Brookfield police reunited these two dogs, which had strayed from home on Jan. 23, with their owner that same day. | PROVIDED

Among the many jobs local police officers get called to do is that of animal response specialist – to remedy any mammalian problem, from removing bats from the attic to freeing deer caught in fences.

However, the most common animal related calls involve dogs that have strayed from their homes or are at loose due to neglect and are wandering neighborhoods and in and out of traffic. 

While police routinely check any corralled stray animals for any ID tags or microchips and often quickly reunite them with their owners, some animals are without identifying information and attempts to locate their owners are not always successful.

In the past, departments have had informal agreements with animal hospitals and shelters that would accept strays at any time. 

But not anymore.

“Many of the shelters we’ve talked to, when they’ve had these types of relationships with municipalities, they decided to end those relationships over time, I think due to the unsustainable costs and demands,” Brookfield Police Chief Michael Kuruvilla told village trustees at their Jan. 9 committee of the whole meeting.

Since the end of 2021, the department has had an informal agreement to house unclaimed stray animals at the Hinsdale Humane Society, a nonprofit no-kill shelter in operation since 1953.

According to Kuruvilla, between January and October 2022 police had transferred 15 animals to Hinsdale Humane Society, some of which had long stays as the agency identified people to adopt them. The average stay at the shelter for an animal was seven days, Kuruvilla said, and the village had spent about $5,000 in those 10 months to shelter the animals in Hinsdale.

On Jan. 23, trustees voted unanimously to approve a formal agreement with Hinsdale Humane Society, which can be terminated by either party with 30 days’ notice, to house unclaimed animals at a rate of $500 per month or $6,000 annually.

Hinsdale Humane Society will review the deal after 180 days to see if the rate is in line with Brookfield’s use of their services. The agency could opt at that time to adjust the rate. In 2025, however, the rate will begin to increase 5% annually.

The agreement takes some guess work out of the equation, since the number of stray animals from Brookfield and their lengths of stay at the shelter in any given time period fluctuates.

“Frankly, as we’ve gone through some of the tougher placements here and losing the other shelters, this is the one that has been able to provide the service,” Kuruvilla said. “This is one of the last games in town.”

Brookfield isn’t alone in having trouble finding animal shelters willing to take their strays.

Last year, Riverside police were informed by their longtime go-to shelter, Countryside Veterinary Center, that it would no longer take their unclaimed stray animals.

“It left us with a gap, and it was very difficult to find a service,” said Riverside Public Safety Director Matthew Buckley. “There was a point where we had a stray dog and nowhere to go.”

Buckley said they were able to convince Oak Park’s Animal Care League to take in the dog and put the village on a waiting list.  In July, the police department inked a deal with the Animal Care League on a trial basis to provide services for $300 per month. The department this month signed a new contract with the agency.

“We don’t have that many strays we can’t reunite with their owners,” Buckley said. “It’s gone well for us so far.”

North Riverside police have been using Animal Care League as their shelter for the past five years under an arrangement where they paid $75 per animal they dropped off there.

According to North Riverside Police Commander Christopher Boenzi, the department typically seeks shelter for fewer than 50 animals each year. The Animal Care League, however, wants to sign North Riverside to a formal agreement as well, with a sliding fee scale based on the number of animals sheltered there — $300 per month for less than 50 annually, $100 a month for 51 to 100 animals annually and $1,000 a month for more than 100 animals annually.

“We’re trying to find a different route,” said Boenzi of the potentially much higher cost for sheltering unclaimed stray animals, “but they seem to be the only game in town.”

Shelters under pressure as unwanted animals proliferate

Samantha Cheatham | Hinsdale Humane Society

Samantha Cheatham, the animal care and intake director for the Hinsdale Humane Society, has worked for the organization for 21 years. There have always been stray, abandoned and unwanted animals that need to be housed and cared for prior to adoption by a loving owner.

But she has never seen anything like this.

“It’s a trying time for those in the shelter world right now,” Cheatham said.

Part of the situation is fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, during which pet spaying and neutering procedures plummeted as many veterinary clinics halted the elective surgeries.

While the pandemic restrictions have ended, said Cheatham, the result is that there are far more unwanted animals needing shelter than there were prior to the pandemic. On top of the regular homeless pet population that also existed, there are now 2.7 million additional animals nationwide needing shelter.

At the beginning of 2022, the nonprofit no-kill shelter saw a large influx of unwanted pets after a large wave of adoptions at the beginning of the pandemic. Animals the Hinsdale Humane Society has taken in over the past year have included goldfish, rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils and even a sugar glider, a sort of flying possum native to southeastern Australia.

As of Jan. 20, Cheatham said she had received 700 email requests for animal intake in 2023, and they come from all over, not just the west and southwest suburbs of Chicago. Cheatham says the Hinsdale Humane Society takes in animals from as far away as Kentucky and Texas.

While the Hinsdale Humane Society moved into bigger quarters in 2018 – they went from a small building across the street from Hinsdale Hospital to the former Robert Crown Center at 21 Salt Creek Lane just west of I-294 and north of Ogden Avenue – they currently house 140 animals, a majority of them cats.

“Cat adoptions are through the roof, that’s a new trend,” Cheatham said, adding that cats account for 63 percent of their adoptions versus 33 percent for dogs. 

When a police department brings in strays, they are most often dogs, which must be vetted, that is, they must be spayed/neutered if necessary, microchipped, inoculated and sometimes even trained before going up for adoption.

Some desirable dogs, like a golden retriever puppy they recently took in, get adopted in days after vetting. But the Hinsdale Humane Society more often takes in larger adult breeds that people aren’t so keen on adopting.

A big mixed-breed dog taken in around Christmas is still at the shelter, Cheatham said.

“Adoption is so dependent on the dog,” she said.

There’s also a veterinarian shortage, according to Cheatham, so places that once may have taken in strays from police may no longer have the staff or time, much less the space, to handle them. The one vet the Hinsdale Humane Society uses, said Cheatham, performed 3,000 spay/neuter procedures last year.

Bob Uphues