Small animals overwhelm the Denver Animal Shelter, which is begging for public help

The number of small animals — rabbits, guinea pigs, mice and turtles — left at the the shelter has doubled over the past year.
3 min. read
A turtle up for adoption at the Denver Animal Shelter. July 10, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Tiny pets are taking over the Denver Animal Shelter.

They have so overwhelmed the facility that the shelter has opened up areas that usually serve larger animals to handle the influx. Denver Animal Protection, the City agency that oversees the shelter, has described the situation as "critter congestion."

Why is the shelter suddenly being flooded? Is it another unexpected byproduct of COVID?

For 75 percent of the people handing over their animals, the answers have a lot to do with how their lives are set up: too many pets, personal or lifestyle reasons, landlords, moving or allergies.

Whatever the reason, the agency is begging for the public's help.

"We can't say for sure the impact that COVID has had on folks choosing to adopt or surrender pets, but it is an important reminder for folks who are interested in adopting a new pet to do their research and really consider if their lifestyle fits with the pet they are adopting," wrote Emily Williams, a spokeswoman for Denver Public Health and Environment, in an email.

The message is clear: If you want a rat, gerbil, guinea pig or turtle, steer clear of pet stores and come to the shelter instead. As of Wednesday morning, 64 small animals were waiting for adoption. Two years ago, there were only 23.

The shelter's desperate for relief.

"This is where the community comes in," explained Alice Nightengale, the director of Denver Animal Protection, in a statement. "Before you buy a small animal from a pet store, please check with an animal shelter first because there is a lot of need there. Prices are often more affordable too, and you'll help a pet in need."

The starting shelter rate for a new, small animal: $15.

Denver Animal Protection did caution pet shoppers to spend a little time with whatever animals they intend to adopt, lest they find out too late that they're allergic and have to return the pet they tried to save. After all, a big reason people are giving pets up is allergies.

Owning a tiny pet is no small feat, the agency cautioned. Snakes and lizards have to be near electrical outlets to power heat lamps and rocks; domestic turtles need to live in large tanks that can hold 10 gallons of water per inch of shell; and rabbits, which are incredibly delicate creatures that can be easily injured, need ample space over a lifespan that can reach 13 years.

While the small-pet surge is particularly turbulent, the shelter is seeing more big animals than usual with 126 cats and 151 dogs, up from 96 cats and 95 dogs in 2019.

For those who can't take on new pets, the shelter is also encouraging people to foster unhoused animals and volunteer.

To adopt a pet, big or small, go to the Denver Animal Shelter website.

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