When the coronavirus pandemic emptied offices earlier this year, forcing millions of people to begin working remotely at home, some began to feel like they needed a new friend to replace the water cooler banter. Now at home all day and needing a happy distraction from the pressures of the precarious state of the world, they decided it was finally time to act on a long-held goal of adopting a pet.
It's a consistent trend that Ann Dunn, the director of Oakland (California) Animal Services, has enjoyed watching. She calls it a thin silver lining for .
"For people that work long hours, adopting probably wasn't a realistic option," she said. "But working at home for the foreseeable future completely changes that scenario. Everybody's looking for joy and for some sense of hope and normalcy … animals certainly do that for us."
Since lockdowns began in the US in March, animal shelters and rescue agencies around the country have reported a huge increase in the number of requests for pet adoptions or fostering. The ASPCA says during the first few weeks of shelter-in-place measures, it saw a nearly 70 percent increase in animals going into foster homes through its programs in New York and Los Angeles, compared with the same period in 2019.
But besides facing stiffer competition for dogs and cats, prospective pet parents now have other challenges in finding a furry friend. As animal shelters closed to drop-in visitors and suspended usual practices like curbside adoption events due to social distancing measures, animal welfare workers and the public now have to go online to meet each other. That includes using not just social media like Facebook and Instagram, both of which were , but also services like Zoom.
It's sort of a Tinder meets a video dating service, but for finding a four-legged soulmate.
Zooming in on your next pet
My husband and I used the pandemic as an excuse to get another dog. We'd discussed adopting again since our previous pooch, Clara Grace, died last year. We always talked ourselves out of it due to work and travel schedules. But when the coronavirus vaporized those excuses, we returned to Penngrove, California-based Wonder Dog Rescue and fell for the photo of an adorable beagle shepherd called Shelly.
Rescued from a San Jose, California, shelter after being found as a stray (we figure she was abandoned after being kept to have litters), Shelly was living with a foster owner in San Francisco. Our first meeting was over a Zoom call. As Shelly, sometimes just her wagging tail, wandered in and out of the shot, the foster owner described her sweet temperament and the time they had spent together. A few days later, we took Shelly on a (masked) trial walk near the foster's home. A week after that we picked her up for good.
The process wasn't quite as heartfelt or personable as dropping by one of Wonder Dog's adoption events, but in the end it was just as effective. And in any case, it's all organizations like Wonder Dog can do.
"Foster owners don't want potential adopters coming into their homes." said Linda Beenau, Wonder Dog's founder and director. "It was a lot easier when you did the mobile adoptions because we could ask people to show up at the adoption or at our office. But then all of the traditional ways stopped."
Like Dunn, Beenau has seen a big uptick in the number of adoptions and fostering applications since the pandemic began from about five per dog to as many as 50. It's an "insane" amount as one of her colleagues put it, though adorable puppies and popular breeds like a boxer could get almost that many in pre-COVID times. Compounding the problem is that because many local shelters are closed to visitors and seeing fewer animal abandonments, Wonder Dog has struggled to find adoptable pets. By the end of the year, the organization could actually process fewer adoptions than the 200 on average it has handled the last several years.
"It's so hard to do and now it's very stressful because we'd love to help the dogs go to a new home," she said. "But it's just a new game to figure out that game."
Besides posting available dogs on its own site, Wonder Dog also uses Facebook and Instagram. When I spoke to Beenau for another story almost two years ago, she called Facebook, "a wonderful asset" for reaching people who couldn't make it to adoption events. Now she uses it even more while noticing an increase for pet searches on other social media platforms like NextDoor.
"We're also directing people over to the webpage more than we did before," she says. "Lots of folks looking for dogs have always gone to Petfinder … it's the Walmart of dog searches because you can search by so many factors. But now everyone's using social media."
An absolute gift
The Oakland shelter has been forced to shift gears, as well. Dunn said to avoid having people come to the shelter, it placed as many animals as it could into foster care when lockdowns began. For dogs, it now hosts virtual matchmaking sessions with prospective adopters before asking them to meet foster owners outside the shelter at a social distance. Virtual adoptions with videos are also held for adult cats, while kitten adoptions still take place at the shelter by appointment.
"It's been a bit of a transition as our understanding of COVID has evolved," she said. "Now the first thing we do is have a virtual counseling session to make sure that [the pet] seems like a good fit and that we're not wasting anybody's time."
Like Wonder Dog, Dunn also uses Facebook and Instagram to promote cats and dogs and make her fundraising pitch. She says she couldn't imagine working without social media, even as Facebook continues to face a torrent of criticism for its handling of hate speech, misinformation, election interference and dangerous conspiracy theories on its platform.
"[Facebook] has been an absolute gift, it's an incredible tool to reach people," she said. "It's kind of a separate universe when you're talking about animal love -- It's a really nice section of our universe."
The promotion of that uplifting content is one that the shelter's use of Facebook has changed since the pandemic began. In a time when 220,000 have died from COVID in the US and the economy continues to struggle, the shelter's online presence is getting more attention. Stories about abandoned pets who found a new happy home are especially popular.
"I think it's just another place where people are going, whether they're interested in adopting or not, Dunn said. "They're just happy to see good outcomes."
Lisa (she declined to give her last name) also knows what works on Facebook, and how hard it's been to build content in the last eight months. She runs the Saving Carson Shelter Dogs Facebook page and Instagram channel to promote the dogs at the Los Angeles County shelter in Carson, California. Videos of the dogs play well on both channels, which is a challenge to secure from a shelter with limited access.
"On Facebook we can put more detailed information than Instagram -- that's just a quick snippet of information as people are scrolling," she says. "So the video has to be a very clear shot. And now we have to find a way to get in between the bars [of an animal's cage] … it changes your perception tremendously, to see their face and their eyes."
Returning to work
Though Wonder Dog's Beenau also welcomes the swell to adopt, she's concerned about the post-pandemic future. If people start returning to the office or resume frequent travel, she'd hate to see them start surrendering their pets.
"A lot of people say they want a dog because they're scared or nervous or they want company or something," she said. "And I wonder, when their regular lives resume at some point, will the dog be as important to them anymore?"
Dunn says she thought about that possibility at first, but now she's more concerned about the economic impact of the coronavirus such as when someone loses their job. Grappling with the expense of caring for a pet may force even the most loving owner to give it up.
"Having an animal can become extremely challenging for them," she said. "That forecast is really terrifying. One of our real goals is being as proactive as possible and helping people who are struggling to keep their pets."
But for now, everyone I spoke with is grateful that more pets are being rescued and that fewer abandoned pets are arriving in shelters, leaving the facilities largely empty. Dunn calls it, "a nice place to be." And they hope that trend continues even if normal times return.
"Animals provide incredible comfort during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic," said Matt Bershadker, ASPCA president and CEO. "We're proud to support animal welfare organizations nationwide who are innovating and adapting their services to safely connect local animals with loving homes."
If you're looking for a pet, Beenau sympathizes with how challenging it can be at the moment, but she encourages people to use all online tools available.
"Contact as many rescues as you can," she says. "Go on their webpage, post on their Facebook page and send them a message. It's a much narrower corridor of information now, but most shelters are doing the best they can."