Pandemic Wins and Losses

Shelter-in-place orders and social distancing helped clear shelters but present challenges

Written By Lauren Cavagnolo

Most Oklahomans recognize March 16 as the date Gov. Kevin Stitt declared an emergency in all 77 state counties due to the arrival of the novel coronavirus pandemic. It’s a date that also sent many animal rescue organizations scrambling to reconfigure their operations in accordance with new city and state guidelines.

Animal control and veterinarian care remained open during the closure of non-essential businesses; however, animal rescue organizations found themselves making some tough choices. While struggling to pull animals out of boarding and facilities where they were housed, a solution quickly presented itself.

For the duration of shelter-in-place orders, many business travelers, college students and otherwise previously overscheduled residents found themselves at home with not much to occupy their time. Nationwide, foster applications began pouring in to rescue groups, a trend that was mirrored in Oklahoma.

“Overwhelmed is probably not even a strong enough word [to describe] how we felt with the response that we got. Within less than a week of asking for help from the community, we were able to place all of the animals that were in our shelter; it was about 112 [animals],” said Mindy Tiner, executive director of the Tulsa SPCA.

Tiner said the group received about 200 applications and needed to reallocate five additional staff members to assist the one employee who is normally in charge of processing foster applications.

Matt Goodwin, executive director of Bella SPCA based in Oklahoma City, said his group had a similar experience. It received 30% more foster applications from the last weekend of February to the end of May than the same time period in 2019.

“We did have a rush of foster applications, which is amazing, and we are grateful. The majority were foster to adopt, which is great,” Goodwin shared. “For people who have thought for a long time about fostering but thought they couldn’t do it, it removed that barrier.”

Oklahoma Humane Society also received an influx of foster applications following shelter-in-place orders. “We lost count, but we had 200 to 400 people that inquired about fostering in the week following the shelter-in-place orders. We actually had 175 people attend our virtual foster orientation that we launched on March 25,” said Dr. Amanda Elmenhorst, in-house clinic veterinarian at OK Humane.

Animal Aid of Tulsa was able to place about 40 animals in foster homes within two weeks of the shelter-in-place orders, according to Maxine Mackey, president of Animal Aid of Tulsa.

“And it’s not let up believe it or not. What [Animal Aid of Tulsa] did is promote it as ‘You’re home; you might as well have company with you.’ It really worked,” Mackey enthused.

“I didn’t know it was going to be that easy. We have about three or four people who have foster failed. And that’s actually good statistics,” Mackey added. “I do believe most people will keep them. Surprisingly, we do have people interested in adopting, and I thought that would stop.”

Keeping animals in foster homes and out of shelter facilities meant that staff could now work from home or come to facilities on a more limited basis.

“We were able to have our staff work from home and only come in on a really limited basis, keep them safe and keep our animals in homes,” Tiner of Tulsa SPCA explained. “We are blown away by how generous people have been. And really that number would be higher except we have seen a significant portion of our foster families become what we lovingly refer to as foster failures.”

Jenny Price’s family falls into that category. After seeing an Instagram post, the Barre3 instructor and mother of two girls decided to fill out a foster application with the Tulsa SPCA.

“I think that, really, I was most concerned for all of us mentally, being stuck at home and not being able to do anything. I was like, well, some puppies would be really good for that. And puppies take pretty much 24 hours a day to take care of them, and we had that time,” Price said of her decision.

While the first two puppies her family fostered were adopted out, Scout, the third puppy to come into their home, found his permanent place with the Price family.

“It was really neat to see how different their personalities are. It was also really neat to see our little puppy at such a young age and see his personality and realize that’s the one. Even the two brothers that we had were just so different. One of them was spirited; the other one was just really chill,” Price said.

While Barre3 was closed, Price livestreamed classes from her home and said all of their foster puppies frequently made cameo appearances, helping to spread the word about animal adoption.

“I teach outside, and they just run through. All of our clients have had a fun time watching them all grow up,” Price said. “I have a friend from high school who follows me on social media, and I hadn’t even said, ‘Hey, you should do this too.’ I just posted about the puppies, and she went and got one the next day. And then when we were picking up a puppy, I did see a Barre3 client there as well, fostering a puppy.”

Once Scout is settled in, Price anticipates her family will continue to foster in the future. Other fosters have indicated they are only able to help temporarily while they remain home from work and school.

“We saw mostly college students who now had different freedom, so we have some great college students who stepped in. They also do a great job with social media and take great pictures; that’s always great to have,” Goodwin of Bella SPCA said. “A number of people who are now working from home said, ‘My work schedule doesn’t typically allow it; this might only be for four or five weeks, but I want to do anything I can during that time.’”

The Challenges

Despite foster applications being up, actual adoption numbers are stagnant or down for most of the groups. With a lack of community events and festivals and social distancing measures in place, it has been difficult to get animals in the public eye.  

All of the organizations are now relying heavily on social media to post show-and-tell videos of adoptable animals. In-person meet and greets are being conducted by appointment only for the foreseeable future.

Other hurdles created due to coronavirus include the postponing of unnecessary surgeries, such as spay/neuter to conserve personal protective equipment (PPE), the complete halt of out-of-state transports and a drop in donations.

Groups that rely on income from low-cost vaccination and spay/neuter clinics have not only seen their budgets impacted but are also disappointed to not be providing that service, creating worry about the health and welfare of animals in the community.

“That was definitely a hard decision to make. We spay or neuter 14,000 animals per year. For us to stop operating for two months, that’s a large number of animals that have not been spayed or neutered in that time,” Elmenhorst said. “Because we are open to the public, and they are spaying or neutering between 60 and 100 animals a day, they are coming into contact with 60 or 100 members of the public every day. It was too hard for us in good conscience to have those staff members exposed to members of the public. And to be using that much PPE in a day that could be used in a human hospital, that’s why we made that difficult decision.”

Elmenhorst said OK Humane’s clinic reopened to the public on July 6 but will utilize a drive-thru system for drop off and pickup in order to minimize contact. The Tulsa SPCA was able to open its clinic on a modified basis in June and has also implemented curbside drop off and pickup procedures.

Animal Aid of Tulsa closed the thrift store, that traditionally provides a quarter of its budget, at the beginning of shelter-in-place orders. They have begun to sell some of their items online with curbside pickup, but Mackey says the store will remain closed until further notice.

As the state progresses through the phases of reopening, all of the groups are remaining thoughtful about how to keep both the public and their staff members safe.

“It’s so hard for everyone. You want to take care of the animals, and you hurt for people who are going through such tough times. It is such a heavy thing,” acknowledged Goodwin of Bella SPCA. “There have been some really cool stories of people who are still showing up to help the animals, people wanting to volunteer—that restores your hope in humanity through all of this.”

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Breakout box:

If you would like to foster, adopt or monetarily support any of these organizations, visit their websites for more information.

Animal Aid of Tulsa

Bella SPCA

Oklahoma City Humane Society

Tulsa SPCA

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