Hopalong's canine program manager, Alex Sanchez, holding Tulip and her puppies, Daisy and Sunflower. Credit: Amir Aziz

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In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, animal shelters across the U.S. saw a rise in adoptions as millions of people, stuck at home because of shelter-in-place orders or office shutdowns and remote work, got lonely and considered adopting a pet. But as the pandemic ground on, many of these same shelters started seeing lots of people returning their “pandemic pets” after realizing they actually didn’t want, or couldn’t handle, the responsibility.

This isn’t what happened in Oakland, however. The leaders of four organizations that run animal shelters and foster programs said they haven’t seen pandemic pets being returned in large numbers, thanks in part to measures they put in place before and during the COVID-19 shutdowns. 

“We were extra strict with our screenings and making sure that these adopters were adopting because they wanted to have an animal throughout their life and not through a pandemic,” said Alex Sanchez, the canine program manager at Hopalong, a nonprofit rescue group that seeks to eliminate the use of euthanasia on animals. “We’ve only had one or two covid returns.” 

Kittens from Hopalong waiting to be adopted. Credit: Amir Aziz

Ann Dunn took over as director of Oakland Animal Services (OAS) in February 2020, a relatively quiet time for the organization, which is the city’s official shelter that takes care of thousands of animals a year. When shelter-in-place began in March, Dunn said OAS had to scramble to find enough people to temporarily foster animals before they were ready for adoption.

The same was true for other animal shelters, including Cat Town, which specializes in looking after felines.

“At the time, we had around 30 cats at the adoption center,” said Andrew Dorman, Cat Town’s executive director. “We put out an emergency call for fosters, and we had close to 500 people contact us offering to help foster. It was an incredible response from the community, and we got all the cats out of our adoption center into foster homes within 48 hours.”

Sanchez, Dunn, Dorman, and Jessica Lefebvre, executive director of PALS East Bay, are part of a tight-knit community of animal lovers who have known each other for years. Sanchez, Dunn, and Lefebvre met as volunteers at OAS in the late 2000s. Dunn founded Cat Town in 2011 and Dorman recently took over as the executive director after Dunn left to run OAS.

Their years-long friendship and commitment to the health and well-being of cats, dogs, and other less common animals like guinea pigs, have been a vital component of all four organizations through the pandemic. 

“There’s such a deep community for so many of us who have been part of this,” Dunn said. “It’s something special.”

PALS East Bay originally started as a rescue that would place hospice animals from OAS into foster homes so that they wouldn’t have to die or be euthanized in a shelter. “We wanted to be able to give these dogs a chance to get out of the shelter and experience life in a home on a warm bed,” Lefebvre said. 

Since its inception in 2014, the organization has evolved into helping unhoused pet owners provide veterinary care for their animals. The organization also offers free vaccination clinics every four weeks for pet owners in need. The next clinic takes place on Oct. 24; people interested need to pre-register online no later than Friday, Oct. 22. 

One of the many unhoused pet owners that PALS East Bay serves holding his beloved dog. Credit: Jessica Lefebvre. Credit: Jessica Lefebvre

When the pandemic started, Lefebvre stayed in constant communication with Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless so she and her team could continue their weekly outreach at homeless encampments. “I never stopped working. I would double-mask with an N-95 and a surgical mask together,” Lefebvre said. “The needs of the people I serve didn’t change.”

Lefebvre noticed the most significant shift from the beginning of the pandemic to now is how many new unhoused people she’s helping. 

“I can think of five people off the top of my head, who lost their jobs and their housing during the pandemic and are now living in a vehicle,” Lefebvre said. “Before the pandemic, these were working people with apartments and jobs, and now they don’t have any of that. But they still have their pets, and they love them.” 

In the past year, she has known people in the unhoused community she serves who have died from COVID-19. So far, she only needed to rehome one pet whose owner passed away. The others, she said, were taken in by friends of the owners who passed away. 

The other shift due to the pandemic, Lefebvre said, is the shortage in appointments to get into a vet clinic. “It used to be that you could go and wait an hour or two, and now you’re waiting six to eight hours. If they’re even taking patients, the ability to get care, timely, has really been a challenge.” 

At Cat Town, Dorman sees pets returned not because they were adopted during the pandemic but rather for the same reasons as previous years: a change in housing, allergies, the death of a pet owner, and people moving. “I can’t think of a single cat who was returned just because somebody had to go back to work,” Dorman said. “That doesn’t seem to be happening.”

A Cat Town foster parent reading to one of the felines. Credit: Liz Lazich

Over at Hopalong, Sanchez noticed an interesting trend: animal shelters weren’t full, they were not getting animals surrendered. 

“We started noticing a decline in animals at all shelters in the Bay Area. It got to a point where the Hayward shelter had maybe two animals in the whole facility,” Sanchez said. “At one point, rescues were fighting for the few animals at different shelters because there weren’t enough animals to spread out.”

Dunn’s theory behind seeing fewer strays and surrendered pets is that since people were not commuting, they weren’t coming across animals on the street. People with pets working from home also may have grown more attached to their animals. 

Dunn says that even now, 18 months into the ongoing pandemic, their adoption rates are still exceeding those prior to 2020. 

Now, because of their experience during the pandemic, OAS is changing its approach when it comes to people surrendering their pets. Before the pandemic, they would take in animals, no questions asked. Now, because the shelter is still operating in a limited capacity, they ask that people make an appointment (although it is not required). This way, it gives the shelter the time to ask people questions. Dunn said that some pet owners have told them that they’re surrendering their animals because they can’t afford veterinary care. 

Under the old system, Dunn said that OAS would accept an animal, provide it with care, and then rehouse it with someone else. Providing access to veterinary care that’s affordable, Dunn said, is the most significant issue that OAS is facing. “The scale of the need is far greater than we can address alone,” she said. “How about if we provide that care so that you can keep your animal? We do a lot of that now,” she said about the new system. 

OAS also provides resources for pet owners in need with free spay/neuter clinics, and veterinary services for low-income residents in East Oakland. “Let’s do everything we can to keep those animals where they are,” she said. “The fewer animals we have here, the more resources we have to be out there helping the community.”

Other times, Dunn said, animals are surrendered due to housing issues, an area that OAS can’t help with.

At OAS, staff and volunteers make sure that animals get plenty of outdoor playtime. Credit: Amir Aziz

At OAS, the shelter is holding adoption events in person twice a week. “We’ve not done a single one of these events where there hasn’t been a line out the door. The adoptions are super successful,” Dunn said. 

Besides the myth of pandemic pets being returned, Dunn also wants to make sure that the community knows that OAS continues to increase its live-release rate.

“The only two ways for animals to get out is people adopt or a rescue organization takes them in,” Dunn said. The most challenging animals are placed with other rescue groups that OAS works with (Hopalong included) so that animals have the chance to get proper training and be placed with the correct foster, then have the opportunity to get adopted. 

“There’s a whole shift around equity. It should not be a privilege to have the love of an animal in your life. It’s not unusual to hear that if somebody can’t afford an adoption fee, they don’t deserve an animal. That is not true,” Dunn said. “I always say that transformative love of an animal should not be a privilege. It is our responsibility to do everything that we can.”

Clarification: The free spay/neuter clinics are sponsored by Friends of Oakland Animal Services, the 501(c)(3) that supports and works with OAS. The program is not funded by the City budget, but by donations to Friends of OAS.

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.