As the novel coronavirus pandemic rages on, homeless people may be facing bleak prospects in Chicago, but not homeless pets. In the days before Governor J.B. Pritzker issued his stay-at-home order and in the weeks since, local animal shelters have been inundated with demand to foster and adopt dogs, cats, rabbits, lizards, roosters, and every other available critter. The number of available pets has dwindled to historic lows even as animal shelters (deemed by the state to be an essential service) have continued to take in new animals. However, animal rescues have also seen a decline in the charitable donations that keep their operations afloat.
“Adoptions are crazy through the roof and donations have stopped, they’ve basically come to a screeching halt,” says Abby Smith, director of the Edgewater-based Felines and Canines. “The demand for animals is higher than it’s ever been because people are home now and they have the time and they’re lonely.”
Since the shelter-in-place order, Smith has had to lay off three part-time staffers in her 30-worker organization and restructure operations to handle the unprecedented volume of applications to adopt cats and dogs. Most of the shelter’s animals are rescues from Alabama that are brought to Chicago once a week.
“We post [information about the dogs] on our Facebook page on Saturday,” Smith explains. “For every 20 dogs we post we’ll get about 115 applications. And then on Sunday we review applications. Monday we do a phone interview. And then Wednesday and and Thursday people pick up the animals and start a weeklong foster-to-adopt. At the end of the week they finalize the adoption.” On Wednesday, Smith expected 30 dogs and eight cats to arrive from Alabama. All the dogs were placed in new homes within a day. Cat adoptions are by appointment with the shelter, so they can arrange for people to come one at a time to comply with social distancing protocols.
Smith says her organization is taking “painstaking care” in matching animals with adopters to reduce the likelihood of returns. She says many of the interested adopters say they’d been considering getting a pet for a while but couldn’t find a good time to engage with the process until now. “We’re pretty confident that our people are solidly making this decision now,” she says. “Of the 63 dogs we’ve placed in the last three weeks only two were not good fits.” No cats have been returned to the shelter since the lockdown started.
Larger shelters are experiencing a similar influx of interest in fostering pets temporarily as well as permanent adoptions. “We were able to place hundreds of animals in foster homes prior to the shelter-in-place order,” says Julia Poukatch, a spokeswoman for PAWS Chicago, which has also created a virtual adoption process and only allows scheduled in-person meetings with animals now. “Last I heard we had 6,000 people who were interested in becoming foster parents.” Poukatch notes that PAWS has been able to even place pets with complex health needs who generally appeal less to adopters.
In response to the pandemic, and in anticipation of some people needing to relinquish their pets because of illness, PAWS launched a crisis foster care service. Like its smaller counterparts, however, PAWS has seen a decline in financial donations, with fundraising down by 40 percent in March. Poukatch says the organization is concerned about its long-term financial stability.
Like PAWS, the Anti-Cruelty Society has had to cancel its major annual fundraising event and move its outreach to donors online. While adoption fees are a source of revenue for these organizations, most of the operating funds come from charitable contributions. ACS chief program officer Lydia Krupinski says it’s been a relief to see available animals dwindle. “We were expecting to get a pretty intense wave of animals coming into the system during the pandemic . . . Thankfully that hasn’t happened.” ACS, too, has seen an uptick of interest in fostering and adoptions, and is continuing to operate an emergency pet care program, providing free shelter to pets for up to 30 days if their owners are displaced from their homes or hospitalized.
“We’re in a position where we don’t have as many animals at the shelter as we normally do, so we’re able to focus more on being a resource and safety net for people who have been hospitalized,” Krupinski says. ACS has also expanded its free pet supply delivery program, which is typically designed to help low-income senior citizens, to anyone in Chicago who needs help caring for their pets. It paused applications after receiving more than 4,000 requests in 72 hours, but Krupinski says they plan to open the program to more applicants soon. “If people can provide for their pets they won’t have to give them to us. So the ultimate goal is to keep the human-animal bond intact.”
Animals who’ve been abandoned or rescued from dangerous conditions are typically taken into the city’s animal shelter, run by the Department of Animal Care and Control. Private shelters like ACS serve in a backup capacity to handle overflow. But the city’s shelter, too, has hit an all-time low of pets available for adoption since the shelter-in-place order. During the second week of April, the city shelter (which also provides free food and veterinary referrals to people in need) ran out of adoptable pets completely. On Wednesday, the city shelter had just 55 animals—47 dogs, six cats, and two birds—according to spokeswoman Jenny Schlueter. Last year on April 15 the shelter had 268 animals.
“I think all the pets are so spoiled, our dog just thinks this is the greatest thing ever,” says Marcia Coburn of life under lockdown. She runs the nonprofit Red Door Animal Shelter in Rogers Park, which specializes in rabbits as well as cats and dogs and has also switched to an online adoption process. “We’re getting like 100 percent more applications for cats and rabbits,” Coburn says. “We have maybe 25 rabbits that are adoptable now. That is really low. We have up to 70 at a time usually . . . This [pandemic] has heightened people’s interest in having animal companionship.” Like all the other shelters interviewed for this story, Red Door takes any of its animals back if an adopter changes their mind, but they haven’t had a single pet returned since the lockdown. v