3 ways that animal shelters are changing for the better in the era of COVID-19

By Julie Castle

This past weekend, during one of his daily COVID-19 press conferences, New York governor Andrew Cuomo reminded us of one simple, beautiful fact: If you don’t change, you don’t grow.

Finding the silver lining to any challenging or tragic situation, let alone a global pandemic like the one we’re currently facing, can feel impossible, if not downright wrong. But the real change-makers in this world are those who turn bad experiences into learning ones. In the animal sheltering world and the no-kill movement, we talk a lot about the importance of embracing change — and that’s because all progress requires change.

Last Thursday, Best Friends hosted a virtual town hall with animal services leaders from around the country. What these incredible people had to say about what their teams have learned over the last several weeks was profound. It drove home three general themes that we’re witnessing throughout our professional field: the interconnectedness of animal services and human services, the powerful long-term potential of pet foster programs, and the magic that happens when you ask for help and remove unnecessary barriers to lifesaving.

The interconnectedness of animal services and human services

During the town hall, both Denise Deisler and Risa Weinstock, the chief executive officers for Jacksonville Humane Society and Animal Care Centers of NYC, respectively, had essential points to make about the vital role of social safety-net programs, along with the importance of collaboration among animal services, human health services, and local and state governments.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, Denise has made sure that Jacksonville Humane has been a part of human health services conversations, to better inform the humane society’s own decision-making around supporting pet owners and adjusting shelter operations, something every shelter should be finding a way to do. She noted that local United Way 211 operators now ask callers if they have a pet who is in need of help or support. In addition, her organization is exploring opportunities for having an in-house social services staff member, since issues or needs related to pets can often mean issues or needs related to people.

Risa also highlighted the importance of social services and the need to support people to keep them and their animals safe. She eloquently pointed out that (1) we don’t want people in a situation where helping their pets means endangering their own lives, and (2) for people who do get sick, “the rainbow at the end of all of this” has to be that they can come back to their pets when they’re better, because that’s what local animal groups and shelters are for.

As a result of that type of thinking and collaboration among the mayor’s office and local and national groups, a COVID-19 pet hotline was created in New York City last week to ensure that people in New York can get the help they need for their animals while also keeping themselves safe.

The untapped potential of pet foster programs

As the pandemic unfolded, animal welfare organizations around the country didn’t miss a beat when it came to expanding their foster programs swiftly to get more pets into homes and out of shelters. True to form, everyone who joined last week’s town hall confirmed that, for animal shelters, bigger and better foster programs are proving to be the silver lining to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Shannon Wells, the executive director at Lawrence Humane Society in Kansas, conceded that, although staff knew they needed one, her shelter had done little to nothing with their foster program prior to the crisis. Now, according to Shannon, 90% of the pets in the shelter’s care are in foster homes and, from an organizational progress perspective, the pandemic has weirdly become the best thing that could have happened to the animals at the shelter. As she put it, “This forced us out of a rut and into creative out-of-the-box thinking.”

That’s the best thing we all can do when faced with a crisis or challenge of this magnitude: Use it as an opportunity to do something good. Learn from it. Grow from it.

Emily Klehm, the chief executive officer at South Suburban Humane Society in Chicago, echoed that sentiment and then some. She said, “This has allowed us to open up a whole new world where foster families can be really engaged. Adoption counselors are now adoption facilitators between people who love that pet (in foster homes) and people who want to love that pet (in adoptive homes).” How great is that?

Now, her organization has foster volunteers introducing their foster pets to potential adopters via Zoom calls. And, apparently, what’s amazing about it is how “authentic” it feels compared to more traditional adoption conversations in a shelter.

Community engagement and accepting help from others

Another positive thing that has come out of this crisis is the reminder (or for some, the realization) that animal welfare groups need to look to one another for best practices and professional guidance, and we need our communities’ support in order to help pets and people.

As the director of Memphis Animal Services in Tennessee, Alexis Pugh emphasized that surviving COVID-19 means turning to national animal services networks like the National Animal Care and Control Association (NACA) and the larger animal welfare community for support. As she noted: “Having national messaging and guidance made us feel like we weren’t on an island, and that was huge for us.”

Executive director Terri Rockhold and her lifesaving team at Fresno Humane Animal Services in California had to systematically redefine nearly every aspect of their operations because of their small staff, unique location and heavy reliance on transporting pets up north to Washington for adoption. And now they’re realizing that certain things that they’ve been doing on a small scale, such as turning to their community for support and using tax dollars to help local pet owners, should be their focus.

Ed Jamison, the director at Dallas Animal Services in Texas, explained that the animals in foster care are now getting adopted more quickly, simply because the organization decided to blow the doors off their programming and ditch any unnecessary barriers to adoption.

The tragic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are substantial and far-reaching, of course, and will continue to be so for a long time. But counteracting that tragedy is what we’re learning from this experience — that the changes we’re all making are helping us to grow and contribute to the greater good.

Hats off to these tremendous animal welfare leaders, and countless others like them around the country, who are writing our field’s silver-linings playbook at such a critical time.

Best Friends’ COVID-19 town halls are hosted every Thursday evening at 6 P.M. EST and feature expert conversations about the most pressing lifesaving topics of the week.


Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society