By Lee Ann Shenefiel
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everything, but for animal welfare that disruption may catapult communities across the country into the future in an unexpected way.
At Best Friends Animal Society, which is a national leader in the no-kill movement, we have been talking for the last few years about the future of animal shelters. Turning animal shelters into community resource centers that support families and their pets, transitioning homeless pets out of shelters and into foster care became the theme of the dream. Enter coronavirus and in real life, in real time, the shelter of the future emerged.
Take for instance the Humane Society of Harlingen and Palm Valley Animal Society that have transformed themselves into leading lights in the no-kill movement.
Before the pandemic both shelters had positive outcomes for some 89 percent of the dogs and cats that entered their shelters. But with the pandemic severely affecting operations it was anything but a sure bet that they could continue their success in saving animals’ lives.
With the shelters basically having to shut down, Luis Quintanilla, executive director of the Humane Society of Harlingen and Mike Bricker, director of operations at Palm Valley Animal Society, through Best Friends Animal Society’s shelter embed program, knew the only hope was if people opened up their homes. But what chance was there when so many people were either furloughed or laid off completely? When people were told to stay at least six feet away from anyone they didn’t already live with to help keep the virus from spreading, when the future was so uncertain, was it even possible that people would offer homeless pets their home as safe place to land instead of a shelter?
“How did the pandemic affect our shelter? Positively, as weird as that sounds. Adoptions, and animals in foster both increased,” Bricker said.
Quintanilla said: “As chaos and uncertainty grew all around the country and our community, people were still willing and eager to open their homes and their hearts to our shelter animals. It was a testament to the goodness of people in the Rio Grande Valley. Everyone was involved. Every resource was mobilized. Even the president of our board of directors took home a foster baby and helped us clear out our kennels.”
Bricker said the response from the public in Edinburg and McAllen was amazing. “The publicist from the city of Edinburg took a couple groups of puppies.”
Quintanilla said, “In mid-March when we decided to brace for the pandemic, our foster population grew from less than 10 animals to nearly 80 in less than two days. In less than three days, our shelter population went from 87 animals to 0. We managed to get all of our animals out through our new curbside adoption/ foster service. Since that week, our shelter population has not surpassed 20 animals.”
Since 1869 when the first shelter opened in the United States, while there have been heartening increases in lives saved, in truth the basic model was the same. Animals that were stray or were losing their home were taken to a brick-andmortar facility and whatever became of the animal depended on the shelter’s staff.
But as Bricker and Quintanilla discovered in the current environment, instead of getting overwhelmed by circumstances outside of their control, people chose to do something remarkable and open their homes and hearts to homeless pets, either adopting them outright or fostering. People are even using their own social media to introduce their foster pets to their family, friends, or their personal online communities to help the pets find new homes. Now, instead of the animal shelter being an animal’s second chance, the community itself is the lifeboat. And the two shelters, which had already learned to rely on each other, strengthened that friendship.
Quintanilla said, “Once we emptied our kennels, our friends at Palm Valley Animal Society were still fighting tooth and nail to find homes for their animals. Just one week prior, our cages were rapidly filling up, so we asked Palm Valley Animal Society for help with our cats. PVAS answered the call and took in 15 cats from the Humane Society of Harlingen.
“Since we had emptied our kennels, there was no question about what we needed to do. HSH took in 20 dogs from PVAS and found homes for all of them in less than 24 hours. The collaboration between HSH and PVAS helped save animals during a time of great uncertainty. The community loved it. That partnership represents the future of animal welfare: collaboration, imagination, determination and stamina.”
In turn, Tina Lewis, who is on the board of directors for the City of Mission Animal Shelter, knew where to turn when the local Petco was closing because of the pandemic and there was no place for the Mission cats that had been in Petco’s adoption space to go. “I called Mike at Palm Valley Animal Society and said, ‘Please help us.’ He welcomed our cats and kittens with open arms.”
And in the middle of all this, the new executive director for Palm Valley Animal Society, Donna Casamento, started work on April 1. “We currently have more animals in foster homes than at the shelter. Since Palm Valley Animal Society takes in some 30,000 dogs and cats annually, that is really saying something.
“What I see is that fostering is the way to go for the future of animal welfare,” Casamento said. “I am excited about this opportunity to engage the community more than ever before in helping to solve the challenges that we are facing here in the Rio Grande Valley. Our community truly is our partner in this crisis. They are helping us find both temporary and permanent homes for these amazing animals. We are so grateful to everyone who has fostered for PVAS and are helping to promote their foster animals on their own social media accounts. One of the great benefits we are seeing is that so many of the animals are not coming back … either people realize that the dog or cat they took in is a perfect fit for their family, what we call a “foster fit,” or they are provided a safe harbor until the animal can be transported to one of our partnering animal organizations in another part of the country.”
From Best Friends Animal Society’s point of view, here is what we see. It has been said by a variety of leaders that the world is permanently changed by this current pandemic. In the case of animal shelters, the “new normal” can be a better world for dogs and cats that need the opportunity to start again with a new family. When a shelter has more fosters than available pets, that is a community where people see themselves as the solution.
As Michael Bricker said: “Fostering is the future. Animals do not belong in shelters and we’re so happy that our community is joining us to make that a reality.”
As we move into the future of finding solutions for homeless pets, our animal shelters are going to need their communities’ support more than ever. The financial challenges for all of us will continue over the ensuing months and that includes the Humane Society of Harlingen and Palm Valley Animal Society.
Don’t underestimate the value of small donations: an army of people each chipping in $5 or $10 a month can make some really great things happen for the homeless pets of the Rio Grande Valley.
Lee Ann Shenefiel is regional director, South Central, of Best Friends Animal Society