Montgomery County Animal Shelter challenged by overcrowding, funding

The Montgomery County Animal Shelter is facing internal and external challenges in animal welfare following a spike in displaced animals after Hurricane Harvey. From July 11 until late August, MCAS waived adoption fees to relieve overcrowding, as the shelter had consistently housed 900 animals for the first half of July, despite only having 545 kennels.

MCAS Director Aaron Johnson said he believes Harvey has affected the shelter’s influx since August 2017, as the shelter has taken in 700 more animals year-to-date, compared to the same time last year.

“If we’re helping people solve problems in their communities and helping them keep their pet, it becomes something that helps everybody—not only the people who have animals,” Johnson said.

While MCAS continues to work through challenges, shelter staff has implemented several new programs to help the shelter continue its goal of getting as many animals out of the shelter alive as possible and to retain its status as a “no-kill” shelter it earned in 2017.

Since 2016, MCAS has had four directors with Johnson accepting the role in May 2017. Prior to that, MCAS was operated by a private management company, Care Corporation, until Montgomery County terminated its contract and took over operations in August 2015 to improve conditions at the shelter.

Lone Star Animal Welfare League—a Woodlands-based rescue group that provides low-cost spaying, neutering and vaccinations—has worked with the animal shelter since 2006. President Laura McConnell said during the nonprofit’s tenure with MCAS, the shelter has improved its air conditioning system, expanded its facilities and added more staffing, all of which has benefited local animal welfare.

“We’ve seen a lot of different administrations and management styles, and we’ve definitely seen progress [at MCAS],” McConnell said.

The shelter is challenged by facility space, staffing and funding shortages, Johnson said. The shelter had a $3.57 million budget for fiscal year 2017-18, more than $600,000 less than MCAS requested from the county to fund additional personnel, wage increases and equipment upgrades, Johnson said.

“The county and the commissioners need to step up and start helping fund low-cost spay and neuter in this county,” McConnell said. “They have yet to do that, and our group spends roughly $25,000 each year to help people so that our shelter is not overburdened with kittens and puppies.”

Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal said although the county has increased the shelter’s budget since August 2015, there is still work to be done. In 2015, MCAS’s budget was $1.5 million.

“We have increased funding at the animal shelter in the last couple of years, but we’re woefully behind,” Doyal said.

Budget hearings for FY 2018-19 began in July, and the shelter has requested $4.2 million, Johnson said. If approved, it will fund wage increases for supervisors, kennel technicians and vet technicians as well as allow the shelter to hire a pet retention coordinator and an adoption coordinator. Johnson said the two new positions will help owners keep their animals and kick-start adoption events.

Montgomery County's FY 2018-19 budget had not been approved as of press time.

Johnson said MCAS has 41 full-time employees and seven part-time employees, but it has trouble competing for employees with surrounding shelters like Houston's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care.

“It makes it difficult when you’re trying to hire people, and they can go down the road to the BARC and make $18 an hour as a vet tech, and here I can only give them $15 [an hour],” Johnson said.

Staffing shortages affect MCAS’s ability to provide care to the more than 14,000 animals it takes in per year, Johnson said. Due to high intake numbers, it shelters two dogs per kennel. Although the shelter strives to have one dog per kennel, as it allows better disease control and overall quality of housing for dogs, Johnson said cohousing allows the shelter to accept more animals and save more lives.

McConnell said, although MCAS vaccinates animals upon intake, the vaccinations are not immediately effective, meaning diseases can spread.

“All of our shelters are overburdened right now, and once you have too many animals in a shelter, you get disease and it spreads,” McConnell said.

McConnell said the biggest animal welfare challenge facing Montgomery County is residents failing to grasp the importance of spaying and neutering.

“If your animal is not spayed or neutered, and you’re bringing litters to the shelter, you’re not a responsible pet owner,” she said. “You’re putting the burden on other taxpayers, the volunteers and the staff who are having their hearts broken because the animal shelter is overburdened with animals.”

Operation Pets Alive is another local nonprofit working to elevate Montgomery County to a no-kill community by offering low-cost spaying and neutering. OPA President Marcia Piotter said she believes cities, counties and shelters can do more to reach no-kill status, which is achieved when shelters have live-release rates—or the percentage of animals that leave the shelter alive—of 90 percent or higher.

“[If] your kids were going to school and only getting a 50 percent grade, no one would accept that,” Piotter said. “But for some reason, when we talk about animal shelters [where] we’re killing animals that don’t need to be killed, that’s acceptable. And that shouldn’t be.”

Johnson said MCAS is working on programs and practices to increase live-release rates, which have improved. In 2010, MCAS reported a live-release rate of 43.9 percent. By 2017, that rate had more than doubled to 92.6 percent, achieving what is considered a national standard for no-kill.

“I think there’s more of a focus on trying to get animals out [of the shelter] and finding different ways to get animals out through transport to other states, low-cost adoptions and clear the shelter events,” McConnell said.

In addition to working to control the number of animals surrendered to the shelter by owners, the county is also working to reduce the population of stray animals picked up and brought to the shelter. Joe Guidry, animal control director for the Montgomery County Animal Control Authority, said officers now scan for microchips in the field to try to return animals to their owners first.

“Picking up as many animals as you can is not the way to go—at one time it was the name of the game, but not anymore,” he said. “You really can’t do it because as the population grows, [shelters] can’t afford to keep building on.”

In May 2016, MCAS received approval from the Commissioners Court to launch a community cat program to decrease the number of stray, free-roaming or feral cats arriving at the shelter. It uses the trap-neuter-return method—the process of humanely trapping, neutering, vaccinating, removing the ear tip and returning cats to their original locations.

Since implementation, MCAS returned 20 percent of cats that entered the shelter in 2017 back into the county as community cats, a 35 percent of cats so far in 2018.

In hopes of also improving quality of life for shelter animals, MCAS recently implemented Dogs Playing for Life, which fosters group play among dogs. The program allows dogs to destress and enables staff to better understand temperaments, allowing for more successful adoption placements, Piotter said.

Additionally, MCAS received a $275,000 grant from Petco Foundation to buy a 38-foot multipurpose trailer to use for large-scale pet seizes, natural disasters, adoption events and out-of-state transports. Johnson said he also hopes the trailer will remove the barrier of transportation for pet owners in low-income or rural areas of the county.

McConnell said LSAWL has also helped fund transports for MCAS to relocate dogs to California and Wisconsin to aid with overcrowding in the shelter. She said other nonprofits, such as OPA, Houston PetSet and Who Rescued Who, have also aided with transports for the shelter. MCAS also hosted a Clear the Shelters event Aug. 18, during which 79 cats and 83 dogs were adopted into new homes.

“No-kill status is great, but it’s a double-edged sword because people think it’s okay to dump their animals at the shelter because they assume they’ll find a good home—that’s not always the case,” McConnell said. “If a person dumps an animal at MCAS, there is still a risk that the animal could die.”

Although adoption fees are back in effect at MCAS as of late August, Johnson said he is considering waiving fees during the weekends in the future.

McConnell said she hopes Montgomery County commissioners will also work with local nonprofits and MCAS to allocate more funding for spay and neuter initiatives countywide.

“What still needs to be done is a comprehensive spay/neuter program ... or legislation that demands that your animal be spayed/neutered if you’re not a breeder,” she said. “I wish that the county would match the funding our county nonprofits spend on spay and neuters.”
By Kelly Schafler

Managing editor, South Houston

Kelly joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in June 2017 after majoring in print journalism and creative writing at the University of Houston. In March 2019, she transitioned to editor for the Lake Houston-Humble-Kingwood edition and began covering the Spring and Klein area as well in August 2020. In June 2021, Kelly was promoted to South Houston managing editor.