How local animal shelters are surviving COVID

CANINE COMPANIONS: The Asheville Humane Society puts some dogs with behavioral issues into play groups with animals that have similar personalities. “It’s really, really cool to watch,” says Laila Johnston, the nonprofit’s donor relations director. Photo courtesy of Asheville Humane Society

When Asheville Humane Society adoption counselors send someone home with a new puppy, the advice is always the same: Get your pet into a kindergarten class or other training program. “It’s so important for healthy growth and healthy behavior,” Donor Relations Director Laila Johnston explains.

During much of 2020, however, such classes weren’t available due to COVID-19 shutdowns, and animals, like people, were often left socially isolated. As a result, the agency is now seeing an influx of dogs with behavior issues at its West Asheville adoption center.

“Dogs that were adopted during COVID, especially as puppies, they’re now 10 to 15 months old and they were undersocialized,” says Johnston. “You adopted a dog, you stayed in your house. They didn’t go to puppy class; they didn’t go to those normal things we recommend.”

Some of those dogs are now anxious or overly timid. Some have high energy levels that they never learned how to control. To deal with the problem, the Humane Society has relied on its full-time, three-person behavioral team, which Johnston describes as “pretty cutting edge” for animal rescue operations in the U.S. The team assesses every dog that comes in and then crafts an appropriate behavior plan.

The dogs are assigned to various categories based on such factors as how high-energy they are and how much they trust humans or other dogs. The behavioral team works with some dogs individually and puts others into play groups based on their personality types.

“Especially with the extremely timid dogs, you’ll see one of our behavioral specialists sitting outside their dog run, feeding them by hand, sitting with them against a wall or taking them to a park off-site to work on commands,” she says.

Dogs with intense issues need more time in the behavior program, she notes, but even some of the hardest cases have found homes eventually thanks to that support — and because the organization is honest with potential adopters.

“If you go look at dogs on our adoption floor, you see notes that they are super high-energy and they’re gonna need people who are avid hikers, avid runners, experienced dog owners,” continues Johnston.

People who adopt those dogs are given free vouchers for behavior classes and are encouraged to commit to at least six weeks of such training.

Not all local animal adoption agencies have noticed the same problems with canine behavior. But without exception, the organizations contacted by Xpress said the pandemic continues to significantly affect the way they do business.

Backlogs

Spay and neuter procedures declined sharply during the height of the pandemic, as most private veterinary practices were performing only urgent surgeries, says Leah Craig Fieser, executive director of Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, and local agencies are still scrambling to catch up.

“We will likely see the impact of this for years as dogs and cats have offspring and those offspring reproduce, and those offspring reproduce, and so on,” she predicts.

That pattern has been sharply evident at the Humane Society. In June and July, the shelter took in a total of 761 cats and kittens, compared with fewer than 600 in the same period of 2019.

Meanwhile, waitlists for surgery remain long as veterinarians play catch-up. Like other local shelters, the Humane Society requires that animals be spayed or neutered before being adopted. Thus, felines that ordinarily would have been adoptable two or three days after entering the facility may now up staying for two weeks while awaiting surgery, says Johnston.

The Humane Society usually contracts with private practices to do spaying and neutering, but this summer their in-house vet performed 200 such surgeries.

The Blue Ridge Humane Society in Hendersonville has had a similar experience with both cats and dogs.

“It is simply devastating to see how six months without [spaying and neutering] can drastically affect the animal population in our community,” says Executive Director Angela Prodrick. “I have seen more puppies enter the shelter this year than in the past five years.”

The agency’s waitlist for surgeries is about three to four months for both shelter animals and those served through the Spay/Neuter Incentive Program.

SNIP enables Henderson County residents to have their pets spayed or neutered for $10. The number of monthly surgery slots available for the program is still below pre-COVID levels, however. And though the nonprofit has tried to rely more on local veterinarians for the surgeries, many of them are backlogged as well.

To help reduce the number of animals entering the shelter, Blue Ridge has expanded its community outreach programming. Because a majority of those new arrivals are strays, the nonprofit now offers assistance for folks who’ve lost a pet or found a stray. It’s also helping owners find new homes for animals they can no longer care for before they end up in the shelter system.

Brother Wolf’s mobile spay/neuter clinic briefly closed during the early days of the pandemic but opened back up within weeks after officials saw the growing backlog, says Fieser. Last year, she reports, the clinic performed 5,846 surgeries, helping ease the burden on its shelter partners. The clinic is stationed in Buncombe County twice a week and travels to both Burke and Transylvania counties once each week.

“When you can’t spay/neuter animals, your adoption programs come to a halt, which means that your shelters quickly fill up and there isn’t room for more animals who need help,” she points out.

Stressed out

Like many nonprofits, local animal adoption agencies rely on volunteers to ease the load on often overtaxed staff. But the pandemic and its resultant social distancing rules have made it harder to train and use volunteers.

FEELING THE HEAT: Local animal agencies have seen an influx of kittens and puppies as a result of spay and neuter services being curtailed by COVID-19. “It is estimated that spay/neuter efforts in the United States could have been set back by as much as 10 years due to all of the litters who were born as a result,” says Leah Craig Fieser, executive director of Brother Wolf Animal Rescue. Photo courtesy of Brother Wolf

Blue Ridge’s adoption center, for instance, remained closed to volunteers for nearly a year, Prodrick reports. “Our facility makes it incredibly hard to distance socially,” she explains. “We did not want to put volunteers or staff in a compromising position. This has set a lot more tasks on the team that would typically be volunteer tasks.”

The Asheville Humane Society has faced similar challenges, notes Johnston. The agency only recently reinstated the animal-handling classes it requires for volunteers who want to walk dogs, and the classes are much smaller than they were before.

Johnston lauds her employees’ dedication and passion for the job. “But on the flip side, I do think everyone’s run down, because we’ve had to rely on the staff even heavier than usual,” she says.

The good news, however, is that COVID-19 hasn’t quashed the volunteer spirit: “People want to volunteer with us,” says Johnston. “It’s something that really calls to a lot of them.”

To capitalize on that, local agencies are finding creative ways to get folks involved. The Blue Ridge Humane Society’s Kibble Krew meets weekly to bag food that’s then distributed through local food banks and pet food drives, notes Prodrick. In addition, some people who wouldn’t typically volunteer at the thrift store in Hendersonville now do so because that’s where they’re most needed.

Early in 2020, Brother Wolf shut down most of its indoor volunteer activities while continuing outdoor offerings such as the Outward Hounds Hiking Club and canine play groups. In the second half of the year, the agency once again began allowing a limited number of indoor functions, with masking and social distancing required. “This was great, because we once again had volunteers helping with key indoor activities such as cat socialization, dishes and laundry,” Fieser explains.

And as many of its volunteers have gotten vaccinated, Brother Wolf has opened up additional roles and relaunched its volunteer orientation.

Foster care to the rescue

If there’s been any kind of silver lining for local animal adoption agencies, it’s been their expanded use of foster homes, which have helped alleviate all of the issues detailed above: behavioral problems with dogs, an explosion of kitten and puppy births, and staffing issues.

“Our foster program has been wildly successful and allowed us to have record-setting intake numbers this summer, because we had 200 families in town open their doors to take something in,” says Johnston of the Asheville Humane Society. The shelter had neonatal kittens that needed to be bottle-fed as well as weeks-old kittens that weren’t ready to trust humans yet. Foster caregivers were able to put in the time to get those animals ready for adoption.

Similarly, many of the dogs with behavioral problems were placed with experienced foster families to see if they could thrive outside the animal shelter’s high-energy environment. “There’s hundreds of animals there. There’s barking, there’s anxiety in the air,” she notes. “You can sometimes see a totally different side of that dog in a home setting.”

COVID-19’s impacts on the Blue Ridge Humane Society’s operations inspired the organization to rethink the way it handles homeless animals, says Prodrick. The agency asked the community for help fostering dogs and cats and was overwhelmed by the response.

Blue Ridge soon realized that it could house 50% to 90% of its animals in foster homes, helping ease space and staffing shortages. Like Johnston, Prodrick says foster caregivers can provide valuable information on how an animal interacts in a domestic environment. That makes finding an appropriate permanent home much easier.

Brother Wolf saw an increase in foster volunteers when the pandemic forced people to stay home. The organization relies heavily on foster homes for a variety of reasons, says Fieser. Some animals are too young to be adopted; others may be recovering from a medical condition or are stressed and need to decompress. Last year, the group made 1,498 such placements with 605 volunteer hosts.

That success has come at a price, however.

“Many of our foster homes who have been going nonstop during the pandemic are now feeling fatigued and are needing to take a break,” Fieser explains. To compensate, the organization has stepped up its recruitment efforts. Foster caregivers can commit to as little as 10 days, and Brother Wolf provides all of the supplies.

For her part, Johnston credits community and volunteer support with helping the Asheville Humane Society get through the last 20 months. “We don’t turn away any animal for any reason, and we were still able to deal with this in the face of all this adversity,” she points out. Despite the challenges that lie ahead, she sums up the situation nicely: “The fact is, our team has been crushing it.”

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