Pets and the pandemic: Animal welfare in the age of COVID-19

Posted 6/23/20

What a difference a century makes. When the second wave of the Spanish flu pandemic ravaged Arizona in fall 1918, many people turned on their pets and strays.

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Pets and the pandemic: Animal welfare in the age of COVID-19

Arizona Humane Society Veterinary Technician and Intensive Care Supervisor Laura Reilly draws blood from a puppy in the organization’s Parvo Puppy ICU. [Arizona Humane Society photo]
Arizona Humane Society Veterinary Technician and Intensive Care Supervisor Laura Reilly draws blood from a puppy in the organization’s Parvo Puppy ICU. [Arizona Humane Society photo]
[Arizona Humane Society photo]
Posted

What a difference a century makes.

When the second wave of the Spanish flu pandemic ravaged Arizona in fall 1918, many people turned on their pets and strays, believing dogs were spreading the mysterious and deadly virus, according John M. Barry, author of 2004 nonfiction book, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Plague in History.”

In all, more than 2,500 Arizonans are estimated to have died in that pandemic, which killed an estimated 675,000 in the U.S. and 20 million to 50 million people worldwide.

There are no statistics on the number of dogs killed or abandoned in the Valley in 1918 as hysteria over the virus took over, but Barry wrote in Chapter 29 of his book that while influenza’s impact was light in Phoenix compared to elsewhere, “The panic came anyway. Dogs told the story of terror, but not with their barking. Rumors spread that dogs carried influenza. The police began killing all dogs on the street. And people began killing their own dogs, dogs they loved, and if they had not the heart to kill them themselves, they gave them to the police to be killed.”

Mr. Barry also quoted a passage from the Dec. 6, 1918, edition of the Arizona Gazette that read, “At this death rate from causes other than natural, Phoenix will soon be dogless.”

Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 1,300 Arizonans since March.

Despite reports of the novel coronavirus infecting several lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo, some domestic housecats and a North Carolina pug named Winston, numerous Valley residents turned to pets for comfort as Gov. Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency in mid-March and ordered Arizonans to stay at home as non-essential businesses and public buildings closed.

While the Arizona Humane Society received a few calls from people who were concerned after reading news reports about the infected animals and what it might mean for their pets, Bretta Nelson, the organization’s public relations manager, said callers to the AHS Pet Resource Center, 602-997-7585 ext. 3800, were more concerned about finding resources to keep their own animals, adopting new pets and helping others.

Other animal welfare organizations and care facilities in the West Valley echoed those sentiments.

A receptionist at Marketside Animal Hospital at Verrado in Buckeye said via email she has received no calls from pet owners concerned about COVID-19, and a handful of calls asking about payment plans since the pandemic began.

Lilia Mutka, founder of BARK, Buckeye Animal Rescue & Kennel, said she’s received between 10 and 20 calls about pet transmission of the virus over the past three months, while calls from people asking about adoptable pets, fosters and owner surrenders increased dramatically.

The pandemic’s impact varies by organization, but all agree that navigating the new normal of COVID-19 is a challenge that isn’t going away any time soo

The ups and downs of pets in foster care

The Arizona Humane Society is a private, nonprofit organization founded in 1957 as a small shelter that has grown into the state’s largest animal welfare and protection agency. It works closely with Maricopa County Animal Care and Control, and assists more than 18,000 sick, injured, unwanted and abused animals annually through a wide range of medical, behavioral rehabilitation, surrender intervention, spay/neuter programs, adoption and education programs.

Typically in spring and summer, AHS has as many as 700 pets that need fostering at any given time, and staff is busy soliciting families to care for them until they can be adopted, Ms. Nelson said in a telephone interview. Not this year.

“The first thing we saw was people wanting to foster pets like we have never seen before,” she said. “We have 250 people on the waiting list to foster.”

Many AHS staff members, including Ms. Nelson, have been working from home and fostering pets since the pandemic began, she said.

The organization adopted out more than 1,100 pets from March to May, a 44% decrease over the same time last year, which Ms. Nelson attributed to modifications the organization made to its adoption process to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

AHS temporarily closed three adoption sites in Mesa, Phoenix and Scottsdale and kept its Nina Mason Pulliam Campus for Compassion, 1521 W. Dobbins Road in Phoenix, open by appointment only for those wanting to meet a pet they’ve seen at azhumane.org/adopt.

While the facility can only accommodate up to 36 appointments per day, Ms. Nelson said there is an upside — about half of those who come in take a pet home with them. Additionally, the amount of time pets are waiting to be adopted has decreased significantly, she said.

“The length of stay on our adoption floor for our cats and dogs April 2020 versus April 2019 went from just over 11 days down to just under three days for cats, and for dogs it went from just over 13 days down to just over three days,” Ms. Nelson said.

--- Bretta Nelson

Because each animal needs varying levels of service before it’s ready to go to its forever home, adoption fees vary by pet and are not listed on the organization’s website. To learn more, check out AHS’s virtual adoption matchmaker program video.

A new animal in the house also can mean big adjustments, especially when it’s a puppy, and when AHS began seeing more calls for with training, staff implemented a virtual training program conducted via Skype and Zoom. For more information on all of the service AHS offers, visit azhumane.org.

Maricopa County Animal Care and Control, which operates two shelters, also saw a decrease in adoptions from 5,345 between January and May 2019 to 4,342 in the same time period in 2020 due to COVID-19 mitigation measures, said John Reynolds, manager of the county’s West Valley Shelter, 2500 S. 27th Ave. in Phoenix.

On March 23, MCACC switched to appointment-only adoptions at the shelter. On April 5, officials temporarily closed the East Valley Shelter, 2630 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Mesa, and transferred the dogs there to the West Valley facility.

Those looking to adopt a pet through the county can visit maricopa.gov/214/Adopt-a-Pet to get started. Shelter hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends, and staff can accommodate five appointments per half-hour, Mr. Reynolds said, noting they usually last 30 minutes to an hour.

Adoption fees range from $300 for puppies under 5 months to $25 to $75 for senior dogs (6 and older), and $75 to $150 for kittens to $25 for senior cats (7 and older).

To minimize the number of pets coming in to the shelter at the start of the pandemic, intakes were limited to stray dogs, stray dogs and cats that bite someone and lost dogs being returned to their owners, Mr. Reynolds said.

The county is not mandated by law to accept pets from owners who want to surrender them, so officials suspended owner turn-ins, which dropped the number of intakes from 10,225 between January and May 2019 to 7,554 during the same time period in 2020.

The shelter began taking owner surrenders again in mid-June, Mr. Reynolds said. Owners must make an appointment online, and the number of dogs and cats accepted daily is limited to five each, he said.

As of June 17, there were 232 dogs and 13 cats at the shelter, which Mr. Reynolds said is “quite a bit lower than normal.” The facility, built in 2008, can accommodate up to 400 dogs in nine kennel buildings and 50 cats/kittens in a wing built specifically for them.

COVID-19 changes don’t mean animals are going without help, he said.

Shelter staff have increased efforts to help owners keep their pets at home, and doubled efforts to return lost pets to their owners.

“The last thing we want them to do is to give their pets up,” Mr. Reynolds said of people experiencing financial difficulties during the pandemic, which saw Maricopa County’s unemployment rate soar from 4.5% in February to 12.6% in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When an owner calls or comes in to inquire about surrendering a pet, shelter staff provide them with referrals to organizations that can help everything from pet food and supplies to medical care, Mr. Reynolds said.

Those who call about stray dogs and cats are asked to do everything they can to find the owner before bringing the animals to the shelter, said Mr. Reynolds, who advises starting by taking the animal to a veterinarian to see if it’s microchipped.

If the animal isn’t chipped or they can’t find the owner, they can call MCACC’s lost and found department at 602-372-4598. Before the pandemic, one shelter staffer worked lost and found, but a second staff member was added and call-in hours increased to 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Lost and found staff use a color-coded interactive map, https://gis.maricopa.gov/ACC/Stray/index.html, that residents also can use to search for lost and found dogs and cats. Staff also look for owners through microchip searches, and scour social media sites and groups like Straydar on Facebook as well as sites like classmates.com, anything to reunite pets with their owners.

“These guys are really good at searching online,” Mr. Reynolds said.

Shelter associate Laura Velazquez said she handles between 15 and 20 lost and found calls daily, and works with callers to input animals’ lost and found locations and other pertinent information, and to upload photos.

Staff also inputs lost and found information sent daily by the Arizona Humane Society.

To see the full range of services and programs the county offers, report an animal issue, see the latest updates, or find out how to make a donation or volunteer at the shelter once is reopens its volunteer program, visit pets.maricopa.gov.

Resources for strapped pet owners

There are a number of nonprofits around the Valley that work with Maricopa County Animal Care and Control to assist pet owners who don’t want to lose their pets because cash is tight, including AHS, the Arizona Animal Welfare League, The Arizona Pet Project (AZPP) and others.

Operating under the motto, “Supporting Families. Saving Pets,” AZPP has been assisting pet owners since 2001 through spay and neuter, and Shelter Intervention programs.

“People think about animals as being peripheral ... but they are so integral to the fabric of our lives,” AZPP Executive Director Leanna Taylor said in a telephone interview. “Our focus is keeping pets out shelters.”

In 2019, the organization, which has five full-time employees, served 4,048 pets and their families, at an average cost of $250 per pet family. Through its spay and neuter program, 2,359 pets were spayed or neutered at no cost to their owners, and another 1,689 pets were able to stay with their families through AZPP’s Shelter Intervention Program.

Ms. Taylor said that was just scratching the surface, and needs are greater this year due to the pandemic.

“The need here is tremendous,” she said. “People are struggling.”
When the stay-at-home order went into effect, human services agencies saw a spike in domestic violence, and AZPP saw the need for temporary boarding boarding for pets rise by 40%, Ms. Taylor said.

“We have women and children living in their cars in 110-degree heat” because they don’t want to give up their pets after leaving abusive situations, she said.

--  Leanna Taylor

Under AZPP’s Bonded Family Protection Project, social worker Valerie Kime Trujillo, one of AZPP’s two shelter intervention counselors, is there to help domestic violence survivors and others who are displaced or in crisis for a variety of reasons.

Ms. Trujillo is based out of Lost Our Home Pet Rescue in the East Valley, and works with agencies that include domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, senior care facilies, drug rehabilitation centers, police departments and crisis response teams Valleywide, Ms. Taylor said, noting that Ms. Trujillo is in training to become Arizona’s first certified veterinary social worker. In addition to assisting pet owners, VSWs provide counseling to veterinary care workers.

Social worker Daniel Gonzalez, the organization’s other shelter intervention counselor, normally works onsite at the county’s West Valley Shelter, providing resources to pet owners who would be forced to surrender their pets without help. In the following video, he explains how it works.

Like Ms. Trujillo, he meets with pet owners to assess their needs and connects them with a wide range of resources.

Mr. Gonzalez, who has been working from home since the pandemic began, said in a telephone interview he’s seen an increase in calls since March.

“Usually they’re at their wit’s end. Sometimes they’re not aware of the resources,” he said of pet owners seeking to surrender their pets, noting that as many as 98% of those he works with are able to keep their pets with assistance that runs the gamut from basic pet licensing and vaccinations to emergency care to food assistance and even transportation out of state.

“Sometimes, we have to talk about euthanasia for sick or injured pets,” Mr. Gonzalez said, noting that AZPP can help owners whose pets are at the end of their lives so the animals do not have to suffer or die at home.

“It really gives them a dignified moment,” he said.

As the pandemic continues to alter the way people live and do business, Ms. Taylor said AZPP expects to see people’s needs increase, especially when unemployment benefit increases, and eviction and other protections expire.

“Everybody’s holding their breath. We know a second wave (of need) is coming,” she said, noting the organization expects to see an increase in people looking find pet-friendly places to live, help with pet deposits, and pet food and supplies.

When people began losing their jobs in March, “the need for pet food went through the roof” so AZPP began a food drive and has delivered more than 10,000 pounds of food to shelters and food pantries since April. When unemployment benefits began kicking in, the need for pet food and other pet-related assistance dipped, but Ms. Taylor said she expects it to rise again beginning in July.

To learn more about AZPP’s programs, services and sponsors, make a donation or explores ways to get involved, visit azpetproject.org.

Some rescues at capacity

The realities facing animal welfare organizations are not one size fits all.

While Maricopa County’s shelter isn’t anywhere near capacity, rescues like the no-kill, 15-year-old BARK in Buckeye, which serves between 1,300 and 1,500 homeless, unwanted, abandoned, neglected and abused animals each year, are full and cannot take any more animals.

BARK, whose mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and rehome, takes in a wide variety of animals including cats and dogs, hamsters and mice, reptiles, chickens, pigs, goats and horses, from a variety of sources, including Buckeye Police Department, owners and people who find strays.

Most of the animals are housed at the rescue’s property in Buckeye, and the organization has 60 foster families who take care of puppies, kittens and cats waiting for their forever homes.

Since March, BARK has seen owner surrenders increase by 35%, and the number jumps to 60% when she factors in animals adopted from the facilty and returned because their owners are struggling financially, Ms. Mutka said.

“I have offered resources, but they have refused because they just don’t know what the future holds,”
she said. “It’s sad for the animals because
they don’t understand.”

--  Lilia Mutka

Those interested in adopting from BARK can view pets on the rescue’s website, buckeyeanimalrescueandkennel.webs.com, or at petfinder.com. Fees vary by animal and are not listed.

Potential adopters also can visit pets in person at several PetSmart locations across the Valley, including 555 S. Cotton Lane in Goodyear and 1561 N. Dysart Road in Avondale.

Visitors to the website also can find information on how to help the rescue.

“We always need dog food, old towels, blankets and bleach,” Ms. Mutka said.

Editor's note: Ms. O’Sullivan can be reached at kosullivan@newszap.com or 760-963-1697. For up-to-date local reporting on all things COVID-19, Independent Newsmedia has created a webpage dedicated to coverage of the novel coronavirus: #AZNEWSMEDIA

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