Buddying Up For Quarantine: Animal Shelters Report Adoption Spikes Amid Pandemic Shutdowns

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Requests to foster and adopt animals have skyrocketed across the country as Americans hunker down at home. But leaders at some animal shelters say they haven't seen the same boom, while all worry about future funding.

For months, Tyler Neimeyer had wanted to adopt a dog. Finally, after a breakup, and realizing he’d be in his Indianapolis home for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak, Neimeyer went to the Johnson County Animal Shelter in Franklin, Indiana, and came home with Murdoch, a 5-year-old Shar Pei.

“It’s been great having him here,” said Neimeyer, a professor and therapist who works in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Studies at Indiana University. “He’s extremely low-key. I had wanted a Shar Pei for a long time because we had them growing up, but knowing that I was going to be stuck in the house was part of my rationale for getting him now.”

Murdoch and Tyler (Courtesy of Tyler Neimeyer)

He’s not the only one. Animal shelters across the country have reported upticks in applications to foster and adopt dogs and cats, even as their buildings are largely closed to the public. Shelters in New York, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin have run out of animals, while others, including the Humane Rescue Alliance in Washington, D.C., have been inundated with applications from potential adopters and foster homes. 

By last week, just seven dogs and two cats remained at one of the Humane Rescue Alliance's two locations. The other building had even fewer, said Stephanie Frommer, the organization’s senior director of operations.

“It’s unheard of for us,” she said. “February and March tend to be a quieter time for us, but typically we would have more than 100 animals at each of our locations this time of year.”

Frommer said the interest is driven largely by the nearly universal truth of the coronavirus outbreak: People are confined to their homes day and night, and so it’s the perfect time to bring home a new pet.

“They’re going to be home anyway,” she said. “It’s easy to use that time to welcome a new animal home and help them settle in.”

Meeting the increased demand when most shelters are closed to the public has required staff and animal advocates to get creative. The Peninsula Regional Animal Shelter in Newport News, Virginia, began allowing adoptions by appointment only. In Wake County, North Carolina, the SPCA started a daily live event on Facebook for adopters to view animals, ask questions of shelter staff and even direct the camera operator to give pets, treats or belly rubs. 

But as the pandemic progresses, some of those solutions have been temporary. The Calvert County Animal Shelter in Prince Frederick, Maryland, began scheduling appointments for adoptions, but shut that program down after a week to comply with social-distancing and public-health guidelines. Urging the public to continue adopting is difficult when potential adopters can’t visit the animals in person, said Crystal Dowd, deputy director of animal services for the county.

“We are optimistic with the interest still being displayed for our animals,” she said. “It is certainly not as convenient for members of our community to visit animals in person. However, we are still having adoptions and have received more interest from our rescue partners and fosters to provide assistance. Should our services require further reduction, we have fosters and rescues waiting to provide assistance.”

Adoption and rescue numbers have stayed level, Dowd said, but fewer animals are coming into the shelter, and animal control officers have reported a roughly 50% increase in the number of animals being returned to their owners in the community.

"Our officers are working with owners as much as possible to prevent the need for their animals to enter the shelter," she said.

Though the pandemic is nationwide, its effects—and the restrictions put in place to guard against it—vary widely from place to place, according to Mark Stubis, a spokesman for American Humane, a national nonprofit that promotes animal welfare. For example, he said, rural facilities aren't necessarily seeing the increased interest in adopting and fostering animals that urban shelters have reported.

“The situation is different in each locality, and with lockdowns, restrictions on movement and assembly, and the epidemiological peak of the pandemic coming, we fear the worst is yet to come for shelter animals,” he said. “Whether a shelter is located in an affluent, accessible area or a resource-poor remote area are factors in how many fosters and adoptions these facilities are currently seeing.”

In Montgomery County, Texas, nearly 200 animals were still available for foster and adoption as of Monday. The Hillside SPCA in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, was struggling to manage an increase in animal drop-offs amid dwindling supplies and a decline in donations. At the Grand Strand Humane Society in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, donations have dropped nearly 40%.

“Our medical bills and payroll are the same so we won’t survive long if I can’t figure something out,” said Jess Wnuk, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Our foster cases are definitely up, but adoptions are down. So is our clinic revenue for sure … Honestly, I am just taking things one day at a time.”

Funding is a nearly universal concern, even for shelters who have seen success in clearing their kennels during city-wide quarantines. Adoption fairs and fundraisers—events that bring in the bulk of revenue for most shelters and nonprofits—are off-limits indefinitely, and with a record number of people already filing for unemployment benefits, it’s likely that many residents won’t be in a position to donate directly in the near future.

“I think every nonprofit right now is concerned,” said Frommer with the Humane Rescue Alliance in D.C. “There is going to be an economic impact to the country from this, and that generally means people are more concerned about what their own future is going to be, so they’re going to be less likely to donate. We’re a very fiscally responsible organization so I think we are on as strong of footing as we could be going into this, but there are no guarantees. We’re just taking it day by day.”

The economic implications of the pandemic also have shelters bracing for an eventual influx of animals as more people lose their jobs. Depending on a shelter’s financial viability, that population boom could be difficult to handle. Some facilities have programs in place to help people keep their pets—the Grand Strand Humane Society, for example, began growing its pet food bank at the beginning of March in anticipation of increased need—but resources, generally, are scarce.

Still, there are bright spots. Increased interest in fostering and adoption is an unequivocally good thing, advocates said, and some of the changes that shelters have made to compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact could persist long after the coronavirus outbreak is over. The Humane Rescue Alliance, for example, began using Skype to allow potential adopters to “meet” animals. It also moved its adoption paperwork online and began letting adoption counselors conduct question-and-answer sessions by phone or FaceTime rather than in person. Those options could easily continue once the shelter reopens to in-person visits, Frommer said.

“I think one of the silver linings of all of this is that it’s causing not just us, but a lot of organizations across the country, to be looking at how can we be creative to help more people and more animals,” she said. “What are the things that we, as an industry, have traditionally been really rigid about that we don’t need to be rigid about? There’s a chance here to make adoptions easier and more flexible for people and more efficient for our own teams.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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