Everyone is feeling the effects of the pandemic. No one has been left untouched. It brings out the best in people and, at times, the worst, as we all struggle with fear, grief, isolation, uncertainty, economic challenges, lost opportunities and new responsibilities.
For companion animals down on their luck, it brings a new and dangerous reality. While municipal shelters sort the sometimes-conflicting pressures of animal care, public health, public opinion, and the safety of their employees, it is generally those animals for whom the shelter was the last chance of refuge who lose the most, as they are increasingly locked out. It brings to mind the question, what is the purpose of an animal shelter?
At the start of our state’s stay-at-home order, shelter populations dwindled as caring Californians stepped up in droves to foster homeless pets. It was a heartening development, and we all hope that many of these quarantine caregivers will choose to permanently adopt, and/or continue fostering in the future. Unfortunately, this is only a small part of the story
Aside from their successful pleas for more foster homes, how have shelters responded to pandemic? Policies vary by facility, but all have had to cut services and staff, and restrict access. Most still allow adoptions and redemptions by appointment, though the animals may go out intact for the time being, as spay/neuter services have generally been suspended. This alone is concerning, occurring as it has during the feline breeding season, and we will deal with the effects for years to come. The most drastic, and deadly, reduction in services, however, has been to animals lost or living on the streets, and those about to lose their homes. For them, the lockdown is now a lockout. Unless dangerous, or gravely injured or ill, these unfortunate souls are not welcome at the “shelters.”
“Leave them where you found them,” is the most common shelter response to citizens calling about stray animals. One family found two cats and twelve kittens near their home in Riverside. They took them to the shelter on Van Buren, and were told to release them in a field nearby. (Upon learning of this, we asked them to please go back to the field and get them. They were only able to find three of the original twelve kittens. We fear hawks and coyotes had better luck.) One of our field volunteers, J, attempted to help a family needing to surrender a pair of house rabbits to the Orange County Shelter.
Outside the locked shelter door she noticed two cardboard boxes, taped shut and sitting in the sun. One contained a single kitten, the other a pair. They had been left without ringing the shelter bell that would have notified the staff. J was able to arrange fostering for one through the shelter that day, but had to care for the other two in her own home over the weekend until foster arrangements could be made. The shelter admitted that had J not rung the bell, the kittens would likely not have been discovered in time to save them. As for the original reason for J’s visit, though the shelter only had two or three rabbits at the time, they would not accept these, and instructed her to release them in a park. These were not wild rabbits. Abandoning them in a park would be cruel, and illegal. (The family was able to keep them a bit longer, so they are safe…for the moment.)
We receive multiple calls daily about shelters turning away animals, telling good Samaritans to leave them where they found them and that they’ll probably find their way home, and simply refusing to consider taking in the pets of those who can no longer care for them. A frequent excuse is that shelter staff is limited right now, and they cannot properly care for more animals. Why is the staff so limited when this is an essential service? With the public only entering by appointment, and areas of access restricted, staff can safely feed and clean. The additional cage space left by so many animals being adopted or going into foster homes is the obvious place to house those newly homeless. In addition, spay/neuter surgeries were temporarily suspended as nonessential. In the shelter, genders can be separated until surgeries can be safely resumed. Leaving homeless pets at large is not only inhumane and a public nuisance, it also greatly compounds the problem as those that survive abandonment and neglect continue breeding.
In our next post, we will explore some of the reasons behind this failure, the organizations promoting such betrayal, and the chilling talk of making lockout policies permanent.
Meanwhile, think about this: California was locked down on March 19. Momma cats turned away from the shelter with their litters in March are likely weaning a second litter by now, perhaps already expecting a third. And in just a few more days, female kittens born during the first week of lockdown will be four months old, and potentially able to have kittens themselves.