COVID Diaries: Shelter finds silver lining in response to pandemic, pivots approach to serving animals and humans alike

  • Second Chance Humane Society Shelter Director Elizabeth Kirwin pets Remy, a stray puppy who was one of only two dogs staying at the shelter kennel on April 16. Photo by Erin McIntyre
    Second Chance Humane Society Shelter Director Elizabeth Kirwin pets Remy, a stray puppy who was one of only two dogs staying at the shelter kennel on April 16. Photo by Erin McIntyre
  • Second Chance Humane Society Shelter Director Elizabeth Kirwin holds Remy, one of only two dogs staying in the shelter kennel on April 16. Photo by Erin McIntyre
    Second Chance Humane Society Shelter Director Elizabeth Kirwin holds Remy, one of only two dogs staying in the shelter kennel on April 16. Photo by Erin McIntyre
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ABOUT THIS PROJECT

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, a coalition of Colorado journalists already had been talking about how to better serve the public by collaborating and sharing stories. The urgency of the situation accelerated the work. More than 40 Colorado news organizations -- newspapers, TV, radio and digital outlets -- are now sharing their reporting through the Colorado News Collaborative, COLab for short. And on April 16, 22 outlets joined together to report on the impact of the pandemic on Coloradans. The result: COVID Diaries Colorado, stories of grit, ingenuity and hope. Click on the map at the bottom of the story for more stories.

 

The kennel where Second Chance Humane Society keeps its dogs was eerily silent, the floor gleaming.

 

They had 50 dogs in their shelter inventory when the pandemic started, and 28 cats. On April 16, they only had seven cats living at the shelter and two dogs in the kennel.

 

It's not because the animals were all adopted or euthanized – it's because Shelter Manager Elizabeth Kirwin and others at Second Chance worked to clear the shelter and place pets in foster homes to prepare for COVID-19.

 

When it was clear that the shelter needed to prepare for the worst, they did. Emptying the shelter and spreading the animals out across three counties in foster homes was a way of not only making sure they had room at the shelter for animals that couldn't go anywhere else, but also a way to prepare for staff getting sick, for pet owners in the community needing emergency shelter for pets if they had to be hospitalized with the virus. They also knew if they stayed open while other shelters closed and stopped accepting strays, they needed to prepare for an influx. And this increased demand came when Second Chance had to shutter its thrift stores, which provide roughly 75 percent of the shelter's funding. This blow contributed much of the human cost of the pandemic – furloughs for the thrift store staff.

 

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

 

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.

 

Second Chance anticipated this and applied for a grant from the Good Neighbor Fund to buy more than 400 bags of pet food, anticipated to arrive the next week. The food will help supply area shelters, foster homes and pet owners with food to keep animals fed and in homes.

 

The silver lining here for Kirwin is that Second Chance has proven it can pivot and make it possible to keep animals in homes with the humans they've bonded with or in foster homes, for the most part, where they thrive. Kirwin is hoping this is something that sticks.

 

"A whole new model could come out of this to keep the shelters empty," she said.

 

Shelter staff placed one dog who had been living at the shelter for months – a husky named Wilma – into a foster home after she was adopted and returned after one day by another family.

 

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

 

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

 

This story is a part of COVID Diaries, powered by the Colorado News Collaborative, or COLab. The Ouray County Plaindealer joined this historic collaboration with more than 20 other newsrooms across Colorado to better serve the public.