions continue, as well – the county found 1,337 animals new homes last year. But the pandemic has made that more complicated as the county closed the shelter to the general public and allows potential adopters inside by appointment only.
“We do maybe six in a day, and that’s nowhere near the capacity. We would have hundreds of people coming through the doors on a Saturday (otherwise),” Goodman said.
Despite the current limitations, Goodman said the shelter has been a hit with the community since it opened.
The center has a cheery indoor color palate and a number of glass-door showcase kennels identified by such names like “desert marigold” and “prickly pear.” Staff sometimes write character notes directly on the kennel glass, describing each animal’s habits and personality. Bernard, the 2-year-old American pit bull terrier, “enjoys scent work,” for example.
Having a shelter is actually a relatively new endeavor for the county.
Prior to 2019, the Animal Care Services Department worked out of an old fire station and provided only temporary holding for stray animals before moving them to Albuquerque shelters through a contract with the city government.
In that setup, the county took in 2,125 animals in 2018.
But, in the shelter’s first year of operation, the number ballooned to 4,653, nearly twice what it expected.
Because the county had never had a shelter before, Perez said it struggled to forecast the need. He said the shelter was planned in part on “guesstimation” and data from the city of Albuquerque.
“Some of it was helpful, but obviously we missed the mark with some of it, as well,” he said. “Now, we’ve got real data after the two years of being in existence, and we’ve vastly outgrown the facility.”
Goodman attributes the higher-than-expected volumes in part to population growth; with more humans come more animals, she said.
But she suspects it is also a function of simply having a shelter at all.
“Part of it is the old mantra ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” she said. “… Having a shelter does allow people access, if you will, and it’s a beautiful facility. People want to bring animals here and they want us to find new homes for animals.”