The Harrison-O’Keefe family had two big dogs and wasn’t looking for more. But when Christopher Harrison and Tiffany O’Keefe drove past a sign advertising a pair of senior black labs in need of a home, he looked at her out of the corner of his eye. Had she seen it too?
They have a family policy to adopt only older dogs. They have a big yard in Warwick, N.Y., encircled by an electric fence. And with schools closed, O’Keefe, a school counselor, and their two kids are home all day.
When Harrison got home later that day, he saw that O’Keefe’s car was missing from the driveway.
"I knew right away exactly where she was,” he said.
She’d stopped to ask about the dogs.
They brought their own dogs, an 11-year-old Great Dane-pitbull mix and a 12-year-old mutt, over to socialize with the labs, 13 and 8. They looked to be in good shape for their age.
Both labs were taken in from Newburgh, N.Y., months earlier, when their owner had to move. Their rescuer was about to split them up, to get them adopted faster.
Harrison and O’Keefe tend to adopt dogs when the timing isn’t right, but it had worked out every time. This time, all the pieces were actually in place, including that X-factor for many right now, job stability. O’Keefe has tenure, and Harrison is a civil engineer working on a years-long New York City public works project.
“It just seemed like it was something worth doing for us,” he said. The quarantine “was really the push we needed.”
A week and a half later, the blended family had settled right in. The canine foursome enjoys lounging side by side, each on its own cushion, taking turns soaking up back scratches and belly rubs from the kids.
“It’s fun to take them out in the yard, throw stuff around with them,” said Harrison. “They just do goofy dog stuff in the house, too.”
Aren’t four big dogs a lot? “There’s four of us,” Harrison said. “Also, they’re older dogs. Their needs aren’t as much.”
More pet owners strapped
Increased adoptions and fostering have been a silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, said Cassie Kowalchuk, volunteer president at One Step Closer Animal Rescue (OSCAR) in Sparta, N.J. There’s always a surge in adoptions when the weather gets nice, she said, but never like this year.
“People who were thinking about adopting are taking advantage of working from home right now,” said Kowalchuk, who volunteers 20 to 30 hours at the shelter on top of her full-time job as an accountant. “It’s a great time to be home with the animal and train.”
Typically, the shelter might have five or six pets in foster homes, she said.
“People are definitely stepping up a lot more," she said. "I want to say we have close to 20 animals in foster homes right now.”
But there is a flip side. Pet owners, suddenly jobless, sick, or worse, are having to say goodbye to their pets.
“People are surrendering,” said Kowalchuk. “We are trying to take owner surrenders and help with that. We’ve always taken animals from other shelters due to be euthanized first, then owner-surrenders second."
That's because owners usually have a few weeks of leeway. But that leeway is shrinking.
“Last week we took four or five owner-surrenders,” said Kowalchuk.
She read one of 74 emails to land in her inbox that day. It had "Help Needed" in the subject line: ‘Lost job, at this point we have a two-week supply of food, we are behind on vetting, so anything you are able to assist with is greatly appreciated.’”
On top of individual surrenders are those by facilities that do testing on animals. These animals, too, need to be rescued.
"A lot of shelters are choosing to close, so the ones that are remaining open, there’s that much more pressure on them,” Kowalchuk said.
Even if the shelter can't take a pet, they’ll do what they can: courtesy-list the animal for adoption online, or point the owners toward nearby pet food banks.
“Even if we are insanely full and I’m pulling my hair out, I’m still a believer in giving options,” Kowalchuk said.
A little support at the right moment might be enough to get them over the hump, she said.
“If they lost their job and they’re hurting, it doesn’t make sense for them to take a long drove up to us," she said. "If they’re farther away, I try to give them a resource closer.”
At the same time, Kowalchuk said, “we’re in the same boat” as strapped pet owners. “We’re even low on supplies.”
They’re having as hard a time as anyone securing bleach, laundry detergent, Lysol spray, plastic gloves, Pine Sol, and paper towels. Their twice-monthly supply drives at Walmart and area supermarkets, which usually provide most of these basics, have been cancelled through mid-May. Now they have to buy those supplies themselves, and more of them than usual to meet upgraded safety protocol, like a new mask for each adoption appointment. Plus, the products themselves are now twice as expensive. A pack of gloves that used to run between $3 and $4 now costs $6 to $7.
“You go to the store, they have limits on everything,” Kowalchuk said. “I understand why they do it, but it’s hard to get your hands on the stuff you need.”
They have slashed their volunteer crew from about 20 to four to minimize the risk to their six part-time kennel staff. “Obviously they’re so important to us because we need the animals to continue to be cared for,” said Kowalchuk. “We’re trying to still help animals but also keep our people safe, keep the public safe.”
Funding is drying up as big fundraisers like their annual 5K have been pushed back. Individual donations are slowing, too. “March we typically see a bunch of donations right before Easter – we have not,” she said.
“We put a contingency plan in place to do everything we can to just weather it,” she said. “We just hope, hope, hope by summertime it starts to kind of end. But if it doesn’t, that’s going to really screw us. We have our Tricky Tray in the fall. We really rely on those funds.”
Bracing for kitten season
Meanwhile, the shelter is bracing for “kitten season,” which runs through May. There are 60 to 70 dogs now on site but only one cat. That will change any day now. “We start getting a lot of calls” at the first sight of litters of outdoor kittens, Kowalchuk said. “That should be interesting, because we’re going to have issues getting spay and neuter.”
Across the country, spay and neuter surgeries have been suspended to protect people and conserve personal protective equipment that’s in short supply. “Pretty much every vet in every state is considering spay and neuter surgeries elective,” said Kowalchuk. “It’s scary now to see what’s happening,” but for the animals this crisis will be playing out downstream for years to come.
The story varies town to town, shelter to shelter. Some smaller shelters have not felt much disruption, at least not yet. Flo Wilson volunteers at the West Milford Animal Shelter, which is 100-percent volunteer-run.
“We’ve reduced our staff by those who don’t want to come in or are elderly," Wilson said. "If they don’t want to come in because of being scared or whatever, they don’t have to. We make sure there’s coverage.” Other than the masks everyone’s wearing, many of them handmade, “we’ve been running like normal,” she said.
Another shelter, seeing the pandemic coming, started stocking up on supplies and aggressively cleaning house to be able to absorb some of the fallout. “Leading up to this whole thing in March, we were kind of preparing for it,” said Evan Kerekes, the animal care manager at Father John’s Animal House in Lafayette, N.J." We were paying attention to the news. We tried to adopt out as many animals as we could."
They put on a full-court promotional press, eliminating the adoption fee for cats, and ended up adopting out 72 pets, about half cats and half dogs. “People were very interested, kind of gearing up to spend a lot of time at home, so it all worked out,” said Kerekes.
After a record-setting adoption run, they now have only two dogs, 10 cats. and 10 kittens onsite, and a nearly empty kennel at the ready. They haven't seen an uptick in surrenders. “We’ve been expecting it, but surprisingly we have not really seen it,” said Kerekes.
They’ve taken in one cat whose owner’s family reached out after the owner died of coronavirus. A first responder who had adopted a dog wasn’t able to take care of it because "they’re working crazy hours now," Kerekes said. But they found someone else who wanted the dog.
Because there’s not a lot of spay and neuter going on, Kerekes, there are going to be more cats out there, particularly in feral colonies. “That’s very hard to judge, because someone will give us a call, ‘Oh I found these kittens,’ and we take them that day because they’re so fragile.”
For the first time ever, the shelter has begun offering boarding for the pets of first responders, although no one had taken them up on it as of Monday. “We have all of this room in the kennel,” said Kerekes. "We wanted to use it in the best way we could."
They have reached out to Atlantic Health, a regional New Jersey hospital network. “We have the space here, we have an awesome facility, and we’re not really using it right now," he said.
“I’ve been particularly moved by the outreach from the community,” said Kerekes. After the shelter’s March beefsteak dinner fundraiser was cancelled, a benefactor stepped up to match all donations for the year, instead of just matching donations from the fundraiser. People have been dropping off pet food and linens, and calling up to ask what they can do.
“The other day we had someone who had never adopted from us, never been here, was nowhere in our system, sent us a $400 check with a note that this was their stimulus and they wanted to give it back,” said Kerekes. “Little things like that, a lot of people are out of work, a lot of people are struggling with food insecurity, and people are still prioritizing the animals’ welfare.”