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Pandemic Plans and Furry Friends: COVID-19’s Impact on Houston Animal Rescues

Houston SPCA staff examined this dog recovered by an animal cruelty investigator on July 15, masked-up to protect each other from COVID-19.
Houston SPCA staff examined this dog recovered by an animal cruelty investigator on July 15, masked-up to protect each other from COVID-19.
Photo by Julie Kuenstle, Houston SPCA

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown Houston area animal shelters for a loop just like the rest of us. For the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the City of Houston’s Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, that’s meant dealing with an influx of pet abandonment, virtual adoption meet-and-greets and more.

Julie Kuenstle, VP of Communications for the Houston SPCA, said that the number of abandonment calls that their animal cruelty investigators have received has increased by more than 20 percent since the start of the pandemic. Over that same period, they’ve received double the amount of calls for their 24-hour injured animal rescue ambulance. Since Mid-March, Houston SPCA animal cruelty investigators have worked with local law enforcement agencies on 187 abandonment cases, with 90 cases currently active as of Wednesday, Kuenstle said.

Adam Reynolds, the Houston SPCA’s Chief of Animal Cruelty, attributes the increase in pet abandonment to the financial burden COVID-19 has placed on area families that have made it more difficult to pay for pet food and other supplies. “Despite these uncertain times, there is no reason to leave an animal behind. None. It’s against state law and is cruel,” Reynolds stressed, urging struggling pet owners to instead reach out to their local animal shelter.

She explained that the Houston SPCA expected that the number of calls they’d receive about injured and abandoned animals would increase due to fewer people being stuck in their offices during the day. “People are at home, and they’re seeing a lot more and they want to help,” she said.

In anticipation of an uptick in the number of animals brought in needing urgent care, the Houston SPCA organized a traditional adoption-drive back in March in an effort to get healthy dogs and cats into people’s homes to make room for the sick pets they knew would be on the way.

“We found 300 homes or foster homes for 300 animals, and so we were able to clear our animal adoption center so that we could focus on emergency services,” Kuenstle said.

Shortly after that drive, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued her county-wide stay-home order, which caused the Houston SPCA to pivot to a tele-adoption system in order to limit person-to-person contact. With the new system, prospective pet parents first choose a pet from a list of online photos and videos on the Houston SPCA website. They’re then contacted via phone by a Houston SPCA representative who gives the would-be adopter a thorough rundown of the animal’s personality, background and any health issues to be aware of.

If approved for adoption, the adopter schedules a time to drive by and their new pet is dropped off in their car by a staff member. Kuenstle said that over 100 pets have been adopted through the new tele-adoption system, with only two puppies being returned to the shelter.

For BARC, Houston’s municipal animal shelter, planning for how to respond to COVID-19 started in earnest with Hidalgo’s Harris County stay-home order in late March. Adriane Fadely, Division Manager for BARC’s marketing and outreach efforts, said the stay-home order prompted BARC to require appointments for all of their services to minimize person-to-person contact as much as possible.

“It was challenging,” Fadely said of having to pivot so quickly due to the new regulations, but she believes the new system has been working well. Houstonians bringing in rescue animals to turn over to BARC simply make an appointment online, and then a BARC representative meets them curbside to pick the animal up from their car. The same goes for the low-cost spaying and neutering services BARC provides at their wellness center — pet owners simply wait in their car for the procedure to be finished.

BARC’s pet adoptions have also gone virtual. Due to COVID-19, BARC has started offering remote video pet meet-and-greets over Zoom so potential pet owners can get a better idea of a given animal’s personality and consult with a veterinarian before deciding to adopt. In June alone, BARC has facilitated 335 pet adoptions and has treated 663 pets in their wellness center.

“Everything has gone online it feels like, which has been pretty incredible,” Fadely said. “Even though it’s still person-to-person, there’s a lot more technology involved at this point.”

Both BARC and the Houston SPCA said they’ve limited the number of on-site volunteers who help with their day-to-day operations out of concern for their safety. At both shelters, staff veterinarians and other workers have split into different work shift teams to limit the possibility of the entire team being exposed to the coronavirus if one employee were to be an unknowing COVID-19 carrier.

Interest in fostering pets before they’re adopted for good has also increased at both organizations since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis since so many Houstonians are stuck at home. “It was pretty incredible. We had hundreds if not thousands of foster applications to take animals, and people are still sending them in,” Fadely said.

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“The silver lining that came out of this was really cool, because there’s a lot of people who had never fostered before ever,” Kuenstle said, “but because they found themselves at home, they needed to do something to help. A lot of those folks wind up adopting their foster.”

BARC and the Houston SPCA are also helping Houstonians take care of their pets by donating thousands of pounds of pet food to local residents, both to help folks who are out of work or financially hurting due to COVID-19 or to make things easier for senior citizen pet owners who might be scared to leave home for pet supplies out of fear of getting sick. BARC has distributed both pet food, treats and litter boxes in the past few months, and the Houston SPCA has donated 20,000 pounds of pet food through partnerships with the Houston Food Bank, Interfaith Ministries, Meals on Wheels and Gallery Furniture.

Even though we’ve never experienced anything quite like the COVID-19 pandemic, these local shelters are still drawing on lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey to find ways to respond nimbly to quickly changing circumstances to keep as many of Houston’s animal denizens as happy and healthy as possible.

“We’ve been unfortunately fortunate that we’ve been faced with these kind of challenges before. And so that’s how we’ve been able to be prepared to not panic,” Kuenstle said.

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