Coronavirus sparks a pet adoption and fostering boom, but animal shelters worry it may go bust
The Daily Beast
March 26, 2020
Animal shelters have welcomed the coronavirus-related boom in pet adoption and fostering. But some are also planning for large numbers of pets being returned, and financial peril.
In Cathedral City, California, Norm the Australian Cattle Dog loves nipping at his new adoptive parents’ heels, as well as staring, “fascinated,” at his own image in any reflective surface. In a park in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Goliath is being gently coached by his new foster parent in the art of social distancing—in dog terms, not jumping up to greet passers-by.
In Lakewood, Dallas, Brutus—a Great Dane/Doberman mix—is keeping his new family entertained as they acclimatize to the novel coronavirus lockdown. And just a day after Emmy was fostered, her new family in Franklin, Wisconsin—her name is short for Emerald, as the puppy was taken home on St Patrick’s Day—decided to adopt her. (Read more of their stories below.)
Animal shelters across America have told The Daily Beast that there has been a huge surge in pet fostering and adoptions since the coronavirus lockdown took hold. New cat and dog owners have responded in their multitudes to shelters’ pleas to help them place animals.
This is, for now, good for the animals, good for the shelters, and good for the many new pet owners. With so many people suddenly at home full time, a pet also provides vital companionship, and a source of care and entertainment for the single, coupled, and families with restless children.
“There’s nothing quite like self-isolating with a dog or cat who is just hanging out and enjoying life with you,” said Pam Wiese, spokesperson for the Nebraska Humane Society.
“There’s this fun little thing where we call people who end up adopting their foster animal a ‘failed foster,’ when both pet and owner fall in love. It happens quite a bit,” said Tiffany Lacey, executive director and president of the Animal Haven shelter in downtown New York City.
Shelters made coronavirus-related appeals in the last week or two, seeking to free up vital space in the shelters should pet owners themselves fall sick from coronavirus and their pets suddenly need to be housed. Shelters were also concerned about space and staffing, should significant numbers of workers at shelters get sick themselves. Because of social distancing protocols, shelters have had to scale back how the public accesses their facilities and animals.
The national lockdown is also coinciding with the start of the imminent “kitten season,” when unspayed cats go into heat, and shelters expect to be inundated, as ever, with many baby felines.
However, while welcoming people’s generosity, some shelters are now concerned about a possible deluge of returned pets once the coronavirus crisis lessens and people’s lives return to some kind of normal. Their own survival as shelters is also, in some cases, imperiled. Many rely on donations and fundraising to survive, both of which are becoming precarious as people’s financial belts tighten with increased job insecurity.
Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), told The Daily Beast that the organization had seen a nearly 70 percent increase in animals going into foster care through their New York City and Los Angeles foster programs compared to the same time period in 2019.
In addition, more than 100 people had signed up to participate in the ASPCA’s online foster orientation sessions, with the ASPCA continuing to place additional animals into foster homes in the coming days.
Bershadker said: “Animals provide invaluable comfort and companionship, especially during times of crisis—and they certainly appreciate the attention they get—so we encourage people to continue to adopt or temporarily foster animals in need.” Also, the evidence so far has shown that pets are not likely to contract or transmit coronavirus.
Katy Hansen, spokesperson for the Animal Care Centers of New York City (ACC), which fosters out cats and dogs from three shelters, said within the last week 141 animals had gone out for fostering, “and typically we’d have about 50. We only have about 25 animals in the shelters. Normally we have about 600. We did an emergency foster callout last Friday and thought we’d get under 50 applications. We got over 3,500.”
Hansen said: “In New York City, or in any big city, people work many, many hours. New Yorkers love animals, but we’re not home enough. Working 12- to 14-hour days is not fair to animals. Now we’re forced to be at home, it’s the perfect time to have a temporary house guest. Any time away from a shelter is good for an animal for however long you can help. Imagine how noisy a shelter is. It’s a great time for them to rest. The response to our callout shows that New Yorkers love animals, but in their regular circumstances feel they can’t have them. We always hope, if the bond is there, that people may go on to adopt the pets they foster.”
Hansen said she had seen “millennials, aged under 28, with roommates” as a big fostering constituency as the coronavirus crisis has unfolded. “They just want to help. Having another heartbeat in the apartment is so nice, and another reason to get up in the morning and take care of something, so the focus is not on you and how sad and sorry you are.”
Madeline Yeaman Arnold, spokesperson for the SPCA of Texas, said there had been “a 100 percent” increase in the number of fosters.
The average number of animals the organization fosters out per week from its Dallas and Kinney sites is typically 23. The number fostered out since March 13 is 189. The average number of animals in foster homes is typically 159; currently it is 289. Before March 12, there were 306 animals in the organization’s shelters, now there are 167. The average number of animals adopted out per week by the SPCA of Texas is 76; since March 13, there have been 99 adoptions.
“We have had a huge increase in animals sent to foster homes and animals adopted, with a huge decrease in the number of animals at our shelters,” said Yeaman Arnold. “This really shows how much the community has stepped up to help animals.”
Gabrielle Amster, executive director of Friends of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter, said the facility had seen a steady stream of adoptions and was bracing itself for a sudden need of foster carers “in the next two weeks, when pet owners start to get sick.” So far this month, 145 animals have been adopted: 65 dogs, 31 puppies, 18 cats, and 31 kittens.
Pam Wiese told The Daily Beast that the Nebraska Humane Society had had a weekend adoption sale—some of the adoption fees underwritten by a bank—because they were concerned at “the possibility of over-population of the shelters, and no way to take care of the animals.”
The society was able to adopt out 35 cats, 50 dogs, and seven critters. “Right now, with social distancing, having a pet provides both companionship and it gets bored kids outside,” Wiese said.
A colleague of Wiese’s decided to adopt a cat, “because she’s ‘a cat person’ anyway, and felt like she could learn how to own the pet over the next few months, and then come back to work having done that. This is great. If people are adopting or fostering cats now, they should also be thinking how that pet will fit into their lives after this crisis passes.”
Angela Speed, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Humane Society, which oversees five shelters in five counties in southeast Wisconsin, told The Daily Beast that a callout had gone out to supporters on March 15 to help clear the shelters.
“By March 20, we had no more animals available for adoption: 159 animals were adopted and 160 animals went to foster care. We had 400-plus new volunteers sign up to be new foster parents. We still have 50 to 60 animals in our shelters who can’t yet be adopted because of intensive medical conditions or other issues, but our leaner staff can now spend more time caring for those animals.”
Speed added, “We were floored by the overwhelming response and couldn’t be more grateful to know that those 319 animals are lounging on couches instead of sitting in kennels.”
“In a time of such chaos and uncertainty, we weren’t sure that people would step up to help animals in need—but they did,” Speed said. “They surprised us in big ways, waiting for hours in the parking lot until it was their turn to come in to adopt. Our website crashed after we posted our plea on Facebook. In 48 hours. We believe strongly in the inherent goodness in people, and our adoption and foster placements last week were a testament to that. People want to help; you sometimes just need to give them the opportunity.”
Lacey, of Animal Haven in New York City, told The Daily Beast the shelter had seen a marked increase in dog and cat adoptions. “We’re finding that anybody who felt on the fence about bringing a pet into their home before now sees this as a good time to do it. People are feeling lonely, and there’s nothing better than feeling needed, entertained, and active by having a cat or dog in your house. Coronavirus has pushed a lot of people into it.”
“We’re seeing so many stepping up because they’re at home and have time,” said Yeaman Arnold. “We offer a ‘trial adoption,’ a foster-then-adopt process. People take a liking to a pet, bring it into their home, and then, if it goes well, make it official.”
“We’re just waiting. It’s so nerve-wracking”
All shelters have had to change their working practices because of the coronavirus, and some are worried about what will happen once the crisis abates and people resume their usual professional and social lives.
“The big difference between now and a few weeks ago is the process,” said Gabrielle Amster. “Before, anybody could come in, in any numbers. Now we are doing it all by appointment,” and in accordance with social distancing protocols.
Pam Wiese said prospective pet parents were only allowed in “in small groups with proper social distancing, and we disinfect the room once they are gone. It’s a slower process, but we’re making it work. If we do five or six adoptions in a day, that means five or six free spaces for animals coming in.”
Wiese said their shelters’ work force may be lowered “if people get sick, or if they end up taking fare of family members who are sick. Getting animals into foster care or adoptive homes is better for the animals and for us.”
Because of safety precautions, prospective owners can come to the Animal Haven shelter in New York City now by appointment only and are vetted in pre-phone calls and application form-filling. “They are approved to adopt before they come in,” Tiffany Lacey said.
“We have heart-to-heart conversations about the responsibility of having animals and about what their lives will look like when hopefully our lives go back to some kind of normalcy. Some dogs have separation anxiety. How will those kinds of pets respond if, after being with them 24/7, you’re suddenly not? You need to think about all those kinds of things.”
Like many shelters suddenly, Lacey said Animal Haven had “maxed out” on the number of those wanting to foster animals and would rather have, “as I’m sure many other shelters would say, monetary donations.”
Yeaman Arnold agreed. “Any kind of donation helps us continue. No matter what happens in this coronavirus crisis, we will still be caring for animals in need.”
The ASPCA’s Adoption Center has been closed in New York City for the time being, and while it has enough foster carers at the moment, it encourages people to sign up to the waiting list, especially with the feline season imminent.
“Animal shelters are facing reduced staff and volunteer support as a result of the crisis, putting many animals in desperate need of temporary or permanent sheltering,” said the ASPCA’s Bershadker. “We encourage all pet owners to identify caretakers who can help with pet care if they can no longer meet their responsibilities, which will remove potential strain on local shelters. Also, all pet identification and veterinary information should be kept in one place if it becomes necessary to temporarily rehome these animals.”
The ACC’s Katy Hansen said she was “really nervous” about a surge in returned animals in New York once the coronavirus lockdown ends.
“I’m not just worried about foster animals coming back, but also people giving up their own pets because they’ve lost their jobs or income and can no longer afford them. It will be a tough situation all around. We’re also encouraging people to look out for their neighbors, and if they get sick to look out for any pets they have. Anything neighbors can do to prevent the surrendering of an animal would be great. I worry that we will be completely overwhelmed. We’re just waiting. It’s so nerve-wracking.”
Tiffany Lacey is expecting “an uptick” of returns of animals once the coronavirus crisis passes. “It’s not about someone making a rash decision but the economy and financial situations of people if it becomes hard to keep a roof over your head and food on the table. Tough decisions will be made, and they will often sadly include animals.”
To that end, Lacey and her team are trying to place as many animals in homes now, “so we can prepare for what happens next,” whether that is people returning animals “if it turned out not to be such a great match” or because of suddenly changed personal circumstances.
In Nebraska, Pam Wiese said she hoped the flood of returns did not happen “and that people realize they got their animals in a time of crisis and are bonded by that time, and won’t get rid of them. But I also think there will be some returns. That happens anyway; not every adoption sticks and not every placement stays the entire time.”
Angela Speed agreed. “We’re not worried about returns. We don’t anticipate a large number. Even if we do get them, we don’t see it as a bad thing. Often these periods of time are a field trip for dog, or just a family realizes that pet might not be a good fit for that home.”
In Palm Springs, Amster said the shelter she runs is “facing uncertain times. The only way we can fundraise is through social media. We used to have a lot of events. Our annual gala brings in more than $300,000. It was planned for March 28. That isn’t happening. The adoptions are exciting and good news, but they do not change the huge challenges facing us financially, and as we anticipate a great influx of animals in the coming months.”
Meet the new members of the family
Lisa Luomo and Emmy: “I knew immediately I would be adopting this puppy”
Lisa Luomo, a school psychologist from Franklin, Wisconsin, laughed that her husband, William, had predicted she would want to keep Emmy, the 5-month-old Labrador Australian Cattle Dog mix they fostered from the Wisconsin Humane Society on March 17.
“And he was right,” Luomo told The Daily Beast. “I knew immediately I would be adopting this puppy. I called the Humane Society the day after we got her.”
The pup was originally named Sheba, but picking her up on St Patrick’s Day meant a sudden name change to Emerald, which has been shortened to Emmy. The family had been grieving a much-loved previous dog, who died last year, aged 12, from cancer.
Emmy has been an immediate hit with the family, including the couple’s 16- and 14-year-old daughters, Ella and Claire. “We have been trapped inside our home. There’s so much boredom, and Emmy is bringing us so much joy,” said Luomo. “And our older Labrador has taken Emmy under her wing, like she’s her mom. It’s adorable.”
Courtney Black and Brutus: “He is so sweet and loving, and has fit right in”
Courtney Black, who works in consulting, lives in Lakewood, Dallas, with her two children, 6 and 8. She fostered Brutus from the SPCA of Texas last week. He is a Great Dane/Doberman mix, “or let’s just call him a small horse,” said Black, laughing. “As with any rescue dog, he has his quirks and some anxiety, which he has medicine for. But he’s so sweet and loving and has fit right in.
“Fostering is a win-win for people who wouldn’t have the time and opportunities to do it in the past, and on the other side there are so many other animals who are neglected or out on the street, and right now with not the full infrastructure to take them in. Will we adopt him? Let’s see how this goes. Ask me in a week or so.”
Samantha Ruotolo and Goliath: “He’s a better roommate than the other two”
Samantha Ruotolo, 26, who works in consulting, lives with two roommates—all three have been friends since middle school—in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. She fostered Goliath, a 5-year-old “pitbull, boxer, mastiff mix” from the Animal Care Centers of New York City last Thursday.
“I had always wanted a dog,” said Ruotolo, “but having a pet didn’t fit with working the hours I work. We already love Goliath. He’s super-chill. After two days here, he was totally relaxed. He likes being touched, but he is also content to sit and watch us work at the table, or in our own rooms. He is definitely making our lockdown easier, and,” she said, laughing, “he’s a better roommate than the other two. Without him, I think one of us would have killed each other by now. I love taking him for walks. I don’t think I would adopt him. But I don’t want to see him brought back to the shelter, and—after us—I would like to see him adopted into a happy home.”
Ashley Busenius Coy and Glen Coy, and Norm: “It’s lovely to have this quality time”
The chaos brought by the coronavirus—and a shelter-in-place order in California—led Ashley Busenius Coy and her husband, Glen, to lay off five members of staff at their small business, Windmill City Screen Printing, in Cathedral City, California.
“It has been heartbreaking,” Ashley told The Daily Beast. “We love our employees, but we can’t pay them if we’re not getting enough work.” The majority of the couple’s business is with other small businesses, “so we are joining hands with the community to try and get through this. We will do what we can to support each other.”
Adjusting to a new way of working, the couple fostered Norm, a 10-month-old Australian Cattle Dog, from the Friends of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter, which the couple had visited a few times since the death of a 16-year-old dog last summer.
“It felt like a good time to adopt him, just because we have so much time to spend with him, and we can train him properly. It’s lovely to have this quality time, and it’s nice to have this comfort and entertainment in a companion while we’re living in this isolation.”
Ashley and Glen have been taking Norm out for walks along the lightly trafficked trails near their home. Norm’s breed means, said Ashley, he should acclimate to the high temperatures in the Coachella Valley, which can reach 38 degrees Celsius in summer.
Norm is deaf, so the couple are beginning to train Norm with hand signals and American Sign Language. “He’s been a dream so far,” said Ashley. “He loves chewing and jumping up on things. His breed traditionally wrangles cattle, and he nips at our heels when we’re out walking. He’s fascinated by his own reflection. My advice to anybody else is to consider doing this—it’s a great opportunity to take care of a pet.”