It was the worst of times, but it brought out the best in the animal sheltering community.
As the new coronavirus spread across the country, animal shelters from coast to coast embraced fostering as a response to the crisis. Staff thought ahead, came up with creative promotions, and quickly adapted processes and foster support services as the situation changed daily, with incredible results. The Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix had a waiting list for foster caregivers, California’s Kern County Animal Services put nearly 90 animals into foster homes in three days, and the Pima Animal Care Center in Arizona placed about 1,000 animals (roughly 90% of its population) in foster homes. The Animal Care Centers of NYC received more than 4,000 responses to its calls for emergency foster volunteers as the city became the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States.
There were many lessons learned along the way. Some of the new procedures are ones shelters hope they’ll never need to repeat, such as how to transfer an animal to a foster home without any human-to-human contact. Others could reshape sheltering long after the crisis is over.
“What we have learned through this process is that a fostering model is considerably more viable than we had assumed, and that with the right messaging, marketing and engagement, we could conceivably line up foster homes for the majority of incoming shelter pets within hours or days of initial intake,” says Nick Cullen, director of Kern County Animal Services.
With many shelters having similar experiences, change could be on the horizon, says Kristen Hassen-Auerbach, director of animal services for Pima Animal Care Center and a longtime advocate for shelter foster care programs.
“It’s our hope that the work happening now, even though it’s coming out of this terrible crisis, will forever change the way that we house the vast majority of homeless pets in our country.”
“It reminds you that there’s someone, even in your quarantine space, that matters and needs your help. I can’t imagine going through this without fostering.”
—Marie Langlois, foster volunteer
The foster phenomenon
Centers of NYC thought it would be a good idea to promote fostering to people who were working from home due to the new coronavirus.
On March 10, the shelter posted a video on Facebook encouraging people to enjoy their telework with a foster pet. Three days later, the ACC was asking for emergency foster caregivers.
“As the COVID crisis became more and more serious, we realized that this was more than just something that would be good to do—it was something that’s going to be a necessity for us to ... continue to maintain our capacity for care and to serve the animals and people of New York City,” says Jessica Vaccaro, director of placement for the ACC, which operates five shelters and resource centers in the nation’s most populous city.
In a typical disaster situation, such as a tornado or flood, animal protection groups deploy first-responders to rescue animals and whisk them out of the impact zone, often sending them to shelter partners hundreds of miles away. But COVID-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus) has been different. The impact zone covered the entire country, and shelters all over needed to decrease their number of animals to levels they could handle with only skeleton crews. In addition, as the number of coronavirus cases climbed and businesses shut down, shelters needed to be prepared to take in pets from affected households or from owners in precarious financial straits.
Fortunately, the public understood the need. New and experienced foster caregivers alike took in animals. Marie Langlois, a litigation fellow at the Humane Society of the United States, took advantage of her time at home to step up her commitment to fostering animals from a local rescue. She started with a labor-intensive litter of young puppies recovering from parvo, whom she kept quarantined in a separate room in her home, and an older puppy from a separate litter. Langlois felt comfortable knowing she had enough time to care for and socialize with all of the animals in her care.
She continued to take in animals as the originals were adopted. Fostering during the quarantine helped her, too, giving her structure and purpose, she says.
“It reminds you that there’s someone, even in your quarantine space, that matters and needs your help,” she said in April. “I can’t imagine going through this without fostering.”
The benefits of pets as quarantine companions is exactly the messaging many groups used to promote fostering during the pandemic. Midwest Animal Rescue and Services, a foster-based rescue in Minneapolis, promoted “Adopt or foster a COVID buddy. No social distancing needed!”
Then, it took its promotion even further, partnering with Busch Beer to offer an enticing deal: Foster a dog, get free beer.
Before long, the group saw its number of foster applications double, says Camille Bates of MARS community relations team.
“I’m honestly beyond-words grateful and really hope that this will have a long-term effect on rescue in general,” she adds.
Other groups simply explained the situation and asked for foster caregivers to combat the crisis. PAWS Chicago asked for emergency foster families and received more than 6,500 responses in about a month. “What we never expected was that our biggest challenge is that we have so much more interest in adoption and foster than … animals that need adopters and fosters,” says co-founder Alexis Fasseas.
“Adopt or foster a COVID buddy. No social distancing needed!”
While social media, as usual, was an effective tool for marketing, traditional media also covered groups’ needs for foster caregivers and embraced stories about fostering. The Animal Care and Control Team of Philadelphia’s press release about its foster care needs got a lot of local media traction, says executive director Aurora Velazquez.
In a time filled with scary news, Velazquez says, “we had a positive, relevant message, and the local media really latched on to that.” Five days after it first put out the call for foster volunteers, ACCT Philly had a waiting list of people eager to provide a temporary home for a shelter pet. In less than a month, it received and processed more than 1,200 foster applications. It had about 14 times the number of dogs in long-term foster homes in March compared to the same time last year.
Changing on the fly
As state stay-at-home orders proliferated and guidelines about social distancing evolved, so did shelters’ processes.
Early on, ACCT Philly changed from walk-in to prescheduled foster (and adoption) counseling appointments, because it anticipated challenges with staffing as the virus spread. Luckily, this early change made things easier once the group had to switch from in-person to phone appointments to meet social distancing guidelines.
To get animals to foster homes, some groups like ACCT Philly had staff drop off animals. Others, like Arizona Humane Society, implemented drive-through systems, where the foster caregiver simply pulls up outside the shelter at a prescheduled time, sends a text to the foster concierge, and staff bring out the animal and the supplies while maintaining appropriate human-to-human separation.
“People really seem to love it, and they feel really safeguarded with it,” says Bretta Nelson, AHS public relations manager. Having safe and efficient systems like this has been important for AHS as fosters continue to respond to its needs. “The rate at which we’re placing foster pets is not like anything I’ve ever seen before,” says Nelson.
Kern County Animal Services also implemented a drive-through process for foster caregivers to pick up animals. In addition, it changed its foster application process, acting quickly to try to get its approximately 175 animals into homes once the county closed government offices. On March 17, the first full day the closure was in place, the shelter posted about its emergency need for fosters on Facebook, along with a link to a form with application questions. Normally, applicants would have to go into the shelter, speak to the foster coordinator in person and fill out a longer application, says Cullen.
In the interest of getting animals into foster homes quickly, the shelter removed questions about vaccinations of other animals in the household and animal licensing. Staff embraced the new process, says Cullen, and were “just pleasantly floored with the response that we got from our community.”
The group sent 88 animals to foster homes in the three days following its original ask and continued to send animals to foster homes in the following weeks.
Hassen-Auerbach says that “virtually every other shelter” she knows of has removed barriers to fostering, such as long wait periods or lengthy training requirements, to get animals into homes during the pandemic. As a longtime proponent of policies that make it easy for community members to volunteer in this way, Hassen-Auerbach believes that shelters have seen unprecedented growth in foster numbers not because so many people suddenly decided they wanted to foster, but because shelters suddenly changed their approach.
“I think that for the first time, we really asked people and then we made it easy for them to help.”
6,500+ responses to PAWS Chicago’s request for emergency foster homes in about a month
With unprecedented numbers of animals in foster homes, shelters and rescues needed to find ways to support caregivers while maintaining social distancing.
For many, that entailed ensuring that staff like veterinarians and behavior specialists could continue to do their jobs by working with foster volunteers virtually. At one point in late March, the ACC of NYC had nearly 300 animals in foster care, and only about 100 in its shelters, says Vaccaro. “We realized that we have to see our foster homes as an extension of the shelter, and it’s not just the foster team’s responsibility to speak with the fosters, it’s everyone’s responsibility.”
Many groups implemented virtual veterinarian visits for non-urgent needs, using various video chat platforms. These groups, like PAWS Chicago, are hoping to possibly continue this system even when things return to normal, so that foster caregivers don’t have to travel back to the shelter and the shelter can work more effectively.
“We actually think a lot of these more innovative things that we’ve been forced to do because of social distancing will enable us to be even more efficient in the future with our general operations,” says Fasseas.
One encouraging aspect of the crisis response is that “the whole field is supporting foster parents in a way that maybe they didn’t have the resources or time to do before,” says Lindsay Hamrick, director of policy for companion animals at the HSUS, noting that some shelters are doing virtual counseling and weekly Zoom check-ins with their foster parents. “I think this virtual, resource-based model is something that we can absolutely use in the future.”
In New York, ACC staff also set up virtual dog training classes for its foster caregivers for challenges like dog reactivity or barking when left alone, which helped animals stay in foster homes. Under normal circumstances, if a foster caregiver was having a behavior issue with a dog, the shelter would likely have been quicker to take the animal back, as opposed to working through issues with the caregiver, says Vaccaro.
“We actually think a lot of these more innovative things that we’ve been forced to do because of social distancing will enable us to be even more efficient in the future with our general operations.”
—Alexis Fasseas, PAWS Chicago
ACCT Philly mobilized its experienced volunteers (who couldn’t perform their normal duties at the shelter) to check in with and assist foster caregivers. As a result, the organization was able to work through some challenges early on, says Velazquez.
Shelters and rescues also implemented remote adoption processes, empowering foster caregivers to take a more active role in the animals’ placement. At the ACC, foster parents can hand off animals directly to adopters (using proper social distancing guidelines), instead of bringing the animals back to the shelter first. The adopter goes through the counseling process virtually beforehand, and once the adopter takes the animal home, the adoption counselor follows up.
Shelter leaders hope the extra support provided to foster volunteers to help them succeed will have a future payoff. Velazquez wants to ensure that people have a good experience, so they will continue fostering for the organization, even in non-emergency times.
She’s not the only one eager to keep the community involved in fostering. With large numbers of pets in foster care, many organizations are getting further proof of what they’ve seen time and time again: Most animals do better in a foster home and will often reveal a completely different side of their personalities outside the shelter environment.
That was the case for Haides, a hard-to-place pit bull-type dog at ACCT Philly who needed to learn some basic manners, says Velazquez. A dedicated volunteer took him home and worked on obedience training with him—within a couple of weeks, Haides found a permanent home.
Staff at the ACC describe similar transformations among their shy and fearful cats, like a black kitty named Wednesday who came to the shelter yowling and hissing.
Normally, the shelter would have sent the fractious cat to a rescue partner, Vaccaro says, but ACC staff decided to place her directly with a foster caregiver, since so many were available. Wednesday transformed in the home, becoming a playful pet who welcomes human attention.
“I’m really hoping that [foster care] will be the new norm going forward,” says Candace Harrington, rescue- foster supervisor for City of San Antonio Animal Care Services, which had about a third of its usual number of animals in the shelter, as of early April, thanks to an increase in fosters and adoptions.
90% of Pima Animal Care Center’s animals placed in foster homes after pandemic began
Envisioning the ‘new normal’
In mid-April, about a month after the federal government released social distancing guidelines and states started issuing stay-at-home orders, no one knew when life would go back to normal.
In New York, there was a glimmer of hope as it started to see a drop in hospitalizations from the coronavirus. By then, the ACC had about 70 animals in its facilities and more than 215 with foster caregivers.
It may seem too soon to think of the future, but maintaining large numbers of animals in foster care will be key moving forward, says Hassen-Auerbach.
“The thing about foster is it represents a way to continue to perform services, to serve the public, to fulfill our duty to care for pets that need us, but also to keep the staff, volunteers and the public safe and not crowd our shelters again.”
Hamrick adds: “Foster care has always been a tool that we’ve used, but I don’t think as an industry we’ve used it as widely as we are now. And my hope is that when this is all settled down, shelters and rescues will still utilize their community members to get as many animals out into foster care as possible.”
In many ways, the sheltering community’s response to this pandemic is a testament to both the field’s adaptability and the progress made in foster care programs.
Two decades ago, the response to a crisis like this would likely have been mass euthanasia, says Hassen-Auerbach. Even as recently as 2013, several staff members at the shelter where she used to work didn’t view foster care as a viable option for healthy, adult dogs.
“Now just a short seven years later, the first solution people thought of was to send every healthy and adoptable animal to foster homes,” she says. “I don’t think that could have happened had many shelters not been laying the groundwork for it.”
Another potential outcome of the pandemic response is a shift toward a community programming model, with shelters focused more on providing resources and services to the public and less on housing animals. The pandemic has pushed shelters in that direction, as more animals are in foster homes and shelters are helping struggling community members with programs like pet food pantries, which will ultimately decrease the number of animals who become homeless and need sheltering, says Hamrick.
Only time will tell what will happen, but many leaders in the field hope that a foster-forward approach and other lessons of the coronavirus response will lead to a new and improved normal.
“I believe that the entire way that we care for ‘temporarily homeless’ pets is about to undergo a massive shift,” says Hassen-Auerbach, “and that the future looks nothing like the past.”