NEW YORK — As a trained disaster responder, Dr. Robin Brennen was well versed in proper safety procedures when she entered a coronavirus patient’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in late March. She pulled on protective plastic bootees, a face mask and an eye shield.
Then, with a gloved hand, she picked up the rest of her equipment: a 5-pound bag of cat kibble and a litter box.
The pandemic’s devastating human toll in New York City has been well documented. But it has also affected people’s lives in ways that have gotten less attention, including what happens to the pets of those who become seriously ill.
Brennen, a veterinarian at Animal Care Centers of NYC, is part of a team of specialists who help the animal companions that have been left behind.
Across the city, animal specialists in full-body personal protective gear enter homes to feed, at no charge, famished pets whose owners are hospitalized with the virus, or to take custody of pets belonging to patients who do not return home.
Pet owners who have died of the virus have left behind dogs, guinea pigs and cats, at least one of which starved to death before anyone had checked the owner’s apartment, according to Animal Care Centers of NYC.
For cats, which are susceptible to coronavirus infection, the city’s standard strategy is to essentially quarantine them in their homes for at least 14 days, with city animal specialists monitoring them. (It is unclear whether cats can pass the disease to humans.)
On the Upper West Side that day in March, residents of the co-op building had alerted Brennen’s organization that a woman who lived there was in intensive care battling the virus, and that her two beloved cats had been left behind.
Brennen went in and fed the cats twice a week.
“I knew how much she wanted those cats and loved them,” she said. “And I wanted them to be there for her when she got home.”
Ultimately, the cats’ owner died; a neighbor later adopted them.
“They don’t have her, but they had people willing to help her,” said Brennen, the animal care organization’s vice president of animal health and welfare. “And that is something.”
Some virus patients, intubated and in intensive care units, have been unable to tell anyone that their dog or cat has been left behind, leaving neighbors to figure it out from plaintive pet sounds down the hall.
In late April, New York City’s emergency management and animal welfare offices introduced a hotline for people who were struggling to care for their pets because of the virus.
Some questions that come into the hotline, which is staffed by members of local animal rescue groups and representatives of the city agencies, are fairly basic. One example: Can my dog get the virus? (There have been few documented cases of dogs contracting the disease.)
The hotline’s primary goal is to help struggling or sick New Yorkers avoid surrendering their pets, connecting callers to things like subsidized emergency veterinary medicine and the city’s network of free pet food pantries.
But sometimes, surrendering pets is the only option: As of June 17, roughly 145 had been turned over via the hotline. The animals have been cared for by Brennen’s organization and by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Manhattan.
Animals surrendered by people who have contracted the virus must be quarantined for 14 days. After that, they can be adopted.
“It is so important, especially at this time, that this human-animal bond is taken care of,” said Christine Kim, the city animal welfare office’s senior community liaison. “This is the time when people need that the most.”
When Howard Katz, 61, a limousine driver from Massapequa, on Long Island, was hospitalized with the virus in April, his primary concern was not for himself, his sister, Cynthia Hertz, said. Instead, he was worried about Lucy, his Shiba Inu, who was readjusting after surgery for an illness that necessitated removing her eyes.
Hertz said she and her boyfriend spent three days calling vets, dog boarding facilities and rescue shelters to find someone to care for Lucy. No one would.
“They were afraid,” she said. “Lucy could be carrying the COVID, and nobody was able to help.”
A call to the pet hotline connected her with Jenny Coffey, the community engagement director at the rescue group Animal Haven.
The group, which Coffey said had fielded 215 cases so far, arranged for Lucy to stay at a Long Island boarding facility for three weeks. The cost was covered by a grant from Red Rover, a group that provides financial help to people with pets in crisis.
“It was like a lifeline for my brother,” said Hertz, adding that Katz was overjoyed to be reunited with Lucy after three weeks in a hospital and rehabilitation center. “I didn’t know if he was going to make it if something had happened to Lucy.”
Entering homes where the virus is believed to have been present can be nerve-racking, said Feraz Mohammed, an animal control officer at Animal Care Centers of NYC.
On one recent day, Mohammed drove an agency van covered with images of cats and dogs to a South Bronx apartment building. A resident who was thought to have contracted the virus had been hospitalized; her dog and cat had not had food or water for five days.
Mohammed pulled on a mask, gloves and a Tyvek suit, meticulously sealing the openings around his wrists and ankles with tape. Then he grabbed his dog-catching stick and cat carrier.
Upstairs, a blond mop of a dog bounded out of the apartment, a blur of canine joy. Mohammed snapped a leash on the small dog and then went inside. He fished a tabby cat out from under the couch, and he cooed gently at the two pets as he brought them downstairs and locked them in cages in the truck.
“Once we get them fed, get them water,” he said, stroking the little dog’s head, “it makes me feel better about all of this.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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