FORT WALTON BEACH — When PAWS is at or over capacity with animals (which is often, if not always), local animal rescue groups step up to the plate.

Groups like Alaqua Animal Refuge, Saving With Soul Pet Rescue, Misunderstood Ranch, Min Pins and Mutts K-9 Rescue, SOCKS and The Rescued Rescuers are no-kill, volunteer-driven pet rescue groups in Okaloosa County who are often called to take in dogs and cats from PAWS so that the shelter can have more space for more animals.

Shelter records show that between Oct. 1, 2016 and August 2018, PAWS transferred more than 1,700 dogs and cats to these local rescue groups.

Laurie Hood, founder of Alaqua Animal Refuge in Walton County, said in 2017 she took in more than 100 animals from PAWS, most of them sick or injured that needed more time and veterinary care.

Hood said she’s a no-kill shelter because, as a private nonprofit, she has the “luxury” of being able to turn away animals when she’s full — a luxury that county shelters like PAWS don’t have.

“People bash these county shelters all the time, but it’s not their fault that people are dumping their animals,” she said. “It’s the community’s fault. The community needs to step up and fix these problems … we need to come together and stop these animals from coming into the shelters in the first place.”

Jennifer Hagedorn runs the Saving with Soul Pet Rescue, an Okaloosa County-based network of fosters who regularly pull dogs and cats from PAWS and the Santa Rosa County animal shelter.

She said so far this year, they’ve pulled 195 dogs and more than 100 cats from the shelters and placed them into one of their 70 local foster homes.

Saving with Soul holds weekly adoption events and advertises the pets on social media to get them adopted. But Hagedorn said that no matter how many animals they place into loving homes, more animals are always in need.

“The overpopulation of pets in Okaloosa County is outrageous,” she said. “What we say in rescue is, ‘If we can pull one, it saves two,’' ” Hagedorn said. ‘We save the one we pull out, and also, the one who’s still at the shelter that has more time and space. Hopefully that buys an animal another week or two if they’re at risk.”

Hagedorn attributed the overpopulation of animals to a “culture” of people who don’t think it’s important to spay and neuter their pets.

Lisa Bruning agreed. She runs My Safe Place Pet Rescue and Minn Pins and Muts, another foster-based rescue group serving the county. She said the “biggest problem” facing local animals is “the public being unwilling to spay and neuter.”

“That’s kind of a typical thing that you see here, and it’s constant,” she said. “It’s a constant battle for everybody … the fault isn’t with PAWS or any of the rescues. We do our best. It’s the public that needs to be aware that they need to spay and neuter their pets.”