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Shelters save

If you’re one of the many Rochesterians who adopted, fostered, or had to surrender animal companions in the past year, you aren’t alone. Animal shelters and rescue services have been among the busiest resources in response to the human need for comfort and companionship in this era. With so many people stuck at home for so long, the need for—and rewards of— contact with living things skyrocketed, and animal adoption, fostering, and rescue organizations have benefited.

On the other hand, many people whose lives have turned upside down or those who have lost jobs or homes because of COVID-19 have been desperate to find safe havens for beloved pets. Rescue operators say there have even been instances of people dying of COVID- 19 without being able to find alternative homes for their animals.

There was a spike in pet adoptions or surrenders since many vets have been closed for several months. The challenge for shelters and rescue operations has been in understanding which pet owners are sincere versus who might be using the pandemic as an excuse not to care for their animal companions or get veterinary attention for them. The good news is that the public often steps up to help: Lollypop Farm, the Humane Society of Greater Rochester saw a huge response when about ninety cats were injured or left homeless after a house fire, and Operation Freedom Ride has saved more than 600 dogs and between 300 and 400 cats in the last two years.

Community response

The community has rallied to support the organizations that provide animal adoption, foster, and rescue services.

Pet Pride of New York was worried that people wouldn’t want to adopt but saw appointments fill up quickly, along with an increase in people wanting to help with rescues and related issues, says shelter operations manager Kari LaBounty. Technology helped too: “We did FaceTime and Zoom events to show people around our shelter and adopted a few kitties that way.” Being at home more than usual had the benefit of giving adopters more time to get used to their new animals, she noted. New 2 U Rescue, which places animals in foster homes until adoptions can be arranged, has one vet who donates an entire day’s service. At Freedom Ride, adoption requests and successes increased during the pandemic, says cofounder Carly Hansford, who launched the organization with Avery Hicks in 2017. “We make sure that people are adopting because they want forever pets, not just ‘for-now’ pets since they are home more often due to the pandemic.” When Freedom Ride received a matching grant from the Bissell Pet Foundation, the community came together to raise more than $10,000 in less than twenty-four hours to help the organization reach its goal.

Second Hand Dog Rescue saw a significant increase in people looking to adopt at the beginning of the pandemic and in people who were COVID-19 victims or whose animals needed “heavy duty medical care.” “We were getting at least ten requests a day to seize dogs because of situations like someone having to move and a new landlord not allowing pets or due to the animal’s behavior,” says founder Wendy Weisberg.

“A lot of puppies were available because we took in a lot of pregnant dogs—about twenty-nine of forty-four puppies have been adopted, and most of the others are pending, but we still have 300 to 400 applications to go through.”

“There has definitely been an increase in people wanting to adopt, which is wonderful, and other shelters have seen very high requests,” says Ashley Zeh, Lollypop Farm’s director of communications. “We had the foresight to say we had to clear the shelter to prepare. We knew we wouldn’t have as many volunteers as usual and would probably receive more animals, so we held a free adoption day and placed sixty pets in homes and about thirty with fosters. We never closed our doors, but we tried to keep the numbers manageable so we could maintain high-quality care. We limited new admissions to emergencies and provided other resources—we encouraged fostering and matchmaking for pets outside our shelter.”

To help people keep pets rather than surrendering them, “we helped more than 556 families with emergency pet food and some veterinary services,” says Zeh.

“In the first year of the pandemic, shelters were empty because the pipeline petered out as people adopted in response to COVID,” says Erik Herrema, a veterinarian with Monroe Veterinary Associates.

Fostering vs. adopting

Being a “foster parent” is one way to help animals without the commitment of adopting, and Operation Freedom Ride is one of many area organizations that matches animals with foster families until adoptions can be arranged. “We have so many amazing foster homes throughout Rochester,” says Hansford. “They all go through training and are assigned a team of at least three volunteers who are dedicated to helping them the entire time they have a foster pet.”

What to expect now

Shelter and rescue professionals agree that the eventual end of the pandemic may not mean the end of issues for animals and their people. Dogs and cats (yes, even cats!) are likely to experience separation anxiety when their people go back to the office and resume traveling out of town.“We’ve seen some cases of adolescent dogs with socialization issues and expect to see separation anxiety because animals are used to people being home all the time,” says Zeh. “I encourage people to reach out—you can get help.”

Hansford can see losing some foster homes if people go back to work sites, but “having a full-time job doesn’t disqualify you from fostering by any means,” she says.

As restrictions relax and normal time away from home resumes, Zeh advises starting out slowly for animals that have gotten used to their people being away from home—especially those that were adopted during the pandemic and have never been home alone. “Stay away for a night or two a couple of times before going on a two-week trip,” Zeh suggests.

The end of the pandemic will not be the end of animals needing forever homes or people benefiting from animal companions. Keep adoption, fostering, and rescue activity in mind if life feels a little lonely.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

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