Baby Health in Winter ‘People are looking for love’: Adoptions of dogs, cats skyrocket during coronavirus pandemic

Baby Health in Winter

Meg Jones
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Published 9: 00 AM EDT May 20, 2020

Wearing a cone of shame and a wry smile, Pepper stretched out on a fluffy bed in his private hospital room.

He was being waited on hand and paw because every other cage in the Wisconsin Humane Society’s ICU on a recent afternoon was empty. So the 3-year-old male cat, an emergency surrender at the Milwaukee facility, recovered from eye surgery in peace and quiet.

No meows, no howls, no loud purring. Just Pepper, chilling.

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Daily digest: What you need to know about coronavirus in Wisconsin

Normally the five Wisconsin Humane Society branches are loud places. But all is quiet these days because cats and dogs have been flying out of animal shelters during the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 15, the Wisconsin Humane Society asked for help from the public to clear its shelters because of an expected shortage of staff and volunteers, many of whom are retirees. That week 319 animals were adopted and fostered.

Just like toilet paper and hand sanitizer, the shelves were bare. For the first time, the organization literally ran out of available pets to adopt.

“So many families are stuck at home and they now have more time to train a new animal,” said Angela Speed, Wisconsin Humane Society vice president of communications. “People are looking for love and companionship in uncertain times.”

The Wisconsin Humane Society’s web page for foster animals saw a 754% increase in page views in March — so much traffic, the website crashed. In one 48-hour period, 400 applications to foster animals were submitted, another record.

Baby Health in Winter

Many animal shelters have been closed to the public since mid-March, or are open only for limited appointments to adopt. The Wisconsin Humane Society closed its campuses in Racine, Ozaukee and Door counties to adoption, with only the Milwaukee and Green Bay facilities allowing adoptions by appointment.

All five facilities continue to take in emergency surrenders and strays, though in Milwaukee all stray animals go to Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission. 

Before the coronavirus outbreak, around one-quarter of animals at the Wisconsin Humane Society were housed with foster families until they were adopted. Now, it’s 75%.

Baby Health in Winter Sudden awareness of wildlife

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee facility’s wildlife rehabilitation clinic has been overwhelmed. It’s busy every spring when babies are born but this year, with so many people spending their abundant free time time walking in nature, the number of calls from folks seeing bunny nests or squirrel nests or baby raccoons has skyrocketed.

In the past people could walk in with injured or sick wild animals — though that’s not recommended — but with the Humane Society closed to the public, the phone has been ringing off the hook.

“More people are home and noticing wildlife and calling because they may never have seen a bunny nest,” said wildlife supervisor Crystal Sharlow-Schaefer.

Sharlow-Schaefer and other staff members tell callers that it’s normal for babies to be left alone by parents and unless they see a dead mother nearby or the babies are obviously injured, leave them be.

There has also been an upswing in calls about birds flying into windows, something that happens frequently in the spring during migration. But because more people are home, they’re hearing and seeing it happen and calling the Humane Society.

Callers are advised to check out the organization’s web page with tips to avoid window collisions.

In one room at the wildlife center on a recent day, Sara Erdmann, a certified veterinary technician who normally works at the temporarily closed West Allis spay/neuter clinic, was busy spooning dog food into dishes for 20 hungry baby raccoons.

Baby Health in Winter

Cages contained adorable baby squirrels and a litter of 10 young opossums, called joeys, who were found in the pouch of their dead mother. Once they are fit and nursed back to health, they will be released.

“It’s been getting busier and busier,” said Erdmann.

Because scientists strongly suspect the coronavirus may have originated in a bat in Wuhan, China, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued a moratorium on taking in injured bats and releasing them. That means five big brown bats found sick and injured over the winter will remain at the Wisconsin Humane Society until it’s safe to release them.

Staff members handling the large influx of wild animals are clad in personal protective equipment and practice social distancing as much as possible in small rooms. 

“It’s very exhausting. It’s really hard to rehydrate when you’re wearing a mask,” said Sharlow-Schaefer. “But we love this work so much.”

Baby Health in Winter They come in, they go out

On a recent day, there were only 218 animals at Wisconsin Humane Society shelters and foster homes compared to 842 on the same day a year ago.

The few pets that do come in don’t stay long. The average length of stay for a cat has dropped 2 1/2 days and for dogs, it has dropped two days.

Emergency surrenders happen when pet owners become homeless, die or have a medical reason they can no longer take care of their animal. So far none of the animals dropped off as emergency surrenders are from owners who tested positive or died from coronavirus. The Humane Society has prepared for that scenario; pets of owners with COVID would be required to be quarantined for 14 days.

Like other nonprofits and businesses, the Wisconsin Humane Society is feeling a financial pinch. The organization saw a $403,000 budget shortfall in service fees from far fewer adoptions in March and April — after the facilities were cleared when the safer-at-home order went into effect — as well as the cancellation of services and programs ranging from classes and summer camps to kids’ birthday parties. Donations from the community and a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan have helped bridge the gap.

A fundraiser in March in which organizers hoped to raise $76,000 was canceled. A pet walk in Green Bay on June 7 and in Milwaukee on June 20 designed to raise money has been switched to a virtual event — people are encouraged to walk their animals in their neighborhoods — with registration fees waived.

Another loss of revenue was the closure of a shop selling pet food, toys and other gear at the Milwaukee branch when it shut to the public.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Humane Society’s Furry Friends food pantry for low-income pet owners has been shifted, with deliveries of donated dog and cat food to local food banks. In March, 20,000 pounds of donated dog food and 12 pallets of cat food were distributed to human food banks.

“We don’t want families to have to choose between feeding themselves and feeding their pets,” said Speed, who wore a “Cat in the Hat” face mask. 

Deliveries of food and cat litter have been made to families enrolled in the Pets For Life program in Milwaukee’s 53205 and 53206 ZIP codes, which have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

Since there are no veterinary clinics in those areas, the Wisconsin Humane Society is working with the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine to offer tele-medicine appointments for sick and injured animals owned by Pets For Life participants, said Speed.

Soon the Wisconsin Humane Society will reopen — slowly — as safer-at-home orders are lifted, most likely by opening the Racine and Ozaukee campuses for adoptions by appointment and eventually reopening the society’s spay/neuter clinic in West Allis.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee facility is a virtual ghost town with just one dog available for adoption on a recent day.

Gunner, a 3-year-old pup of uncertain parentage who was an emergency surrender, peered with one brown eye and one ice-blue eye out of the room where he was housed. Normally each of the couple dozen small rooms are filled with pups waiting for a new home.

Gunner didn’t have time to get settled. One day after he arrived he met his new family.

Baby Health in Winter

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