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COVID-19 is redefining animal sheltering

For the last decade, all of us at Best Friends have been working toward a “shelter of the future,” envisioning what the future of animal sheltering will look like in this country. I believe we now have the answer.

Everyone knows that shelters are no place for animals. However nice or well managed, they are scary places for dogs and cats, who do not thrive living in cement-floor kennels or small cages with dozens or hundreds of other stressed-out pets.

Today, with many animal shelters closed to the public because of stay-at-home orders, an organic, community-based solution has presented itself — one that could turn the shelter system of today upside down and inside out. It’s a long overdue makeover for a system that has changed little in concept since it was created in the late 1800s.

So, let’s explore the possibilities. With many animal shelters closed to the public and with looming fears of a flood of new dogs and cats coming in because of the economic and social impact of COVID-19, only one door was open to shelters to maintain their lifesaving capacity — their local community of animal lovers.

The result of this forced opening of a new channel for public engagement has been an overwhelming response to the call from shelters and supporting organizations, including Best Friends, for foster homes. Thousands of people are raising their hands to volunteer for this critical role. It has been one of the most remarkable and gratifying events of the last month.

In Los Angeles alone, more than 500 people have stepped forward to help in response to a call from Best Friends. In New York, after foster volunteers helped to clear our SoHo center, we directed people to Animal Care Centers of NYC, which quickly received 2,000 foster applications in a matter of days. That put them on a good footing to face the growing need in the city that is the epicenter of the outbreak in this country, but there is an ongoing need for fosters in New York as there is at shelters across the country, including every one cited here. 

Shelters large and small have tapped into the kindness of their communities to push the boundaries of their shelter system to include the community. And innovation is the order of the day. In Harlingen, Texas, the team at Humane Society of Harlingen (led by Luis Quintanilla, a graduate of the Best Friends Executive Leadership Certification Program) mobilized Harlingen and Cameron counties to empty their shelter between last Thursday and this Monday. If you’re thinking, “Yeah, but it’s not gonna happen here,” think again. It’s happening all over the country — from Kern County, California, to New York, and from Norfolk, Virginia, to Memphis, Tennessee.

As a stand-alone episode, such a response is truly amazing, but in the bigger scheme of things, it points to something even more important. The public has demonstrated that it is ready, willing and able to support the needs of the animals in their community with extensive fostering resources. Likewise, the technology exists to facilitate and manage such networks: qualify foster volunteers; track animals; provide knowledgeable support, including remote veterinary consults; and when the time comes, connect foster volunteers with adopters.

It is true that there will always be some animals who genuinely require immediate placement in a facility, whether because they are seriously injured, have behavior challenges or require immediate veterinary care. That’s a role that an outward-facing, community-oriented shelter could do well as part of such a broad-based system. Rescue groups would likewise focus their work by taking more of these special-needs dogs and cats into their programs.

Understandably, such a system will require human coordination and oversight. But if shelters are no longer positioned as on-demand drop-off points for pets, a segment of shelter staff would no longer have to spend their days feeding animals, cleaning kennels or doing any of the myriad chores that they do today. They can be retrained and repurposed to support and manage broad-based foster networks, so jobs (often union jobs) need not be adversely impacted.

A networked neighbor-to-neighbor community could handle many of the stray animal calls that currently demand the time of field officers, by returning strays directly to their families. With more time available to them, field officers could redirect their energy to providing support to the network, including face-to-face support for foster caregivers when needed. Field officers could also be a frontline resource for pet owners and ambassadors for this new system. Instead of being admitted to a shelter, dogs and cats would be sent immediately to foster homes or, better yet, networked directly into foster care, neighbor to neighbor.

In truth, this is already happening incrementally around the country. Los Angeles Animal Services’ new tutorial on how to care for found kittens during the current crisis is something that would never have happened a few weeks ago.

It also helps to visualize such networks not as one huge citywide monolith that would be hard to navigate and track, but rather broken down by self-identified communities within a given municipality.

The current system of animal sheltering is kept in place by a number of factors, with the biggest being that it is already in place and it is familiar. However, we have an opportunity to make real change to a sector that is long overdue for a makeover. That’s because the public engagement that we’re seeing is driven by genuine compassion toward animals in our communities on the part of everyday folks. And it will be made possible by the capacity for instant communication and a host of technological resources, none of which existed or were imagined when the current sheltering system was conceived more than 120 years ago.

Together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society Julie Castle
CEO
Best Friends Animal Society