The Oregon Humane Society is a quiet place now. The formerly bustling establishment now sits empty of customers, the rooms occupied by animals who are finally catching up on some much needed rest. The rooms empty of people but full of animals are one positive side of the changes to pet adoptions brought about by pandemic. The adoption process for a pet has gone fully online. And that’s a change that Eleena Fikhman, Customer Care Manager at the Oregon Humane Society (OHS) 9, is hoping will last even after the vaccine allows their doors to open once more.
“It’s definitely helped reduce the stress of our animal population, because there aren’t people walking through poking their fingers and yelling and talking to the animals constantly. It’s much more organized,” she says, as she smiles through the Zoom window. “It’s just quieter for them.”
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has created a new environment for shelters and animal rescues, as a need to keep safe and socially distant has met with increased demand for adoptions in Washington County and the greater Portland region. And the result is a mixed bag of positives and negatives, changes to the way shelters operate that, in all likelihood, will be sticking with the pet adoption system for years to come.
How We Got Here
The first three months of COVID—March, April, and May—were definitely the most difficult for shelters. “On March 15th our world was flipped completely upside down,” says Fikhman. “Prior to the pandemic we were open for the public to come in whenever they pleased for whatever reason they wanted to come in. And we had to shut our doors completely on March 16th and figure out how we could still send animals home.”
The restructuring was a quick process for the Humane Society, with their doors opening again just four days after they had to close. Some shelters have been able to follow suit, like Cat’s Cradle Rescue in Hillsboro, and switch over from in person adoption events to online applications. Others have not had the same luxury. Bonnie L. Hays Animal Shelter, the state shelter for Washington County, has temporarily suspended adoptions, with healthy animals being sent to other shelters in the area when possible.
One of the biggest challenges for shelters, especially during the early months of COVID, has been access to important spay and neuter procedures that would normally be a standard part of the intake process.
“Back in, what was it, March-April-May I think, they said no elective procedures allowed and that included spay/neuter surgeries,” says Fikhman. “So we ended up having to decide, okay, we will adopt out unspayed, unneutered animals, and allow people to come back once we can do those surgeries for them.”
While OHS has since been able to resume procedures, for Cat’s Cradle the issue is an ongoing one, and ties directly into a larger problem smaller shelters are facing: vets are getting overwhelmed as well.
“It’s impacted us negatively getting into the vets, because we have been having to postpone spay and neuter surgeries. We have to shop around for vets that will give us the discount that we need,” says Julie McGee, co- founder of Cat’s Cradle. “Our regular vet, who gives us these great discounts… they’re stretched.”
The Toll On Vets
Dr. Michele Bartholomew, a veterinarian at Companion Pet Clinic in Forest Grove, is busier than ever these days. “I actually had to stop seeing new clients in June, because with the number of existing clients I had we were so busy that I couldn’t see all the people I needed to see.”
For her clinic, which does walk-ins rather than appointments, the extra traffic is actually coming more from returning clients than new ones. But this is reflective of a general increase in traffic across the board for vet clinics, with a huge increase in traffic prompting people to start looking for appointments wherever they can find them.
“We’ve seen a lot of people that I haven’t seen as clients for, you know, five, six, ten years. And then because a lot of the appointment clinics are three or four weeks out, they would rather wait two or three hours to have their dog’s ear infection seen than to wait three weeks. So a lot of people are coming back that I haven’t seen for a while,” says Batholomew.
The problem isn’t isolated to Companion either, as Bartholomew noted while commenting on a conversation she had with a colleague who works at a clinic in Hillsboro, “Their surgery appointments are out until the end of June. Mine are out till the beginning of June, to make an appointment to have just routine surgery. The emergency clinic has got a six or seven hour wait most of the time, even at like two or three in the morning.”
The Emotional Burden
On top of logistics, the emotional toll of the pandemic is also starting to show. When asked about what’s been the hardest to deal with since things shut down, McGee hesitates for a second, her otherwise cheerful demeanor dropping to a more thoughtful tone.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that even during COVID they really need to contact a rescue, not just throw their cats out, because that’s what they’re doing” she says.
Even when they do bring them in, the reasons people are giving up their pets can be tragic. Some want to surrender their animals because they do not want to get COVID from them, despite evidence that in most cases animal to human transmission does not happen,” said McGee.. Others simply can’t afford their pets after losing their employment during the shutdown.
“People who are losing their homes, and they can’t take their pets, they lost their jobs, they lost their homes, they can’t afford their cats, so they surrender them. And that’s, that’s a real, that’s been hard,” says McGee.
Looking on the Bright Side
When asked about the overall direction the pandemic has taken Cat’s Cradle, McGee’s face lights up with a smile. “It changed for the better,” she says, laughing lightly. “It really did. Not because of COVID, but because we don’t hold the adoption events anymore. We will eventually, but I don’t think we’ll go back to doing them every single saturday like we were doing.”
Cat’s Cradle, and many other shelters, have transitioned away from in person adoptions by necessity. Moving online seems to have been a boon, as far as streamlining the process of matching pets and the people who want to adopt them. “Doing that from home is more one on one, is more personal, than having them just bum rush you at the pet store… we get to know them a lot better,” says McGee.
Fikhman echoes the sentiment. The Oregon Humane Society is currently running their application process online, with appointments over the phone to make sure the client and pet are a good match. Assuming all goes well, an in-person pickup is then scheduled for the next day.
“Because we’re doing adoptions by appointment, we’re doing matchmaking over the phone, 90+ percent of people that come in to meet a pet actually end up leaving with that pet, because we’re making better matches” says Fikhman.
Things are easier on the client’s too, with online appointments making the actual process of arriving at the shelter a much more pleasant experience. “We would see up to 1,000 people walk through our doors on a Saturday, and if we had puppies wait times would be three plus hours that you’re waiting to see if you were one of the lucky few that’s one of the first in line,” Fikhman says. “People had to get here at 6:00am and wait outside for four hour before we opened. So now people can actually schedule and be more prepared for what it is that they’re thinking they want to take on”
Most importantly, despite the pandemic (or perhaps because of it) demand for adoptions is still going strong.
Charlie Kerns, a senior at Pacific University, smiles cheerfully as they glance down from their computer at Lyra, their new Labrador-Border Collie mix. “Right now she’s on the floor whining because I’m not petting her,” Kerns says, a look of almost bemused resignation on their face. They’ve only had Lyra for a few weeks, but it’s clear they already know Lyra enough to have this behavior be a normal part of their life together.
Kerns found Lyra online, through PetFinder.com. They contacted the shelter on Facebook Messenger. Aside from the actual meeting to get Lyra, the entire process was online.
“When she came out of her pen was a lot more relaxed and was walking nicely next to the handlers […] and when the handler unclipped her in the pen she just walked right up to me and I started scratching her face,” says Kerns. “And then she sat down on the ground and leaned into my leg and didn’t move for about two minutes, and then when I walked she followed me and just wanted scratches and she wasn’t hyper or anything, she was really laid back.”
Kerns adopted Lyra for a few reasons. The main one is to help with their arthritis; their physical therapist recommended a dog as a way to encourage going out on walks. And the current lack of activities seemed a good opportunity to make it easier to get to know their new companion.
“I thought now would be a good time to get a dog because I’m home all the time because of online classes and whatnot. So I’d be able to spend time with her.” — Dawson Oliver
Photo: Lyra after her first taste of a Puppuccino from the campus Starbucks (Charlie Kerns)