When the onset of the coronavirus pandemic forced animal shelters across the country to close their doors, Americans answered the desperate calls for help by adopting and fostering pets.
Now as we head into the third year of the pandemic, a new crisis looms — so rescue advocates are hoping Americans will step up to help once again.
Adoptions have slowed, and there are 100,000 more dogs and cats in shelters than this time last year — which puts them at risk of euthanasia, according to Best Friends Animal Society. The nonprofit also found in a study last summer that 87% of shelters surveyed reported being understaffed — and the omicron variant just made the situation even worse.
Transport of pets from overcrowded shelters to areas with fewer adoptable pets has decreased — possibly because so many people are risk averse in the face of ongoing uncertainty — and pets who enter shelters are staying in longer, according to Kristen Hassen, director of the nonprofit American Pets Alive! and co-founder of Human Animal Support Services, an international collaborative of more than 8,000 animal welfare professionals that began in response to the pandemic.
Plus, kitten season — the warmer months when cats start mating and their kittens flood shelters — is just about to start.
“We really do have a perfect storm of factors happening in shelters right now,” Hassen told TODAY. “The great news is that people can solve all of this.”
There are two main ways the public can help: by getting pets out of shelters through traditional methods like fostering, adopting, volunteering and donating — and by keeping pets out of shelters in the first place.
For instance, if we see a dog running loose, instead of calling animal control or a shelter, we can take them to a veterinarian to scan for a microchip and contact the owner (if there’s no tag with a phone number to begin with). Or we can keep them in our yard and put up signs in the neighborhood or post on the neighborhood social media site Nextdoor.
“Typically you can get pets home the same day that they’re lost, so it’s not a big ask,” Hassen said. “But it’s one that makes a huge difference because 60% of animals entering shelters are lost or stray, and only about 15% of those are going home.”
If it’s no longer possible for a family to keep a pet, instead of surrendering the animal to a shelter — where there’s no way of knowing whether the pet lives or dies — she suggests finding the animal a new home.
Fostering will be key to weathering this crisis as well as supporting shelters in the long term, Hassen believes. To accommodate this need, she hopes shelters will increase the number of foster coordinators that connect volunteers with foster pets. She points to the successful fostering initiatives of Atlanta’s LifeLine Animal Project, which placed more than 7,200 pets in foster homes in 2020.
“I feel both massive anxiety and I feel like we can solve this,” she said. “So I do not feel hopeless — just concerned.”
Heather Friedman, chief marketing officer for the Atlanta-based nonprofit LifeLine Animal Project, which manages two county shelters and a private shelter (in addition to other services), said fostering has always been a pillar of the group’s lifesaving efforts, but that the pandemic took it to the next level.
In 2019, 32% of LifeLine’s shelter population went to foster homes; in 2020, it rocketed to 57%. The number of shelter pets in foster homes decreased to 44% in 2021, but the group hopes to get it back to at least 50% and keep it there, according to Friedman.
“The increase in the number of foster homes over the past two years can, in part, be attributed to a shift to work from home arrangements in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic and the willingness of an amazing community of pet lovers to answer our calls for help,” she told TODAY in an email.
Friedman said temporarily fostering pets before adoption helps overcrowded shelters as well as the pets themselves.
“When it comes to a pet’s environment, there is no place like a home,” she said. “We see such a transformation in shelter pets once they are in a home where they can decompress and let their personalities shine.”
With this year’s kitten season in mind, Best Friends Animal Society developed a “kitten season campaign” to spread awareness of not just the need for kitten fosters, but the joy it can bring.
As viewers of this year’s “Puppy Bowl” undoubtedly know, the nonprofit teamed up with Halle Berry and Caesars Sportsbook to create a spot featuring Berry dressed as Cleopatra and laughing at the antics of adorable kittens frolicking on the floor around her. “Foster a kitten — for real,” she urges.
Holly Sizemore, chief mission officer at Best Friends, said kitten fostering is “hilarious” and a fun way to save lives — and necessary, since roughly two cats are killed for every shelter dog.
Another powerful way to help is to care for community cats (formerly called “feral”) through trap-neuter-return programs of shelters or rescue organizations, according to Sizemore.
“Communities with trap-neuter-return programs have seen a notable reduction in the number of cats entering shelters and a significant improvement in cat save rates,” she told TODAY. “There are a lot of groups that want to help you humanely trap cats and get them neutered and vaccinated so that they can continue to live their lives outdoors without reproducing.”
She hopes that people considering adopting pets will keep an open mind about the type of size or breed they want when visiting shelters, and to understand that shelters are understaffed — and that many workers are exhausted trying to keep up with the constant challenges of the pandemic.
So if a shelter doesn’t call back about a potential adoption in a few days, be patient and don’t give up — call back, she urged.
Animal lovers can also support shelters and pets by encouraging loved ones to adopt from the local shelter, according to Sizemore.
“I think for people who have maybe never had a pet, now’s the time to think about getting one because they provide the kind of love and support and unconditional love that you can’t really find anywhere else,” she said.