Fewer people appeared able to resist a wagging tail, twitching whiskers or even the scaly skin of a reptile as the pandemic swept the world.
While COVID-19 disrupted and closed many businesses, Southwest Florida animal rescue workers are working their tails off with an increase in adoptions and animal intake.
Karen Prohaska and her husband, Bob Von Gyurcsy, of Fort Myers, were fostering a senior dog named Gatsby, 9, for the Gulf Coast Humane Society in February. The plan was to bring him back, but with the pandemic they decided to keep him a bit longer.
Gatsby suffered from allergies that caused a rash, which required medical baths and care. Retirees, Prohaska and Von Gyurcsy didn’t mind helping Gatsby and during a time of uncertainty, they welcomed the distraction.
Gatsby helped them just as much. He gave the couple a routine and taking care of him kept their minds off the pandemic, Prohaska said.
They’d go for walks and car rides, ultimately the couple fell in love with Gatsby.
“It was such a saving grace during the pandemic to have an animal, when your anxiety is high and your fear factor we felt fortunate to have him,” she said.
Ebb and flow
The humane society, in Fort Myers, Executive Director Jennifer Galloway said the interest in adopting is a continuous cycle. One moment the shelter feels empty and the next it’s filled again.
Alicia Fuller, the lead kennel tech at the Gulf Coast Humane Society finishes up bathing a newly acquired dog on Tuesday, October 6, 2020. (Photo: Andrew West, The News-Press)
Compared to 2019 the agency’s dog adoption has increased by 242 and their cat adoption increased by 564, totaling 1,239 adopted dogs and 997 adopted cats so far in 2020.
Read: Cape Coral’s first animal shelter opens. Adoptions start Thursday
The humane society, nearing a decade of operation, is more than just a dog and cat adoption center. It has a rehab facility where workers care for sick and injured animals, as well as a surgery facility where workers conduct spaying and neutering.
It also has a veterinary clinic where the animals are vaccinated, microchipped and have dental work done. This service is open to the public.
Once the pandemic made its way to Southwest Florida, Galloway said the agency wasn’t sure what was going to happen — and that was the hardest part.
Her board members weren’t sure if they were going to have to close, so they put out a plea for foster homes. They received more than 200 applications for fosters and about 90% of the people who fostered at the start of COVID-19 ended up adopting their foster animal.
The human society also wasn’t sure if it was going to get inundated with surrendered pets.
The newly opened Cape Coral Animal Shelter Executive Director Liz McCauley, said the group is exceeding expectations.
They are about to hit their 600th adoption, which is almost double what they expected.
Humane Society Naples saw an increase in people wanting to foster pets and at the start of the pandemic there was an uptick in adoptions, but that has since slowed, Director of Community Affairs Jon Foerster said.
He believes that the decrease in adoptions might be a result of them now operating by appointment only.
“We didn’t know if people were going to panic, we didn’t know how to react,” Galloway said.
Once they saw the increase of people wanting to foster and adopt, they knew they could take more animals.
“People really stepped up, and I think it helped them as well being able to foster during that quarantine,” Gulf Coast Humane Society Communication Relations Coordinator Brian Wierima said.
Now Galloway is bracing for a possible influx of surrendered pets at the end of the year, when housing evictions are expected to go back into effect.
Foerster is also concerned about housing evictions. For now their pet surrenders have decreased, but he said if there are massive housing crunches they will see more animals.
More: Rescued animals used for education and appreciation at Adam’s Animal Encounters
Adam Pottruck, owner of Adam’s Animal Encounters on Pine Island, has also been preparing for the possibility of an increase of surrendered reptile pets.
Pottruck takes in reptiles giving them a forever home and rehabilitates them. He also uses the reptiles to educate the public.
“Because of COVID everybody has a lot more time right now and a lot of my friends who do breed these types of animals are selling out for the first time in over a decade,” Pottruck said. But he also predicts a downside.
“It’s kind of a big deal, I truly think that in the next couple of years there will be an onslaught of surrendered animals.”
Prohaska and Von Gyurcsy had fostered animals for the Gulf Coast Humane Society, but they never intended on making an adoption.
Memorial Day weekend, they took Gatsby back like planned, but by the end of the weekend they went back and adopted him.
“You fall in love, it’s always hard to bring back fosters, but with him being a senior dog I was a little more concerned and he became part of our lives,” Prohaska said.
For Lydia Black, of Fort Myers, she wanted to find a way to help her community during the pandemic, as well as find something that would help her daughter, Emerson, during this uncertain time.
Emerson, 14, had a very active school and family life. When the pandemic caused the state to close everything, she was suddenly without activities.
Black emailed Galloway at Gulf Coast Humane Society to see what the family could do. Fostering kittens was the answer.
Black told no one in her family what she had planned, but when she came home with the first pair of kittens, she asked Emerson how she thought about being a foster mom.
“To a kid,” Emerson asked.
Then Black showed her the kittens.
“I thought they were so adorable. I get to take care of these living beings. It was very much a learning experience and I appreciated getting to watch them grow up,” Emerson said.
Since the start of the pandemic Emerson and her family have fostered almost 20 kittens and one mama cat, with four nursing kittens.
They have found forever homes for all but three of their fosters. The best part, Black said is most of their fosters have gone to friends of theirs, so they will still get to see the cats.
Now Emerson is thinking about becoming a veterinary technician. She also plans on continuing to foster animals, even after the pandemic.
The humane society has also been going to soup kitchens to distribute dog and cat food because they don’t want to see people giving up their pets because they can’t afford food.
“We have done 50 food pantries since the beginning of April and are nearing 16 tons of food given away,” Wierima said.
The love for the animals shown by employees and volunteers shows that this is more than just work.
Two dogs brought to the shelter Tuesday by animal control were dirty, smelly and likely had worms, but Kennel Tech Alicia Fuller bathed them and cradled them like babies giving them love and attention.
Barbara Levine has been a volunteer with the humane society for about two years. As she walked an 8-year-old dog named Harlow, she said she missed it too much when the volunteers couldn’t come in. She was one of the first to return in May.
Babe, a 4-year-old terrier mix, was brought to the humane society after being dragged by a car. Tuesday she was adopted and the excitement and well wishes for her could be heard over all the employees’ walkie talkies as her new owners came to take her home.
In April, the agency also had to suspend spaying and neutering surgeries, because the state deemed it nonessential.
April is the height of reproduction season for cats, and shelters are inundated with them as a result of the one-month halt in surgeries.
In August, Gulf Coast Humane society was averaging 42 surgeries a day.
McCauley said the Cape Coral shelter also has a full-service clinic where they perform spaying, neutering, dental work and wellness checks for the shelter animals and public animals. It also is seeing a huge increase in kittens as a result of not being able to do surgeries.
Humane Society Naples has a full service veterinary clinic that it has made completely curbside. Owners drive up, a vet comes and takes the animal inside and will bring the animal back out to the owner in their cars.
They also had to suspend surgeries as suggested to conserve personal protective equipment, but have since started operating again, Foerster said.
How to help local shelters:
Donations: dog and cat food, blankets, sheets, towels, pet bedding, leashes, doggy potty pads, toys, cat litter, cleaning supplies, treats, monetary donations, volunteering and more.
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