EVERETT — The 14-week-old hound mix sat quivering on a large lawn outside Encore Boston Harbor, eyes darting from side to side, huddling close to his handler, but lapping the faces of strangers who stooped to make his acquaintance.
The puppy, one of about 15 dogs at a recent adoption event, had been abandoned on a country road in Arkansas and brought to a “high-kill” shelter there, a crowded kennel where few dogs are adopted and euthanization is often the only recourse to make space for others.
The puppy, taken home by a Revere couple, was among the lucky ones.
Pet adoptions, which surged during the pandemic, have fallen off. As a result, fewer abandoned and neglected dogs are being shipped to Massachusetts and elsewhere from “high-kill” shelters, primarily in the South.
“The actual consequence of this is that dogs will die. It’s completely devastating,” said Lauren Fopiano, assistant director of Last Hope K9 Rescue, a Massachusetts-based organization that ran the adoption event outside the Encore casino and has saved 10,000 dogs since its founding in 2012.
After COVID-19 hit, “the demand was huge, way more than we could keep up with. We didn’t have enough dogs to go to the amount of approved adopters we had,” Fopiano said.
Since then, the tide has turned dramatically. Last Hope is bringing only about 15 dogs a week to Massachusetts from its shelter partners in Arkansas, about half the number it had transported — and saved from death — during the height of the pandemic.
“With everybody home during COVID, we couldn’t even post dogs [online], they were going so quickly,” said Maura Tutty, executive director of Last Hope.
But now, particularly in the South, shelters are inundated with animals as social restrictions have lifted, and adoptive homes there have become even harder to find.
“If we don’t take it, that dog will not survive,” Tutty said. “It’s like emptying an ocean with a teaspoon. That’s how it feels sometimes.”
The rescue chain that brings dogs to Massachusetts from near-certain death in the South can be a fragile one, Last Hope officials said.
Custom-fitted trailers that transport them faced difficulties crossing state lines at certain parts of the pandemic. And now, as more people return to pre-pandemic routines, there are fewer foster homes in Massachusetts, where volunteers keep dogs for a short time until they are adopted.
“There is such a need for fosters, and there is no place for the dogs to go, I just end up taking a dog immediately after one leaves,” said Amanda McGavick, a volunteer who provides foster shelter. “You just do what you can, and I’ve been trying to recruit people. Maybe we can reach just one person, and they can foster and save one life.”
The MSPCA also is seeing a growing need to relocate animals from other areas of the country, said Michael Keiley, director of adoption centers and programs for the organization.
“They’re overrun with the number of animals coming in,” Keiley said, with some Southern shelters taking in 50,000 animals a year.
Some of that is because of regional economics. Many pet owners and municipalities in poorer parts of the United States lack funding to pay for spaying and neutering, animal-welfare officials said. Cultural differences also contribute to the overflow, they said.
“There literally will be dogs roaming around” in some Southern states, Fopiano said. “They’re outdoor animals, and they’re not pampered and taken in like a member of the family.”
As the need for relocations from other regions remains high, Keiley said, the number of adoptions in Massachusetts appears to be returning to once-normal levels.
“We’re seeing a lot of people travel this year and return to summer camps, and people just sort of living life in the way they didn’t get to in the last 15 months,” Keiley said. “People are capturing and prioritizing those type of things, which makes them less available for fosters and adoptions.”
In July 2020, the MSPCA found homes for 133 of 139 dogs primarily taken in from elsewhere in the country. The percentage for that grouping dipped significantly this July, to 62 of 99 dogs.
The MSPCA also is having a harder time placing local dogs when compared with last year. In July, 51 dogs had been adopted of 124 taken in primarily from this area. In July 2020, adoptions were found for 33 of 56 such dogs.
In a recent survey commissioned by Best Friends, a national animal welfare organization, 59 percent of respondents who were considering adopting a pet were delaying the process because of a return to the office, vacations, a new job, and other reasons.
Janie Smith, an Arkansas woman who transfers dogs to Last Hope from a high-kill shelter in Pine Bluff, began to cry when she described having to euthanize animals simply because there is not enough room in the kennel, which can house 100 dogs.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Smith said. “It’s just hard when you know you have great dogs that would make some family very happy, and you can’t do anything to save them.”
Last week, she said, the shelter could send only nine dogs to Last Hope instead of its usual 20 because of the declining demand for adoptions in the Boston area.
“The more dogs that Last Hope can take, it just saves more lives,” Smith said.
The adoption event in Everett was the first that Last Hope had organized since the beginning of the pandemic.
The mood was buoyant as potential adopters and volunteers connected and chatted just past an outdoors bar set up for “Yappy Hour.” The prospective owners moved from dog to dog, petting them, speaking to them, and gleaning information about a possible addition to their household.
The 14-week-old puppy, named River, caught the eye of Shannon Connery and Anthony Altadonna and was renamed Obi on the spot. The couple, in their 20s, posed for photos with their new pet and soon began jogging with him toward the parking area.
The puppy’s recent caregiver, foster volunteer Becky Morin of Charlestown, looked on with delight.
“This is the best. This is why we do it,” Morin said. “We’re in it for this moment, when they find their forever home.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.