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The hardest one for Mary Steinbeiser came last summer.

A father and his two teenage daughters showed up her Teller County Regional Animal Shelter to surrender their two dogs. The family had lost their home, and they were planning to live in a tent for the next few months until the father could get back on his feet. The girls, who had already lost everything else they treasured, were devastated at saying goodbye to their beloved pets. They were sobbing.

Steinbeiser, the shelter manager, started crying, too.

"Can you imagine being a teenage girl and having to live like that?" Steinbeiser says. "And then to lose your pets on top of it?"

It's a sad story, but hardly isolated. For years now, shelters and animal rescues have been glutted with animals whose owners no longer can care for them because they've lost their jobs, their homes or both. Things aren't getting better.

In fact, in some ways, they're getting worse. For instance, with budgets running on empty, many people are putting off spaying or neutering their pets, leading to more kittens and puppies. And in Missouri, known as the nation's puppy mill capital, voters approved a crackdown law in November that would limit commercial kennels (aka puppy mills) to 50 breeding females. Though lawmakers overruled voters and overturned the law two weeks ago (no word yet on any legal challenges), rescues are already filling up with breeding dogs culled from puppy mills that were trying to comply with the new law.

A different mission

While the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region has seen steady increases in the amount of pets it receives, spokespersons there say the intake has followed a more or less steady, and rather undramatic, line.

But at no-kill shelters, which generally will only euthanize an animal if it's too sick to be treated or too aggressive to be adopted out, the story is different. The three local no-kill shelters contacted for this story — Teller County, Dreampower Animal Rescue and National Mill Dog Rescue — all told the same tale: They're full, and they've had to turn animals away.

Over at National Mill Dog Rescue, local volunteer Chuck Dahle says, "We're not even rescuing half of the dogs that have a death sentence weekly."

Ric Wegrzyn, marketing manager at Dreampower, says that with high demand, the way his shelter operates has changed. Before, the shelter was more open to taking in "friends forever," dogs and cats that had medical or behavioral problems, or were very old — the type of animal that's unlikely to be adopted. Nowadays, Wegrzyn says Dreampower thinks long and hard before taking in a hard-to-adopt pet. With limited space and funding, a dog that takes three years to adopt might prevent a dozen more from being helped.

In Teller County, Steinbeiser has a similar view: "You do play a balancing act of how many [challenging animals] you can take in at a time, because we don't have a limitless budget."

The hard part is, if a no-kill shelter won't take a less-desirable pet, it will often end up at the Humane Society; it contracts with the city and county for animal control, and is therefore required to take all unwanted animals in the area. But the Society may euthanize animals that aren't adopted.

"We have that ability to say no; the Humane Society doesn't," Wegrzyn notes. "So, unfortunately, they have to euthanize. They just don't have the room ... But a 13-year-old cat at the Humane Society — chances are it's not going to get adopted."

It should be noted that the Humane Society dropped its euthanasia rate from 36 percent in 2009 to 33 percent in 2010. But that's still a lot of animals dying, considering that in 2010 alone, the Society took in 8,600 cats and 11,500 dogs.

These days, eight out of 10 of its dogs will go to a home, beating the national average of five out of 10. But the shelter only matches the national average for cats, placing just four out of 10. The Society has tried to improve that rating lately by spaying and neutering feral cats, and offering "cat promotions." For instance, the first 10 cats adopted out on Sunday are free.

Little money, little help

The economy has delivered a one-two punch to local no-kill shelters. Demand for services is up, while donations are down. Grants are smaller and harder-fought.

At Dreampower, donations — the single largest source of funding for the organization — are down 20 percent compared to last year. At Mill Dog Rescue, Dahle says, "We finish out each month having spent way too close to all the money we have." And at Teller County, just buying gas to take animals to vets and adoption fairs is a strain to the bottom line.

All of these shelters have their own stories of "miracle" grants and "hero" donors who have helped them out of financial straits. But they all still run on the wire.

And their leaders say it's become increasingly important to convince owners to keep their pets, by offering services to help them (see capsule). The irony is that with less money, it's harder to offer those programs.

Dreampower, for instance, is too full to offer its usual low-cost pet boarding to families between homes, and too strapped to offer its popular $10 spay/neuter clinic to low-income people.

stanley@csindy.com

  • More victims of the down economy: pets and the shelters that protect them.

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