What did you do to keep busy during the shelter-at-home phase of the pandemic? For a lot of Tulsa-area residents, the answer to that question came with four legs and fur.
Like many nonprofit entities, animal shelters and rescues played an important role during the coronavirus shutdown in helping their clients — both the human and the animal variety.
Unlike organizations whose products or services are inanimate, animal rescues had to get creative in their assistance.
Obviously, brick-and-mortar facilities closed to the public, but halting adoptions would be bad for adopters and animals alike, so the adoption process would need to change.
And animals already in shelters would still need care, but volunteers might not be available, so foster homes might be needed.
It was a lot to figure out, and it had to be done during a pandemic. And many agencies were already bursting at the seams.
The Tulsa SPCA had an unusually high intake in February — 105% over the same month last year, said Jen Bladen, director of communications.
“We were already on track to increase all of our numbers in Tulsa,” she said. “We had very, very high goals for adoption, spay/neuter surgeries, etc., so when we hit the brakes hard in March, we had to adapt.
“We put 100% of our animals in foster care between the first inkling of COVID-19 worries and March 26.”
Best of all, Bladen said, nearly all of those foster placements have turned into permanent homes.
“As an agency, we had decided that 2020 was going to be the year that we focused on foster care,” she said. “So our goal was to double if we could — and quadruple if we were dreaming — the number of families we had lined up to take foster animals, as well as the number of animals we could put in foster care.”
Staff members just hadn’t realized how quickly or urgently that plan was going to need to go live.
“This was already our goal,” Bladen said. “We’re so lucky that we have the greatest foster program that we could have ever created for ourselves … out of necessity.”
Bladen said the Tulsa SPCA had about 65 animals in foster care as of June 1. Seven were set to be adopted by their foster families within a week or so. The rest were stable in their foster situations, which Bladen still sees as a win.
“The animals benefit from being in a home environment,” she said.
The Tulsa SPCA moved during the shutdown to a “virtual adoption” process, in which potential adopters fill out an application online, talk with a staff member on the phone and pick up their new furry family member curbside.
One down side to this “contactless” process is that some things are not exactly as they seem online. That resulted in a few “returns.”
“Foster families who have chosen to adopt — we have near zero returns,” Bladen said. “With the type of adoption we’re doing — virtual, contactless — we anticipated that those numbers would go up a little, and they have.”
Bladen said she hasn’t seen any trend about the type of adopter, such as whether it’s a first-time pet parent or someone with animal experience. But for those first-timers, even during a pandemic, they’re not alone.
The agency has a trainer who typically evaluates intakes for adoption assessment. Now, with virtually no intakes, the trainer is having phone conversations with foster parents and adopters to discuss any behavior questions, etc.
StreetCats, a Tulsa shelter that takes lost or abandoned cats and makes them available for adoption, saw a slight uptick in adoptions during the shutdown, according to the organization’s treasurer, Linda Holland.
StreetCats’ office was closed to the public, but potential adopters were able to make an appointment to visit with a cat they had seen online, she said.
One of the agency’s chief concerns was how well the match would work if the adoptive parent eventually returned to work outside the home, Holland said.
“We wanted to make sure that these people were going to be able to take care of their cats when they went back to work,” she said.
Angela Ewers of Sapulpa Furry Friends, a nonprofit agency that rescues animals from the Sapulpa animal shelter for adoption, said her group had a few adoptions during the shutdown but not many.
One of the best ways the organization usually finds homes for cats is through the adoption centers at area PetSmart, Petsense and Pet Supplies Plus locations. Unfortunately, those adoption centers were closed during the shutdown, too.
Ewers also noted that Sapulpa Furry Friends has resumed transports, in which animals are pulled from the city shelter and taken by van to other states where adoptive homes are more readily available.
A recent transport went to Iowa, she said.
CARE Rescue, which rescues dogs from dangerous or unhealthy situations to make them available for adoption, saw a tremendous increase in applications, board member Susan Tilkin said.
“Basically, they were about double,” she said.
But that increase in applicants didn’t really translate into a huge increase in actual adoptions, she added.
“We do anywhere from 20 to 30 adoptions a month,” Tilkin said. “That’s very consistent.”
And during the COVID-19 shutdown, “it didn’t change much. That tells us that we weren’t just trying to push a lot of dogs out into homes if they weren’t the right dogs,” she said.
A similar increase in foster applications did help the agency get some of its animals into a home environment, however.
All of CARE Rescue’s adoptions are technically “foster-to-adopt” agreements, Tilkin said.
“We always want the dog back if it doesn’t work out,” she said, adding that CARE Rescue works hard to avoid returns, even if that means telling potential adopters that the right dog for them isn’t in CARE’s inventory.
A big issue for CARE Rescue is that its STAR program, in which inmates at the Dick Conner Correctional Facility in Hominy are given dogs and instructed through a 10-week program to train the dogs, was also put on hold.
“When that class graduated the first Friday in April, we have not been back,” Tilkin said. “That’s eight dogs every 10 weeks that we would normally pull from shelters.”
Another concern for Tilkin was the higher-than-usual number of dumped dogs the agency rescued in April and May.
Although she couldn’t say what was the motivation, she did have a message for anyone in dire straits with regard to their pets.
“If you’re having a hard time, just know that there are options out there,” she said. “We can only do so much … but please don’t leave these dogs stranded.”
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