Have you adopted a pet during the pandemic? What effect has your new furry friend had on your life? Tell us! By Aug. 27, send a couple of sentences, along with a photo of your pet, and its name to firstname.lastname@example.org and your pet could appear in a future edition of The Mix.
A few weeks after the tedium of coronavirus lockdown started to sink in for many people, as staying at home soured into mid-April boredom, the staff at rock ‘n’ roll-themed pet rescue Motley Zoo in Redmond started seeing applications in droves.
Suddenly, the rescue was fielding 10 times more requests for adoption and fostering than in a typical year, all in the middle of a pandemic that drastically changed the supply chain, procedures and availability involved in bringing a new pet into a home.
Before COVID-19, when someone didn’t get the first animal they wanted, Motley Zoo co-founder Jme Thomas used to joke that there was no shortage of adoptable animals.
“I can’t say that right now,” she said. “There is a shortage, which is something we never really thought we would see.”
While national statistics from PetPoint, which collects data on animals in shelters and rescues, actually show a dip in adoptions since 2019, multiple shelters across the country reported higher applicant interest in the spring. Now, months after the initial rise, organizations and hopeful pet owners alike must navigate the conditions of the new supply and demand.
King County is indefinitely frozen in Phase 2 of Washington’s Safe Start plan, and shelters and rescues including Motley Zoo, the city-run Seattle Animal Shelter and Seattle Humane have pivoted to socially distant adoptions using appointment-based systems to limit the amount of visitors.
The effect on the process goes beyond the day of adoption; the pandemic has shifted where animals come from and how they get to shelters. Before coronavirus began spreading, Motley Zoo regularly received transports of animals from different states or other countries to be adopted in Washington. Interstate transports have started to pick up, but international transports are still suspended.
Also, spay and neuter clinics in Washington were closed for months due to the pandemic, which Thomas credits for a rise in adoptable kittens that she’s seen refill some of the capacity drained after the initial adoption surge.
During that first push, the increased demand created competition for available pets and led to more people adopting pets considered harder to place due to age or special needs.
Annie Lennox, a 14-year-old cat with a grumpy reputation named for the lead singer of ’80s British pop duo Eurythmics, and Corey Taylor, a pit bull missing his two back legs and named after Slipknot’s lead singer, have both been adopted from Motley Zoo since the pandemic began.
Adoption applications also surged at Pasado’s Safe Haven, a nonprofit animal rescue and sanctuary in Sultan, Snohomish County, that’s named after a donkey beaten and killed by three teens in 1992.
Through its by-appointment adoption services, the rescue works toward ending animal cruelty — a lofty goal, admits Laura Henderson, Pasado’s executive director. They have an 85-acre sanctuary for abused and neglected animals, they run a pet food bank program and also offer spay/neuter services.
Their adoptable animals come from difficult paths, with cats pulled from hoarding situations and dogs seized from puppy mills in the process of law enforcement investigations.
Animals with special needs or traumatic pasts can be more difficult to place in new homes, as they might not be used to human interaction in the same way a typical house pet is. However, even with the extra care a lot of their pets require, recent months have seen interest at an all-time high.
Surges in adoptions and “foster failures”
Before COVID-19, Pasado’s usually fielded 50 monthly animal adoption applications. During the surge in interest, that jumped to 300 a month.
With many people working from home, potential pet owners now have the space in their lives to nurture a pet that needs a little more care, Henderson said.
“I think what’s happening now is that people are saying, ‘I’ve got the time, I’m going to take the time to let this little cat slowly warm up to me and life in a family home,’” she said.
Fostering is a particularly good idea, Thomas and Henderson said, because it’s a way for those who aren’t sure if they’re ready to commit to an adoption to experience having a new pet in the house. Henderson said they’ve also seen a lot of “foster failures” — where the foster family falls in love with the pet and makes the arrangement permanent.
Michelle Knutzen’s kids were lobbying the Mukilteo mom to become a “foster failure” from the first day the family brought home five tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniels from Pasado’s in late June — including four 2-week-old puppies with eyes just starting to open, and their mom rescued from a puppy mill.
The family already had two dogs, a pair of 17-year-old Italian greyhounds, but Knutzen’s 7-year-old son, Grayson, had been asking his mom for a puppy for a year, and his siblings, Cooper, 11, and Kendall, 13, were fans of the idea.
When the dogs first got to the Knutzens, the puppies’ eyes were barely open; the mom, Maggie, was in bad shape. It took three days to cut off her matted fur, and time spent locked in a kennel sapped a lot of muscular strength from her back legs, which splay out on the floor regularly.
As other families began adopting the puppies, a spirited female puppy the Knutzens named Gidget started to stand out as the one to keep. She’s goofy and loving, with comically insistent eyebrows, a quiet rumble the family calls her “little dinosaur growl” and a particular soft spot for little Grayson.
“She likes to chew on my finger,” he said. “She’s really cute and she’s very fun to play with.”
Knutzen said the experience has been rewarding for the family during quarantine, both a way to get kids actively involved in caring for something outside of themselves and a good distraction from the world.
Another new pandemic pet owner, Andrea Musa, agrees. Musa bought a puppy in early July with her husband, Alex Bigelow, and said having a new animal in the house has helped maintain morale in recent months.
Bigelow flew to Utah to bring Cosmo, an Australian shepherd less than 2 months old, from a specialty kennel in Utah to his new home in Edmonds. Musa sees him every day when she comes home from her work in cell and immunology research and says the small dog — now about the size of a soccer ball — never fails to brighten her day.
“It’s just something new and happy to look forward to,” she said. “He’s always a joy to come home to, at least for me.”
Will the pandemic pet adoption boom hold?
While the initial wave of pandemic pet adoptions has ended and new pet owners are settling into novel household dynamics, the realities of the coronavirus pandemic and the slow process of reopening remain.
The surge in adoptions did not necessarily lead to a financial boost for everyone.
Motley Zoo’s dog day care doubles as a funding source for the rescue, and was a popular service before the pandemic. Money the day care brought in helped bridge the gap where donations fell short — which is necessary because the rescue typically loses money on each adoption and spends more on supplies and care for the animals than it takes in with each donation, Thomas said.
And that’s not even including the special cases, which require extra care at a higher price.
The dog day care closed in the spring as the pandemic spread in Washington. It reopened in early July, but Thomas said attendance is a fraction of what it used to be.
Motley Zoo is trying to recoup some of its losses with Strut Your Mutt 2020, a pandemic-adjusted fun run event where participants track their walks and runs using apps on their phones and pledge money for mileage from now through Oct. 24.
“We’re pretty much throwing all our eggs into that basket,” Thomas said. “That’s kind of the one thing we can really see making a difference and turning the year around for us.”
Another consequence of the rise in adoptions is the threat of a potential sudden reversal. Bringing home a new pet is a serious commitment, and widespread surges in adoption — often inspired by pop culture like television or film, such as huskies after “Game of Thrones” — are frequently followed by a subsequent return of pets once the gloss of having a new furry friend wears off.
Pasado’s Henderson said she was worried about it when applications started going up, but is happy to report that not a single animal adopted from the shelter since the pandemic began has been returned.
Thomas said every animal surrendered to Motley Zoo during the pandemic has been because of behavioral or financial reasons, as opposed to the usual reasons for surrenders, such as a big move or a new baby.
But as the financial crisis worsens and months of unprecedented unemployment build into an expected wave of evictions, the price of caring for a pet could become too much for some. Thomas worries about a potential wave of money-motivated pet surrenders to come.
Henderson said the rise in demand at the beginning of the pandemic means they’re that much more ready to take in the pets in the months ahead.
“When people adopt an animal from us, that means we’re able to rescue the next animal who needs our help,” she said.