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Pet Placement Surges During Pandemic

Finding Comfort in the Paws of a Furry Friend

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Above image credit: A masked Wayside Waifs team member has one-on-one time with an adoptee. (Courtesy | Wayside Waifs)

Evie McArthur should have been squeezing every drop out of her final spring at Rockhurst University, enjoying time with friends before setting out for the “real world” as a nurse at Research Medical Center.

Instead, she was stay-at-home stuck alone watching movies and scrolling Instagram. That’s when McArthur came across a post from Unleashed Pet Rescue in Mission, Kansas, calling for willing foster homes.

Sometimes things just work out. McArthur was in the market for a new roommate. 

“I was living in a house with three roommates and before all of this started they moved out, so I was at my house by myself and I was super bored, not working and just doing online classes,” McArthur said.

“I figured, ‘Well I’m at home by myself and I’m bored and lonely, so why not?’ ”

McArthur isn’t the only one. A population stuck indoors during the global pandemic has given pet placement an all-time boost. Just in the month of March, petfinder.com saw its traffic increase by 43 percent. Adoption inquiries soared 116 percent. 

Three children pose with a newly adopted dog.
The first photo with a brand-new family member. (Courtesy | KC Pet Project)

Locally, KC Pet Project has received more than 900 applications to foster. On a good day prior to the pandemic, the shelter moved about four animals to foster. In March, the nonprofit’s number was closer to 20 animals a day.

“We started on March 16, when they started shutting everything down — city events and everything,” Chief Communications Officer Tori Fugate said, doing her best to sift through one of the most hectic periods of her eight years with the nonprofit.

“We started a whole campaign to move as many pets out as we could, either into foster homes or adoption homes. We immediately put all of our adult pets on discount. Any dogs that were 30 pounds or more were $30 and adult cats were $30. We needed emergency fosters to help move as many as we could out.”

As COVID-19 cases popped up in hotspots around the country, the executive team at KC Pet Project paid close attention to what was happening in shelters across New York City. Should stay-at-home orders come down and the shelter, which relies heavily on its staff and volunteers, be forced to thin its team, there would be a playbook ready.  

“When we got to March, we were putting plans in place and we have plans for everything, including if an animal comes in from a COVID-19 positive home,” Fugate said. “We learned from the shelters playing catch up.” 

A push for more animal foster homes has been the story for shelters navigating uncharted waters across the metro.

At KC Pet Project, collaboration with shelters across the country and quick action put 278 dogs and 218 cats into foster homes between March 16 and April 16. In the same period, 481 pets found new permanent homes, 260 of which were adopted straight out of foster homes.

Moving as many animals out of the shelter and into foster homes as possible before Kansas City’s March 23 stay-at-home order allowed KC Pet Project to prioritize emergency intake, while the majority of its population is still able to be adopted from a network of virtual “shelters”.

Only 30 or so dogs remain, sheltering in place at KC Pet Project’s shiny new Swope Park facility, many of them recent intakes or animals that require special veterinary treatment. All of the other former residents are snuggled up somewhere, either adopted or waiting for a new home, enjoying a temporary four to six week foster period with new humans. 

Oftentimes, Fugate says, those four to six weeks turn into forever. What she calls “foster fails” are actually a bright spot in the process. The foster becoming an adopter is pretty common.

“It was the second or third day and I was like, ‘Yeah there is no way I am giving up this puppy,’ ” McArthur said, up early in the morning with her new Australian Shepherd mix named Lila. 

McArthur didn’t get the chance to meet her new companion in person beforehand, aside from a few Facebook photos. Some early shyness aside, the duo has hit it off swimmingly. Adoption day is May 7 — right around when McArthur will graduate with her nursing degree and set out for her first job. It’s a daunting new chapter that she will no longer write alone.

Evie McArthur sits with her puppy Lila in a grassy park.
McArthur and Lila enjoy some fresh air. (Courtesy | Evie McArthur)

Fugate’s team at KC Pet Project considers its move to foster as many of its animals as possible a success. For many, the process provides potential adopters the chance to learn how the animals might act around, say, a sleeping baby, or half-evil resident cat. 

“We get that feedback [from foster homes] and then can present that to adopters in the future,” said Casey Waugh, communications coordinator at Wayside Waifs, which went from more than 1,000 available volunteers to no non-essential employees at the facility with orders in place. 

Waugh told a similar story of her shelter, which acted fast and placed more than 100 animals into foster homes before it became much more difficult, or even dangerous to do so. 

And while appointments to meet pets in person (adhering to social distancing standards) are still available at KC Pet Project, both facilities are now asking potential adopters to meet their new furry friend via Zoom or Facetime — a tactic that Fugate sees revolutionizing the future of her business.

A foster dog meets a potential adopter via Facetime.
A foster dog meets a potential adopter online. (Courtesy | KC Pet Project)

“Cats don’t do well with transition,” Fugate said, to some, perhaps stating the obvious. “If you think about putting a cat in a carrier and taking it back to the shelter where it didn’t like being in the first place, and then thrusting it upon a new family — you’re not setting that cat up for success.”

In addition to streamlining the home-to-home adoption process, Fugate says a deep network of foster homes and virtual meetings might allow animal welfare groups like KC Pet Project to put more resources toward intake and support community-based pet reunification through platforms like neighborhood Facebook pages or the Nextdoor app. 

“We were inundated with calls the first week or so (of virtual adoptions),” said Waugh, adding that it might be too early to tell which, if any, of Wayside Waifs’ adjustments to the adoption process should be further implemented down the road.

She says that while face-to-face meetings with potential adopters is certainly prefered, there is definitely an overarching positive that has come out of these uncertain times.

“I think people realize how important animals are in their lives. Being home and alone can be really doom and gloom and depressing at times,” Waugh said. “At the beginning, when all this was happening and there was a lot of uncertainty, animals really do provide stability. It’s that happiness that people cling to.”

“It definitely helped me,” McArthur said. “I’m taking her for walks all day or working to train her, so it definitely gives me something to do. She keeps me very active as well… I feel like now I haven’t had time to sit down and watch a movie because she keeps me that busy. That’s a good thing for sure.”

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