How Rescues, Shelter Animals, and Strays are Being Impacted By COVID-19
By: Savanah Butler
Chatter and excitement surround Seattle’s Boeing Field on Oct. 28 as animal-care teams prepare for their first rescue mission since the pandemic hit in March. The Progressive Animal Society (PAWS) and the 12 other regional shelters on the field experienced COVID-19 restrictions, which halted state-to-state animal transfer. Statewide transportation is necessary to save animals who are at risk of miserable living conditions, improper care, abandonment, and euthanasia in states overpopulated with dogs and cats.
As the plane lands and the doors of the aircraft are unlatched, the 600 and counting animals on the flight arriving from Hawaii bark and meow over one another. The animal-care workers run over to the plane, where the luggage handlers hand off the animals one-by-one.
The cats and dogs are wheeled to a quiet area, away from the runway, where they are counted off and sent to their assigned shelters. The fearful animals yelp and whine, unaware that this scary journey saved them.
“All of these animals would normally be adopted in Hawaii. There just isn’t the people coming in to adopt them. People don’t have money to donate to the shelters anymore, and a lot of people can no longer financially take care of animals because of COVID-19, ” says Rachel Bird, animal behavior specialist at PAWS.
Human lives are not exclusive to the danger of the COVID-19 disease. There is also a risk for cats and dogs. These animals are experiencing challenges due to the outcomes of the disease. In Seattle, animal-care workers are occupied day and night, attempting to improve and save animal lives.
There is still a lot of uncertainty regarding animals’ susceptibility to giving and getting COVID-19. Researchers continue to search for a definitive answer to the topic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some cases point to human-to-animal transmission. As a precaution, the CDC advises those infected with the virus to stay away from animals.
A team of researchers investigated this topic by performing a study on the susceptivity of COVID-19 infection in dogs and cats. The study found that felines are more susceptible to contracting the virus than dogs. Dogs had a low susceptibility to the virus, and the canines who did catch it had no signs of spreading it.
Cats showed high susceptibility to infection. The virus appeared in their nose and throat, but the cats themselves were asymptomatic. However, they found that the cats showed signs of viral shedding for up to five days and were able to transmit the disease to other cats.
One of the researchers on the team, Angela Bosco-Lauth reassures concerned members of the public that people are more likely to give COVID-19 to their cats than the other way around. However, animal-to-human transmission is still possible. The researcher advises, “veterinarians, pet-caretakers, and other animal workers who are at high-risk for developing the disease to work with caution.”
But in Seattle, watching out for potential human-to-animal COVID-19 transmission seems to be the last of these individuals’ worries. Since the rise of COVID-19, there is so much else at stake for animals and animal care that they’ve had to worry about.
Seattle Animal Shelters
It is important to note that shelters and rescues are different. Usually, the main difference between the two is that shelters are government-owned, while rescues rely on donations and volunteers for funding. In the case of Seattle, however, non-profit run shelters do exist. Rescues and shelters can otherwise be differentiated by size, type of care, and housing situations.
Rescues are smaller organizations that strive to foster a loving environment for their animals. Their dogs and cats receive constant care from the foster they are assigned. These organizations do not house animals on-site.
Before the virus hit, most shelters housed their animals on-site. Yet, some shelters in the Seattle area transitioned to relying heavily on foster homes. These organizations are larger and usually more well-known.
The Seattle Animal Shelter is the only government-run shelter in Seattle. It may be known for its name and connection to the government, but the shelter is only decent in size. In 2017, they took in 2,355 animals.
The shelter made drastic changes to their program due to enforced social distancing guidelines. They had to cut the number of staff on the site (20-25 members) in half. The team is sometimes required to work from home, which means there is half the number of caretakers at the shelter to help with the animals.
The shelter employees are busier than ever. They are getting a surplus of phone calls and emails. Phone and email communications has replaced face-to-face interactions by around 80%. And with half the number of employees, it is hard to keep up with these communications.
The shelter is also housing fewer animals than ever before. Only 30% of their animals were in foster homes prior to COVID-19. Now, they have 70% of them moved in with fosters, which means that 40% of their animals have been moved off-site since the pandemic hit. The shelter cannot help as many animals in need of care, which is not ideal with the increase in surrenders (people who can no longer house pets give them up to the shelter).
“We’ve heavily relied on the fostering program during this time,” says Courtney Ann Bunn, a caretaker at the Seattle Animal Shelter.
The surrender system has also changed at the Seattle Animal Shelter. The shelter has to limit the number of pets they can take in. There is a long waitlist, averaging 4-6 weeks of wait time, which leaves a lot of animals behind. To help with the delay, the shelter tries to offer any necessary services, such as online training advice, to those waiting.
The Seattle Animal Shelter is taking no visitations, leading to a different adoption process; animal adoptions now happen online. The adopters first meet their new pet when they pick him up for adoption. Despite this, there is no slowdown in the number of adoptions since the pandemic hit.
Seattle Humane, a large non-profit shelter with branches in cities surrounding Seattle, has experienced a similar situation.
“We moved a majority of the population into foster homes because we didn’t want there to be a potential for there to be an outbreak on campus and then not be able to get in there and take care of the pets,” says Brandon Macz, the public relations specialist at Seattle Humane.
Macz claims it has been helpful to have many of their animals taking breaks from the shelter environment. Being in foster homes has allowed foster parents to better get to know the animals and their personalities. The animals come out of their shells, and the shelter has a better idea of who would be an ideal adopter.
At Seattle Humane, the shelter staff are working hard to make the COVID-19 experience easier on animal owners. They created a new temporary foster program for people who are experiencing financial hardships. The program provides shelter for these individuals’ pets, which they can claim when they are back on their feet.
“Surrenders have been increasing a little bit over time since March, and we’ve been looking at other ways or other innovative approaches to help people,” Macz says.
The shelter already offers re-homing support for those who are positive they cannot afford to keep their pets. Owners can upload photos and descriptions of their pets (personalities, likes, dislikes, medical needs) to an online tool for others looking to take in an animal.
They have also partnered with local shelters to create a mobile pet food bank that has allowed Seattle Humane to expand its reach. They partnered with a team of shelters and charities to secure a warehouse space, which has since become repurposed to include a number of COVID-19 related resources. At least once a month, the organizers have since been going out to distribute pet food in resource-scarce areas around the county.
As far as adoption numbers go, it is a lot slower than usual because of the new adoption process. Adoption applications are now online-only, and the shelter is taking applications on a first-come, first-serve basis. Reviewers have to determine the best fit for each animal. The return rate has gone down because they can now better match specific pets with the specific kinds of households best for them.
At the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), another large non-profit shelter with outside branches, the public has to make an appointment online and fill out a COVID-19 screening form before they can visit the animal they indicated interest in. The adopters must be prepared to take the animal with them so that they don’t have to come back and so PAWS can limit the number of on-site visits.
This adoption system has reduced the number of animals the society can intake. Last year, they adopted out 4,500 animals, and this year, so far, they’ve adopted out only 2,000. They are also experiencing a lack of volunteers, which doesn’t help with the animals’ intake either.
“With lower numbers of animals that we’re able to adopt out, that’s also reduced our revenue significantly,” says Heidi Wills, current CEO of PAWS.
In 2019, PAWS received $550,000 in revenue from adoption fees. However, in 2020, PAWS made $305,000 in adoption fees.
On the bright side, they are receiving more interest in each animal than ever before.
“We have waitlists, and if that first person on the list comes and sees the animal and decides not to take it home, then we call the next person on the waitlist. So, you could say the demand outweighs the supply,” Wills says.
Seattle Rescue Organizations
Seattle rescues are busier than ever before. Since they are non-profits with few on their team, these animal-care workers find themselves working during their off-hours.
Emerald City Pet Rescue is a small, volunteer-based, non-profit organization with just six main employees and occasional part-time volunteers.
Kelly Frillman, a rescue coordinator at the organization, takes time out of her busy day to explain how COVID-19 has impacted the rescue organization. They take a similar approach to the shelters in Seattle by moving a majority of their adoption process online.
“We’ve just basically had to streamline our process, to try and make it as safe as possible but still get these animals in homes,” she says.
And even though the organization uses adoption fees to keep their rescue alive, they’ve decreased the fee to assist people going through financial challenges. The rescue is still taking donations of blankets and pee pads. However, any food donations they’ve been receiving are given to organizations that work with low-income families.
“You know, it’s just so the whole community, the animals, and not just ours, can get what they need in this crazy time,” Frillman says.
The rescue has also seen an increase in adoption rates since the pandemic, which they claim has to do with people working at home and feeling like they have a better setup to have a dog than they used to. They’ve also seen a massive increase in surrenders since COVID-19.
“[With] everybody getting hit by the pandemic, whenever an animal has an emergency, like needs to go to the vet or have a procedure, that costs money they don’t have because they’re having a hard time with the pandemic,” she says.
Many of the rescue’s increased intakes or surrenders have been animals that need medical attention. And since their adoptions are growing, they’re now able to take in more animals than they’re used to. Frillman is currently fostering a 3-pound-chihuahua named Ellie, who needs seizure medication four times a day. Frillman has to take Ellie with her to work.
The dog was adopted from a different rescue group. She began having seizures, and eventually a grand mal. Ellie’s owner took her to the emergency room, where she was told it would cost $7,000 to stabilize the dog. The woman did not have the money to pay for the hefty bill, so she called Emerald City Pet Rescue asking if she could surrender the canine.
“I feel horrible because she [the owner] emailed me every couple of weeks wanting to know how the dog is, and the unfortunate part of this is she wasn’t dumped, she came from a loving home, her owner cares about her but just can’t provide for her,” Frillman explains.
This is just one case of many similar ones at Emerald City Pet Rescue. As COVID-19 cases rise and the city continues to be in lockdown, many people can’t afford to keep their animals anymore.
“Those situations can be really tough because a lot of people have this impression that anybody that surrenders a dog is dumping him and doesn’t care. That’s not the case, especially with COVID-19 right now,” she continues.
The animals that come into Emerald City Pet Rescue have a couple of housing options. There is a boarding facility with an in-house vet clinic. However, for the animals that don’t do well in that kind of environment or when the rescue runs out of space at the facility, a strong foster network is available. Their foster program has also grown.
“Of all the horrible things that have happened, I think it’s been a little bit better for the animals in that way where they’ve been able to, you know, a lot more people just have time for a dog that they might not have had before,” Frillman explains.
Like Ellie, the animals in need of medical attention have to have a specific foster who can be with the dog almost 24/7, which is where the foster program becomes pertinent.
The Seattle Area Feline Rescue took the pandemic as an opportunity to create new programs. Their Media Director, Shelley Lawson, explained that the organization, which is a small rescue group run by volunteers, created a community pantry to help local pet owners keep their animals cared for and fed. This pantry is open 24/7 and offers free cat and dog food and supplies for those experiencing economic hardship. The pantry receives around 50 visits a week, and it is growing.
The rescue also ran a campaign to build a new surgical suite to perform onsite spay and neuter surgeries. This site was created to help with the overload of necessary surgeries once places begin to re-open in June.
Seattle’s Stray Animals
According to Pierce County Animal Control, there has not been a noticeable increase in the amount of stray animals reported since the pandemic. The shelter they take their homeless animal reports to, the Humane Society for Tacoma and Pierce County, has not seen increased stray intake either. Research claims otherwise.
According to a September 2020 study in the “Nature Public Health Emergency Collection,” researchers found that “there has been a significant increase in the number of pets being abandoned by their owners.”
Kristi Walker-Everett, a former real estate agent and Granite Falls resident who rescues stray and abandoned dogs in her free time, says, “people are losing housing and are embarrassed to go to the shelter to surrender pets.”
Earlier this fall, she was called to rescue two lost dogs atop the Cascade Range near Granite Falls. Although these dogs weren’t identified as stray or abandoned, it seemed odd how they may have gotten all the way up there.
“A dumped dog is very rare. An abandoned dog is dumped because it is the dog of somebody the dumper knows, and the dumper wants to get rid of their dog for whatever reason,” she says.
Pamela Staeheli, a Seattle resident, created a small volunteer-based organization, Feral Cat Assistance and Trapping (FCAT), where she traps, neuters, and returns (TNR) stray cats to prevent pregnancies and unwanted litters. She also tames feral cats and finds them homes. Unfortunately, the pandemic has impacted her TNR work greatly.
“One thing I am noticing is there’s a much higher number of tame cats that had litters of kittens outside that are now feral. That’s a huge increase because people don’t want to deal with it, they dump them, and if you don’t get the kittens in time, they’re feral,” she says.
When COVID-19 hit in March, a veterinarian from the University of Florida zoom conferenced many rescues, shelters, and other animal-care organizations, saying that all spays, neuters, and TNR’s need to be held off until further notice. All avenues for spay and neuter were shut down for an entire two months, and Staeheli could no longer save stray cats from pregnancies.
“I understand there are risks, but most of the time, I will always put an animal’s life way ahead of some dumb fucking human,” Staeheli explains.
The reasoning for the shutdown had to do with a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) shortage, something that Staeheli understands the importance of but doesn’t think is necessary for fixing a cat.
“I don’t think it would have been that big of a deal. Yes, there may have been a shortage of PPE. Fair enough, I get it. That was probably a legit reason, but you know something, we’re not dealing with a human. You can use the same damn math to spay a cat,” she argues.
For the first time in her 27 years of doing TNR work, Staeheli had to allow three litters to be born to tame cats, or cats that “belonged” to someone. The local veterinarians wouldn’t take the cats in to fix, and she didn’t have $1000, which is what it costs to fix a pregnant cat. Staeheli had no other option than to give the felines to rescues who she knew would eventually be able to get the cats spayed and neutered.
“In my 20 plus years of doing TNR work, that had to be allowed, and there was no way around it,” she explains.
The issue with felines running around unfixed (not neutered or spayed) is that they can reproduce. Stray kittens rarely, if ever, make it out alive when born feral. They don’t have the resources needed to fight off disease, hunger, or the cold. Preventing these litters from being born is one solution to discontinuing this cycle. Many rescues exist to find these kittens in time and run off funding to try to save them.
There are ways the public can help cats and dogs during this challenging time. The Seattle Animal Shelter mentions the significance of not just donations, but being responsible pet owners and advocating others to do the same.
“Do you know a pet owner who is struggling right now? How can you personally help? Can you connect them with resources and information to help?” says Jocelyn Bouchard, the deputy director of Seattle Animal Shelter.