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Maranda Weathermon’s costars obviously hadn’t read their scripts. Red kept looking off-screen. Olgierd refused to look into the camera. Mickey got distracted by the audience and Emilio developed a severe case of stage fright.
Flaws aside, they still stole the show with their furry faces, wagging tails and slobbery smiles.
The West Valley City Animal Shelter’s first virtual adoption fair drew more viewers than any other city-produced Facebook Live event. That’s a victory for Weathermon, one of the many animal shelter directors across the state trying to drum up creative ways to get pets seen and adopted during the COVID-19 crisis.
“We’re trying to figure out how to socially distance ourselves from everybody but still be a useful service,” said Weathermon, WVCAS’s director of animal services.
Animal shelters have had to change the way they function in a hurry as restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus have sprung up, sometimes overnight. Potential adopters could still visit dogs, cats and rabbits in the WVCAS kennels last Friday, for example. By Saturday, though, everything had to be done online after Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City both issued shelter-in-place orders.
At the Salt Lake County Animal Shelter, those orders led to the cessation of all its adoption services until at least April 13. Shelter spokeswoman Callista Pearson said the facility is complying with commands from the county to cut its staff to the bare minimum. Other factors also played into the decision, however. Spaying and neutering services had to be temporarily suspended in accordance with a state public health order barring elective surgeries. Plus, Pearson said precautions taken against the spread of the coronavirus, like limiting customers and sanitizing surfaces, became too onerous.
“People would show up with six to 10 family members for an adoption and we also had people in here trying to get pets vaccinated,” she said. “We were having a hard time regulating it.”
Animal Control officers will continue to respond to calls about sick or injured animals and owners can still claim their lost pets at the shelter, with an appointment. Pearson said most of the adoptable animals have been placed in foster homes.
On the other end of the spectrum sits the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter. The Lindon facility has made some changes in its operations, like limiting admittance to five people at a time. But as of Monday, potential adopters could still roam the hallways between its kennels to see prospective pets in person.
Most shelters and rescue groups have taken an approach somewhere in between those two. They tend to be closing their buildings to the public while remaining open to facilitating adoptions. In doing so, they face new iterations of age-old issues: How to get animals in front of potential adopters and, once that happens, how to help them form a love connection.
That’s where rescue groups are getting creative.
“The silver lining to this,” said Temma Martin, a spokeswoman for Best Friends Animal Society, “is that we were forced into revolutionizing, in a way, how we care for shelter animals.”
Martin for 20 years has taken animals to local TV stations for adoption segments on Mondays and Wednesdays. This week, COVID-19 made that unwise. So, she participated in a Zoom interview with one station and sent another a writeup to read on air. Both were accompanied by a video provided by pet fosters. The group has also created a Facebook page for fosters to post videos and comments on adoptable animals, and it is using other forms of social media to get the word out about its animals.
Weathermon, meanwhile, mashed up several ideas she and her staff had seen other shelters try in coming up with the Facebook Live adoption event. It drew 110 viewers, enough to encourage her to film it weekly for the foreseeable future. At least a couple of those viewers later adopted pets, which these days is no simple task.
Potential adopters now typically first meet the animals and an adoption counselor via videoconference. If that goes well, they can make an appointment to see the animal in person at the shelter, usually in a small, fenced pen. Meet-and-greets between shelter dogs and those already in a home are also done at that time, with handlers holding the animals’ leashes and standing at least 6 feet apart.
Asti Manning of Magna adopted Red from WVCAS shortly after returning a too-nervous dog she had adopted three weeks ago from that shelter. She said the two experiences varied widely.
“It was strange in the way that everything was outside and everything was more toward a wall than when coronavirus wasn’t a thing,” she said. “Before I was [standing] more close to the person adopting the dog to me. Now more is done on the phone. It’s sad because there is a lot of panic out there, but I understand.”
Nevertheless, Manning, 21, said she thinks more people will be adopting animals now, and not just because they are at home more. She said it’s hard to ignore the suddenly numerous and impossibly cute videos and photos rescue groups are posting of their cats and dogs.
To wit, prior to closing its adoptions, the Salt Lake County shelter had one of the lowest counts of adoptable animals in its history. West Valley City’s adoptions have been “pretty steady,” Weathermon said. And North Utah Valley cleared its entire inventory of dogs last week and can barely keep up with the demand it is seeing for pets.
But that was last week. Shelters saw slight rise of 2% in adoptions the week of March 14-20, according to a report by PetPoint, a shelter management software company that compiled data on 1,200 animal rescue groups nationwide. This week, however, adoptions plummeted 25%. They lagged 24% behind adoptions for the week of March 22-29 in 2019.
Martin, the spokesperson for Best Friends, a national rescue group with state adoption centers in Sugar House and Kanab, hasn’t lost faith. In fact, she believes those numbers will be back up, maybe even way up, by the time things get back to normal.
Those statistics don’t take something critical into account, she said: the foster factor.
With shelters closed, fosters — people who house and care for stray animals until they are adopted — have become more necessary. They have also become more numerous. That same PetPoint study found fosters have increased 770% over last year. That reflects a 42% increase over the first week in March. In total, 22,506 of the approximately 204,000 cats and dogs belonging to animal welfare organizations are in foster care.
Pearson, the director of the Salt Lake County Animal Shelter, said all of that facility’s adoptable animals have gone to foster while the shelter is closed.
“It’s one of those times where emotions are changing day to day when the situation changes,” Pearson said. “People who are wanting to adopt pets, when this changes again, will they not want to adopt anymore? Fostering gives them the opportunity without the commitment.”
Best Friends has placed 117 animals from 17 shelters around the state in foster care. Martin said the hope is those people will eventually adopt their foster pets or other animals.
Then again, a turn in the economy could convince many of those same people they can’t afford a new cat or pup. Rescue groups are already working to get ahead of those concerns, though. Nearly every shelter in the state has been taking in and distributing donations of pet food and supplies. Martin said Best Friends’ pet food pantry gave away 2 tons of kibble last week alone.
“It would be tragic,” she said, “if we got a flood of animals back into the shelter when this is all over.”