Animal shelters scramble to meet adoption demand absent volunteers, in-person visits
Humane Society Silicon Valley staff members are adjusting under the new shelter-in-place orders. Photo courtesy of Humane Society Silicon Valley.

Adapting to the coronavirus pandemic has required staff members at Silicon Valley’s animal shelters to do work usually performed by volunteers as they rush to keep up with the heightened demand for animal adoptions amid shelter-in-place restrictions.

While shelters struggle to retain volunteers, like many nonprofits, there is a silver lining. Sheltering-in-place has resulted in an increased interest in adoptions, which are now done virtually.

Humane Society Silicon Valley closed its doors and adoption program after Santa Clara County issued a shelter-in-place order in mid-March to slow the spread of the virus. The shelter reopened with virtual adoptions on April 7 but had to close virtual appointments to see animals a week later to catch up on processing 853 adoption requests.

“We saw a big spike in the number of people interested in adopting, but because of limitations in how we do adoptions now, it’s a slower process,” said Stephanie Ladeira, HSSV’s chief of philanthropy and community development.

During the new virtual appointments, people can see up to three animals through a Zoom meeting. Once they’ve decided on a pet, they can arrange to pick it up the same day or the next day.

“One of the few blessings we can find at this time is that people who normally don’t have time to acclimate a dog to their household have time now,” Ladeira said, referencing the county’s stay-home order, which has now been extended to May 31.

Colin Thompson and his family on Tuesday had a 30-minute conversation with an adoption counselor and a video meet-and-greet with the dog, “and that was it,” Colin said.

“We were all piled around the computer trying to see her,” he said. “She was running around the playpen and came and sniffed the screen. It was pretty cute. We’ve been able to hang out at home and spend time with her. We’re very happy.”

Another new pet owner during the coronavirus, Ricardo Almeida, was skeptical about going through the adoption process online. But Almeida said he appreciated the adoption counselor providing an overview of the history, temperament, health and behaviors of the puppies he was interested in.

Because of the coronavirus, Almeida waited in his car as an adoption counselor brought the puppy out in a crate. Almeida said it was a short process with minimal human touch points.

Helping pet owners during the pandemic

To help families facing financial hardship because of the coronavirus crisis, HSSV has expanded its Pet Pantry Program, which provides pet food to owners who cannot afford it.

“People are having to make choices to feed their human families or their furry families,” Ladeira said.

To support the needs of those struggling while sheltering in place, Hill’s pet food is delivering 600 to 1,000 pounds of grub to the shelter each week. People can sign up online to receive pet food by clicking here.

HSSV is also ramping up its work providing pet vaccinations, food, leashes and collars to high-risk homeless people going into shelters. They also provide pet food and medical aid.

The shelter’s emergency boarding program is available for people who’ve lost their home, have been diagnosed with COVID-19, are caring for someone with the disease or working long hours at a health care facilities or other emergency businesses.

Reducing capacity at shelters

Humane Society Silicon Valley moved its animals to foster homes to provide room for other shelters in need. With fewer animals needing assistance, the staff is taking on volunteer tasks like socialization, dog walking and kitten washing.

The City of San Jose Animal Care Center is also closed to the public, but it’s still operating some programs, like animal control calls, reclaiming lost pets, virtual adoptions and kitten fostering.

“Our officers are out in field, wearing masks and PPEs, and they’re being extra cautious with who they approach and what kind of calls they go out to,” said Julie St. Gregory, a spokesperson for the center.

Although they’re no longer taking in healthy stray cats, officials said they’re picking up healthy stray dogs and injured animals.

“We picked up a few dogs whose owners were taken to the hospital for suspected COVID-19,” St. Gregory said. “We had to bring those dogs back to the shelter and quarantine them.”

The San Jose Animal Care Center was recognized as one of the best COVID-19 managed shelters in the country, reducing its onsite capacity to below 20 percent. The shelter usually has 300 to 600 animals this time of year. As of Tuesday, the city shelter had 51 animals.

Due to the reduced number of animals at the shelter, only one veterinarian, health care attendant and limited staff come in every other day. Although there are no volunteers, animal care attendants work daily.

One of the shelter’s concerns during COVID-19 is making room for pets whose owners have died from the virus. That’s why it worked so hard to clear the shelter of animals to make room.

“One time we were down to 24 (animals),” St. Gregory said. “We’re the largest shelter under one roof on the west coast, so to clear it out is really a feat.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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