At animal shelter, a sublime silence

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Second Chance places more pets in foster homes to prepare for challenges created by pandemic

  • Cherie Adelle of Montrose walks Dazzle, a husky-American bulldog mix. Dazzle has been staying in a foster home and shelter staff are arranging visits for potential adopters at Second Chance Humane Society in Ridgway. The shelter emptied its kennels when coronavirus hit, placing the majority of its population in foster homes.
    Cherie Adelle of Montrose walks Dazzle, a husky-American bulldog mix. Dazzle has been staying in a foster home and shelter staff are arranging visits for potential adopters at Second Chance Humane Society in Ridgway. The shelter emptied its kennels when coronavirus hit, placing the majority of its population in foster homes.
  • Second Chance Manager Elizabeth Kirwin holds Remy, a stray puppy found in Montrose County in April. The shelter has worked to keep pets in homes, even to the point of providing food for owners who were at risk of relinquishing their animals because they cannot afford to feed them.
    Second Chance Manager Elizabeth Kirwin holds Remy, a stray puppy found in Montrose County in April. The shelter has worked to keep pets in homes, even to the point of providing food for owners who were at risk of relinquishing their animals because they cannot afford to feed them.
  • Second Chance received more than 400 bags of pet food last week after receiving a grant from the Greater Good. The nonprofit is becoming a hub for distributing pet food to other shelters in the area and those in need during the coronavirus pandemic, even as it navigates its own financial uncertainty with the closure of its thrift stores due to the virus. Photo courtesy Second Chance Humane Society
    Second Chance received more than 400 bags of pet food last week after receiving a grant from the Greater Good. The nonprofit is becoming a hub for distributing pet food to other shelters in the area and those in need during the coronavirus pandemic, even as it navigates its own financial uncertainty with the closure of its thrift stores due to the virus. Photo courtesy Second Chance Humane Society
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The kennel was eerily silent, the floor gleaming. The boisterous cacophony that usually greets guests was absent. It was quiet, just like the empty streets, the empty schools, the near-empty town.

But the lack of barking at Second Chance Humane Society in Ridgway is actually a good thing. Visitors might worry the absence of animals means something bad happened - but in this case, it's evidence of a silver lining of the pandemic.

The animals are still being cared for, and in fact they might be better positioned to find permanent placements now that they've been in foster care for weeks and had a chance to prove they belong in homes.

To prepare for the virus, the shelter expedited its foster-home approval process, whittling down a 1 l/2-page application to four questions. The shelter placed 99 percent of its dogs and 80 percent of its cats in foster homes in Ouray, San Miguel and Montrose counties. The process for foster-home approval changed from requiring home visits to relying on conversations with people willing to take an animal for six to eight weeks and provide a safe home, and the shelter tried to find the best fit for the animals. "We had to trust them," said Shelter Director Elizabeth Kirwin.

Working quickly, the shelter staff tried their best to place most of the 50 dogs and 28 cats at the shelter when the pandemic hit the area. On April16, just seven cats were living at the shelter and two dogs were living in the kennel.

As soon as it was clear that COVID-19 would bring challenges, shelter manager worked to institute Plan B – and though Plan B sounds simple, it included a variety of considerations.

Would they need more room to care for pets from COVID-positive homes where the owners themselves we re hospitalized? Would more pets be relinquished because owners were furloughed and couldn't afford to feed them? Would the shelter need to absorb animal populations destined for other area shelters that closed? And how could the shelter best prepare for the possibility that staff members might get sick and leave the shelter shorthanded?

These were just a few of the pressing questions facing Second Chance amid the pandemic.

As hospitals canceled elective procedures and prepared floors to handle COVID patients, so too did Second Chance cancel elective procedures, including neutering and spaying animals. And, the shelter was emptied to prepare for whatever might happen.

When it was clear the shelter needed to prepare for the worst, it did. Emptying the shelter and dispersing the animals across three counties in foster homes made room for animals that couldn't go anywhere else, and also was a hedge against the possibility of staff getting sick. It also provided an option if a pet owner had to be hospitalized with the virus and needed a safe place for a pet to stay. And, finally, if Second Chance remained open and other shelters closed and stopped accepting strays, the staff needed to prepare for an influx of animals.

All this came as Second Chance had to shutter its thrift stores, which provide roughly 75 percent of the shelter's funding. That has led to a human cost of the pandemic – furloughs for the thrift store staff.

The virus presented other challenges. One woman called and said she needed to relinquish her dog because she couldn't afford to feed it. She didn't have a steady income anymore because of the pandemic.

Second Chance anticipated this and applied for a grant from the Good Neighbor Fund to buy more than 400 bags of pet food, which arrived last week. The food allows Second Chance to serve as a distribution hub and use its Pet Pantry to help supply area shelters, foster homes and pet owners with food to keep animals fed and in homes. Second Chance staff and volunteers are even delivering food to those who need it.

The shelter anticipates other challenges-including some unknowns related to animals becoming infected with COVID-19. Second Chance had a request from a Montrose fam ily involving two cats from the home of a man who died of the virus, after the Montrose animal shelter closed. Those cats, quarantined at a veterinarian's office, present a unique situation the shelter will need to handle.

So far, very few cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in animals, but last week the Centers for Disease Control announced that two cats in New York tested positive for the disease, which caused a mild respiratory infection. The CDC has said there's no evidence animals can transmit COVlD-19 to humans, but it has advised humans who are sick to avoid handling their animals, as the infected cats are believed to have contracted the disease from their owners.

Second Chance's team is confident they can handle other unknowns as they pivot to keep serving animals and humans alike in this pandemic. And they're grateful for the community's support in stepping up to provide foster homes and for their donations to the shelter, especially as the thrift stores remain closed.

"The silver lining for me has been in seeing how our community is willing to step up and offer support for our animals in need - it has been a great reminder on how important animals truly are to our community members and that the work we do really makes a difference and impacts lives," said Executive Director Kelly Goodin. "People are really turning to pets for emotional support right now and recognizing how much pets give us, and that has also been an uplifting result of this crisis."

The silver lining here for Kirwin is that Second Chance has proven it can switch gears and make it possible for animals to stay in homes with the humans they've bonded with or in foster homes where they thrive. Kirwin is hoping that continues.

"A whole new model could come out of this to keep the shelters empty," she said, adding she thinks that's best for the animals. "We should be doing more of what we've been forced into doing."

Shelter staff placed one dog who had been living at the shelter for months – a husky named Wilma – in a foster home after she was adopted and returned after one day by another family. She's thriving now, an example of a dog that just needed the right fit with the right humans.

"It gives them a chance to get into a home and prove everybody wrong – that they are adoptable," said Kirwin.

She's also finding that some foster families have already said there's no way they are giving back the dogs and cats they've bonded with over the past few weeks.

The term for this in the animal welfare community is "foster failure." But that's not what Kirwin is calling it.

''I'm calling it foster success," she said.