America’s animal shelters have been transformed during the COVID-19 pandemic by surging adoptions and fosters and plummeting pet populations. But be sure of this: Shelters will never run out of animals in need.
In fact, few shelters are empty, notwithstanding the cheery videos you may have seen. Most still have adoptable cats and dogs, though there might be a waiting list to get one.
The heartening news is that Americans have stepped up by the tens of thousands to adopt, foster or just clean cages at their local shelters as social distancing, combined with reduced staffing, has closed facilities to the public and sent adoption processes online.
When Dumb Friends League, a private animal shelter in Denver, put out a call for volunteers to foster dogs, cats, bunnies, guinea pigs and even horses, more than 2,200 people signed up.
“People are saying, ‘I just really want to help and feel like I’m making a difference in some shape or form,’ ” says shelter spokeswoman Maia Brusseau.
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But they haven’t run out of animals, says Brusseau; far from it. Dumb Friends is the largest shelter in the Rocky Mountain region, caring for 21,000 animals last year. Earlier this week, there were 1,115 dogs, cats and other small animals in its care, including fosters, and that total changes “hourly,” she says.
Still, shelters and animal welfare organizations have made herculean efforts to reduce their populations since the pandemic started.
The industry moved quickly in the early days of the pandemic to adapt to new technology, such as Facebook Live virtual tours and online meet-and-greets with available pets. They hoped to spike fostering and adopting. It worked.
“One positive thing about this is that we got the word out about the shelter to people who might not have been as aware,” says Jessica Gutmann, operations manager at Santa Rosa County Animal Services in the Florida Panhandle. “I think we will be getting a lot more support from the community going forward.”
And celebrities are helping. Movie stars like Chris Evans keep talking about the mental health value of their furry friends.
In a video interview with USA TODAY, the “Captain America” star was asked to share his tips for coping with quarantine. “Adopt a dog! Everyone should go out and get a dog. If you don’t have a dog in your life, especially during this time, you’re missing out,” he gushed as he panned the camera over to his mutt Dodger.
It’s no wonder that in the last month, Google searches around “adopt a pet” surged about 335% in volume, according to findings from SEMrush, a data and trends analytics company.
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Are shelters really empty amid the coronavirus crisis?
Shelters describe themselves as empty or near empty, at least temporarily, based on their success at getting animals fostered or adopted quickly. But often there are remaining animals, especially dogs, who aren’t adoptable for medical or behavioral reasons, plus a steady stream of strays coming in.
The Michigan-based Bissell Pet Foundation recently partnered with 84 shelters around the country to help find homes for nearly 3,200 dogs and cats under its first pandemic-relief Empty the Shelters campaign, which offers reduced adoption fees.
When the foundation surveyed 50 of those shelters, 14% had completely emptied their cages during the campaign, while 38% reported they came close to emptying, according to foundation spokeswoman Bri Olson. The foundation is repeating the campaign with more shelters starting May 9.
At the Palm Beach Animal Care and Control shelter in Florida, the local CBS station filmed the “historic” day on April 15 showing rows of empty cages with scores of masked volunteers standing at the open doors and cheering.
As the shelter noted, it was one empty kennel out of three, so the shelter wasn’t entirely empty, but “just the fact we can say we have one of our kennels empty (for the first time ever) is amazing,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Harfmann told the TV station.
“The shelters are never, ever completely empty of animals,” says John Welsh, spokesman for the sprawling Riverside County Animal Services Department in California, which also celebrated a temporary clear-out in one of its four shelters in early April.
But Welsh says an “empty” kennel just means there were no adoptable dogs (meaning not quarantined or ill) on that day. In part, he attributed that to the shelter’s success in pushing adoptions and fosters – 1,600 so far.
“That’s a pretty insane figure – we don’t get that kind of math in a regular year,” Welsh says. “But the population is always changing daily. Our call volume is down because people are home and their dogs are not getting out, but we are always going to have animals in our shelters.”
The spike in adoption and fostering is no exaggeration
Jennifer Bilodeau of Cornelius, North Carolina, slipped into the Lake Norman Humane Society in nearby Mooresville this month just before the state’s “stay-at-home” order, with an eye to adopt another cat. Eventually, she took home a black kitten with green eyes whom she named Roe.
“People have the time (now), we’re home so why not?” Bilodeau says. “There’s no reason not to do it, considering that they’re better off in your living room than in a shelter.”
At Miami-Dade Animal Services, which takes care of up to 30,000 animals a year, director Alex Munoz says the population is way down, even though the shelter continues to take in animals.
“We went from a typical 350 (adoptable) dogs to as low as 15 dogs and we currently have 30 to 40 now,” Munoz says.
Meanwhile, he says, the foster rate surged between mid-March and mid-April. “Last year we had 62 dog fosters (during the period) and we had 224 during the same period this year.”
So what happens when pet parents return to work?
“One of the concerns is animals currently in foster care being returned to shelters when their caregivers go back to work,” says Jim Tedford, head of the national Association for Animal Welfare Advancement. “There is concern that shelter intakes will skyrocket after the pandemic.”
This is a “great fear” for people like Barbara Lipson, who runs 4Paws Rescue Team in Fairfax County, Virginia, a private rescue group that finds homes for 400 cats and kittens every year. Even before the pandemic, 4Paws required adopters to return their cats if they became unable to care for the pet because of illness, job loss, or need to move.
“So normally, about 30 to 40 of our adopted cats are returned each year,” Lipson says. “COVID-19 may double or triple that number, in addition to the cats and kittens not previously adopted that will need homes.”
But returning to work means people who lost their jobs during lockdowns will be better able to pay for pet food and supplies, thus avoiding increased shelter populations from pets surrendered for economic reasons.
It could also reduce the long lines at pet-food giveaway events organized by shelters and pet-food companies, such as the one in mid-April at Miami-Dade County Animal Services, when more than 500 cars turned up two hours before the start and they ran out of food after distributing 11,000 pounds. They’re already planning a bigger giveaway for May.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Animal shelters empty cages, but still have pets to adopt