Caring for animals during a crisis

How COVID-19 has helped animals find homes — and stay in them

Black and brown dog with soulful eyes

For more than a century, Animal Humane Society has been a safe refuge for animals in need. In that time, we’ve watched the world around us transform. Perceptions around shelters have shifted, attitudes about companion animals have changed, humane legislation has been passed, and our capacity to support animals — and the people who love them — has grown exponentially.

However, our world has never changed as dramatically as it did this year as a result of COVID-19.

Our focus has always been on supporting animals and animal lovers in our community. This spring that took on a whole new meaning. “Supporting our community, staff, and animals meant facing challenges we never could have predicted and making difficult choices we never imagined we’d have to make,” said Janelle Dixon, AHS President and CEO.

In March, the pandemic upended our world and forced AHS to halt many of its lifesaving services. We suspended our transport program and temporarily closed our adoption centers, placing the majority of animals in our care in foster homes. The number of animals in our shelters dropped significantly, but our work didn’t stop.

We continued to take in stray animals and urgent surrenders from our community. Dozens of dogs and cats with unique medical or behavioral challenges remained in our Golden Valley shelter for the specialized care they needed.

With significantly fewer animals in our shelter, we faced a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to challenge everything we knew about providing care in a shelter environment. The lessons we learned will inform how AHS supports animals moving forward — animals just like Maya.

Pushing the boundaries of what’s possible for shelter animals

Tabby with green eyes

Maya is a gorgeous 6-year-old tabby with sparkling green eyes. She was surrendered by her family this spring. While they noted she could be shy, Maya became completely shut down in the shelter. The terrified cat hid constantly. She didn’t want to be seen, much less touched, making it nearly impossible to care for her.

“The shelter can be an amazing place for animals in need,” said Liv Hagen, who manages our Behavior Services team. “Second chances happen here. However, it can also be a uniquely stressful or scary place for animals, especially when they first arrive.”

It’s not uncommon for animals to show signs of stress as they acclimate to the shelter environment. It’s filled with new sounds, new smells, and a new routine which are all unfamiliar. While most animals adapt and settle in within a few days, others need more help and support to feel safe.

AHS is always striving to decrease the amount of stress animals feel in shelter. We’ve invested in unique behavioral programs for shy and fearful animals, trained volunteers who offer tailored enrichment, and two years ago, we opened our state-of- the-art canine habitat prototype, where groups of compatible dogs live and play together. These programs and innovations have set AHS apart in the animal welfare industry, but for some animals, like Maya, it’s still not enough. So we set out to do more.

“Our adoption centers were empty for the first time ever. We had a unique opportunity to experiment with different types of housing and behavioral therapy we never would have been able to try in a typical summer,” says Hagen. “With everything happening in the world, we knew we had a responsibility to make the most of this opportunity.”

In partnership with our expert veterinarians and animal care staff, the behavior team set out to push the boundaries of what’s been considered possible in a shelter environment and create a new vision for how we care for stressed and scared felines.

Cat rescued in Bloomington, MN Humane Investigations Case

Cats typically adjust faster in a home, so the behavior team created spaces in shelter that mimicked a home environment. They experimented with space, repurposing cat colony rooms to give fearful felines a private sanctuary. Next, they reimagined how volunteers could work with stressed cats in shelter and created a brand new feline behavior volunteer program.

Although these innovations helped many cats, Maya showed little improvement. Despite the extra space of her own colony room, time with volunteers, and hours of work with our behavior and rehabilitation specialists, she remained huddled in a corner, ears pointed back, and eyes wide with fear.

But we weren’t giving up on Maya. Thanks to your support, there’s no time limit for the animals in our shelters. And with our adoption centers still closed to the public we had even more opportunities to get creative.

After weeks with no signs of improvement, we decided to find Maya a confident kitty friend. Although many stressed cats don’t prefer the company of another feline, the results were miraculous for Maya.

Within 24 hours of being placed with another cat, Maya solicited attention for the very first time. She emerged from her bed in the corner and began climbing the cat trees in the room. We were overcome with joy, but also nervous. Maya would always be shy, and now we knew she needed another cat to thrive, which could make finding her a home more difficult.

“We can pour our hearts into these animals,” says Hagen, “but our community still has the most important role — providing a loving home.”

Luckily, our incredible community is always there for animals in need, and they rose to the occasion once again — this time for Maya. We began offering adoption services by appointment in late May, and started searching for the right home for Maya. We had in-depth conversations with potential families about Maya’s personality, and the type of resident cat she needed to feel safe. Her adopter, Mark, said his home would be perfect.

Now, Maya is enjoying the good life, and though she’s still reserved, she’s happy — she knows she’s safe and loved. Her favorite hobbies include playing with toys, lounging in the sun, and watching Mark work in his garden through the window. “I am so happy to have her in my life. She is such a sweet, wonderful lady, and I feel extremely lucky we found each other.”

The impacts of the pandemic on our shelters have been significant. We cared for fewer animals than we do in a typical year as a result of our closure — 17,954 compared to nearly 23,000 the year before. However, for each one of those animals, their second chance meant just as much. Nearly 18,000 animals — including Maya — found the care they needed and the love they deserved in this year of crisis, thanks to you.

Animal Tracks: Winter 2020

This article was featured in our Winter 2020 issue of Animal Tracks. Read more stories from Animal Tracks here.

For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

Contact the Pet Helpline