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Demand remains high for dogs and cats at Philly animal shelters

The pandemic “has been really rough for everyone, but for shelter animals, it’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to them,” said Justina Calgiano of Providence Animal Center in Media.

Volunteer Nancy Askinas pets Rocky at the Brandywine Valley SPCA in West Chester.
Volunteer Nancy Askinas pets Rocky at the Brandywine Valley SPCA in West Chester.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Gianna Masini spent the first several months of the pandemic feeling isolated in her Center City apartment. She and her boyfriend had talked about getting a dog for a while, but it never seemed to be the right time — until the coronavirus upended everyone’s lives and Masini found out she would be working from home for the indefinite future.

In August, Masini, 24, drove out on a whim to the Brandywine Valley SPCA in West Chester and fell in love with Maui, a German shepherd-mix puppy.

“He’s great for the loneliness,” she said, “and he’s been really a good deterrent” against street harassment and people who aren’t keeping a six-foot social distance on the pair’s regular walks.

Had it not been for the pandemic, Masini, who works in digital marketing, said she would likely still be dog-less, living a life absent of nips during Zoom calls and destroyed toys strewn about the floor but also one without Maui’s adorable face that melts her heart even when he misbehaves.

Masini is one of the many Philadelphia-area residents who have turned to canine and feline companionship to get through the pandemic.

Animal shelters and rescue organizations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey say dogs and cats are still being adopted far more quickly than usual. The uptick in fosters and adoptions began when the pandemic struck in March, and the demand has not ceased nearly a year later. While puppies and kittens are always popular, now dogs and cats of all ages are in high demand.

But do not fear, the shelters note, there are dogs and cats up for adoption if would-be owners are willing to be patient and flexible.

Nationally, organizations are seeing the same trend. Since March, monthly dog adoptions have increased compared with the same months in 2019, according to the COVID-19 report from the national database of sheltered animal statistics, Shelter Animals Count.

The pandemic “has been really rough for everyone, but for shelter animals, it’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to them,” said Justina Calgiano, director of advancement and public relations at Providence Animal Center.

Shelters have overcome challenges, too. Providence Animal Center stopped accepting animals for about a month when the pandemic hit. They began doing appointment-only adoptions in early summer. Time slots were often booked 10 days in advance, she said, and last month they logged 16 adoptions on a Sunday, a number normally common only in their busiest adoption month, December, in pre-pandemic times.

In mid-January, Providence temporarily closed for two weeks after staff members tested positive for the coronavirus. Other shelters have also dealt with these setbacks. The Pennsylvania SPCA headquarters in Philadelphia was closed to the public last week because some staffers had to quarantine due to exposure to the virus.

Unlike some facilities in the region, Providence Animal Center does not have more empty kennels than usual, Calgiano said.

The staff is facilitating more frequent transports from high-kill shelters, she said, and people are still surrendering animals, at about the same rates as pre-pandemic.

At Brandywine Valley SPCA, which has several open-admission shelters in West Chester and Delaware, adoptions were up 15% in 2020 compared with 2019, said marketing director Linda Torelli. At the same time, with people spending far more time at home than usual, the organization is seeing fewer lost and stray animals coming in, she added.

“Our shelters are definitely emptier than they have been in past years,” Torelli said. But “we look at an empty kennel as an opportunity to save a life. ... With all the space that’s available in our shelters, we can help other shelters.”

Like Providence, Brandywine Valley SPCA works with shelters in the South, where there are more stray animals because the warmer climate elongates the mating season, fewer dogs and cats are spayed or neutered, and there are fewer resources and less funding for animal-saving efforts.

Last month, about 90 dogs were flown to Delaware from an overwhelmed Louisiana shelter, where some Brandywine Valley staff are completing a yearlong “embed” program to help the facility.

So while adoptions may be up, people interested in getting a rescue dog should not be dissuaded, Torelli said.

“If someone is going to adopt, it may just take a couple times of stopping by the shelter,” she said. “There are still animals to be saved. That’s for sure.”

At Homeward Bound Pet Adoption Center in Blackwood, Camden County, the open-admission shelter is caring for about 20% fewer animals than pre-pandemic, said director of development Gina DiMarco. Homeward Bound’s foster network has also increased, she said, as some people want to help in the short term but know their post-pandemic life might not be ideal for a pet.

It’s not just the dog or cat that benefits when they get adopted or fostered, DiMarco said.

“You have people who are so lonely and they’re looking for that companionship,” she said. “Feeling as though they’re making something good come out of this negative situation is really hopeful for folks.”

With the coronavirus not yet relenting and many people still working from home, local shelters said they have not seen an increase in surrenders, which many worried would happen after the initial influx of adoptions.

Many people who adopted during the pandemic told shelter staff they’d been thinking about getting a pet for months or years, Torelli said, so she wasn’t particularly worried about a high return rate.

The shelters said they’re working even harder to create support systems for dog owners, so they can prepare their pups for when humans return to more normal work and social schedules.

Providence Animal Center encourages new dog parents to take advantage of their socialization and behavior programs, Calgiano said, or to work on their own to address animals’ separation anxiety.

“It’s not just a one-stop shop for us,” she said. “It’s about them never going into the shelter again.”