Shuttering of animal shelters prompts surge in pet fostering amid pandemic

Adoptions are also up as people respond to the coronavirus crisis by volunteering to help give a dog a home

Paul Shapiro and his wife, Toni Okamoto, weren’t planning to become pet owners. But as the coronavirus continued to spread throughout California, the businessman and author knew they had to act to support a local shelter in Sacramento forced to close because of quarantine orders.

“They needed immediate fosters to come down that day, so since my wife worked from home she just got in the car and drove there immediately,” he said. “You pulled up and they put a dog in your car. It was that dire.”

Now, they are foster parents to a two-year-old pitbull name Eddie. Shapiro is among thousands of volunteers who answered the call of animal shelters nationwide to foster a pet amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic. Before, they were, as he puts it, “pet lovers who never owned pets”. Although the Humane Society of the US called on states to declare shelters essential services, many rescues have had to shut down. Social distancing protocols, including bans on public gatherings where adoption campaigns are often held, have forced others to limit public access.

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In recent weeks, many have also made online appeals for help in taking care of animals because their owners have fallen sick.

The result is a surge in pet fostering and adoptions.

“They talk about having more time on their hands, wanting a distraction and to do some tangible good,” said Tamela Terry, president of Maryland’s Humane Society of Prince George’s County, located just outside Washington DC, which has seen just such a spike. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), an estimated 6.5 million dogs and cats nationwide enter animal shelters every year. Nearly 1.5 million are euthanized.
Foster programs run by the ASPCA in New York City and Los Angeles have now experienced a nearly 70% increase in animals being fostered, according to the Daily Beast. The number of animals needing homes is likely to climb, said Susan Schroeder, of owner Bronx Tails cat rescue in New York City. The nationwide shutdown of non-essential businesses falls at the start of “kitten season”, when un-spayed cats go into heat. Just two weeks prior, the contractor Schroeder used for spay and neutering services shut down due to the restrictions. “We’re starting to see the mega-events that allow us to showcase these kittens or strays in the spring get cancelled,” Schroeder said.

Most animals are creatures of habit. It will be important to develop a consistent schedule to follow with your new pet. Potty breaks at regular intervals, feeding at the same time(s) every day, playtime, walks – everything needs to be scheduled. At first, this can seem overwhelming but soon enough, you and your new pet will be on the same schedule.

Evidence shows that pets are not likely to contract or transmit coronavirus. But fear of patients surrendering their pets or returning them once their lives return to normal has some organizations scrutinizing applicants a bit harder.

“Because there’s an increased interest from people we don’t know, we’re making sure we vet each applicant to talk to them about what fostering really means,” Schroeder said. She had received 15 applications in just one day.

Paul Shapiro and Eddie.


Paul Shapiro and Eddie. Photograph: Courtesy of the family

“Some people have no cat experience and are first-fosters so we try to find a friendlier cat and reserve those with unique needs with fosters who are more experienced.”

Terry, of the Humane Society of Prince George’s County, is encouraging would-be foster or adoptive parents to be realistic. “I’d caution anyone other than temporary fosters to think carefully about what their normal life can sustain,” Terry said. “We don’t want to be overwhelmed in a few months with returned animals because people mistakenly took on more than they could manage.” Back in Sacramento, Shapiro swiped through a gallery of photos with his new, temporary companion. In the eight days since bringing him home, Eddie had remained loyally at Shapiro’s side during miles-long walks and at his new home.

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“I named him after my grandfather who meant so much to me,” Shapiro said. “Looking at this photos and how much we’ve bonded, I’m pretty sure that ‘temporary’ will change once this is all over.”

Shapiro describes Eddie as very calm and reserved. When another dog tried to bite him in the park, he didn’t react. He likes to curl up against Paul’s head. A few days after first speaking to the Guardian, Shapiro sent an update: he and his wife had decided to permanently adopt Eddie.