KC Pet Project works to help owners through eviction, COVID

COVID-19 has been a quiet catastrophe for many Kansas City pets.

Evictions and financial struggles related to the coronavirus pandemic have caused heartbroken pet owners to relinquish their animals — to shelters or new homes when possible.

“Whatever is affecting the human also is affecting the animal,” says Tori Fugate, chief communications officer for KC Pet Project, the nonprofit that runs the Kansas City animal shelter.

In some cases, COVID-19 has had a bigger impact on animals than on their companion humans: Even if evicted owners can find a new place to stay, it may not accept their pets. So owners are put in the anguishing position of giving up their beloved family members.

“We see a lot of that. There’s just not enough pet-friendly housing out there in Kansas City, unfortunately,” Fugate says.

Moreover, some cash-strapped owners have felt forced to give their pets up just to get the veterinary care they can’t afford to provide. Can you imagine?

Rhonda Gutierrez doesn’t have to imagine. It happened to her.

The 62-year-old Kansas Citian, laid off from her warehouse job due to COVID-19, learned over Labor Day weekend that her one-and-a-half-year-old Shepherd mix Harley needed kidney stone surgery to the tune of $2,000. She had the choice of putting him down or giving him up. She did the latter, of course, and left her dog with KC Pet Project.

“It really broke my heart,” Gutierrez said. “I really didn’t want to let Harley go, but to save his life, I was going to do it. So I did.”

But a week later, the organization called. Harley was ready to come home. She hadn’t given him up forever, as she had thought, and which had brought her to tears every time she’d contemplated it that week. “If it wasn’t for KC Pet Project, he would not be here,” she says.

KC Pet Project looked ahead at start of pandemic

The pandemic has forced the already expansive-thinking KC Pet Project to grow its outreach and fine-tune its approaches. The organization is seeking and mobilizing new resources to respond to COVID-related challenges for pet owners with an eye toward keeping pets and owners together — much like social service agencies try to do with fractured families.

At the outset of the pandemic this spring, KC Pet Project put out a plea for foster homes, in a preemptive move to empty the shelter with so much uncertainty ahead. Now, the organization is looking for emergency foster homes to temporarily help evicted and destitute owners while they get back on their feet. And in some cases, KC Pet Project is finding the resources to get distressed owners the vet care their pets need — as it did with Gutierrez, who paid what she could.

The organization has even created a “Keep ‘Em Together, KC” program and corresponding charitable fund to marshal community resources for desperate pet owners.

In much the same way that police departments around the nation are being asked to reimagine policing, KC Pet Project has become a national leader in reimagining animal services. Indeed, it has made Kansas City one of 18 pilot cities that are part of a “Human Animal Support Services” model exploring a range of new services for both pets and people aimed at helping keep more animals in their homes.

And as KC Pet Project prepares to also take over animal services from the city Nov. 23 — the task of picking up stray, abused and neglected animals, while holding irresponsible owners to account — the organization is already out in neighborhoods introducing itself and putting out fliers of lost pets.

“Now, with our new lens on how we’re doing animal sheltering, we are working very hard to keep those families together,” says Fugate.

What’s that look like? Well, instead of immediately jumping to cite owners, KC Pet Project will work with them if possible and will determine whether their problems are merely a lack of resources. If so, help is available.

But in the case of irredeemable owners, the shelter is ready to not only take animals in but to get them “re-homed” in the blink of an eye. Some animals in the old city pound used to sit there for three or even six months, Fugate says. Now, at the new shelter that opened in Swope Park last January, animals are not only more humanely kept but for drastically shorter periods of time.

“Here, if they’re here for two weeks or three weeks, we’re like, ‘We need to get this pet marketed. It needs to get out of here.’ They’re getting adopted very, very fast,” Fugate says.

That’s a good thing right now, since animal intakes at the shelter have risen markedly in recent months.

COVID-19 has destroyed so much, yet has only made KC Pet Project stronger. And the city’s pets have never needed that more. As do their beleaguered owners.

“Our officers are here to serve the community. We want to be a resource,” Fugate says. “Our officers are ready to go out and change the world. They’re very excited.”

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