While many sectors of society are cautiously feeling their way back to what we wistfully remember as “normal” — life before the danger and disruption wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic — the Central Vermont Humane Society sees it differently.
When the virus subsides, in Operations Director Erika Holm’s view, there will be a new reckoning as the life people and pets have gotten used to changes once again. Unanticipated complications are sure to arise, and the organization will need to respond, for the good of cats and dogs, for their human companions, and for the overall good of our community.
“Normal” operations at Central Vermont Humane Society were thrown asunder when COVID struck with full force in March 2020 (after, apparently, festering, unidentified and undetected, for weeks if not months before).
The premiere nonprofit agency that serves people and pets in Washington and Orange counties entered an abrupt shutdown. The animals harbored inside its shelter in East Montpelier needed to be cared for, and they were. But two core functions of the agency changed dramatically: its interaction with people (the human half of its mission to better the lives of people and pets by carefully and judiciously bringing them together), and its importation of animals from afar.
Many pet owners in central Vermont trace their pets’ origins to the South, and sometimes the Midwest, where there are more strays in need of loving homes and where shelters often provide these animals a short lease on life before euthanizing them. For the first months of the pandemic shutdown, however, transports to central Vermont from South Carolina and elsewhere virtually ended.
“We, and the other brick-and-mortar shelters, all followed the governor’s rules,” says Holm. “People weren’t supposed to be coming to Vermont. There were rescue organizations that continued to bring dogs, and I suspect some would say it’s more important to save animals’ lives. But we’re talking about a worldwide pandemic. It’s important to respect and follow science and guidelines. We honored what the state said, all along.”
As restrictions on travel and quarantining evolved, the organization eventually permitted transports from out of state, with the provision that drivers had to stay in their vehicles while staff and volunteers got the animals into the building without personal interaction.
But the net effect through the first year of the pandemic was a nearly 50-percent decline in the number of needy dogs brought to the humane society through its network of out-of-state agencies. From March 17, 2020, to the same date this year — in other words, the first year of the COVID lockdown — 56 dogs arrived by transport. By comparison, in the same period a year before, 104 out-of-state dogs had arrived.
COVID affected the agency’s dog-intake numbers in other ways, too. Owner surrenders — people asking the society to accept their dogs — declined from 94 before COVID to just 43 in the year after the pandemic set in.
That seemed like a good thing!
“Right off the bat,” says Holm, “we weren’t seeing the same amount of calls. Maybe people were staying home with their dogs more, and had more time for them. Also, there wasn’t the usual number of evictions [from rental housing] in the spring. That tends to present a huge need — people not being able to find a new place where they can have an animal, or suddenly they’re living out of their cars.
“So the moratorium on evictions, and also not as many people changing their housing, we think had a huge impact.”
The number of strays taken to the humane society by town officials in Washington and Orange counties also declined, from 55 during the year before COVID stopped us in our tracks, to 21 in the 12 months after.
“That could be the same thing,” Holm believes, “dogs not getting away from their owners as much because the owners are home and paying attention. Most of the stray dogs we get go back to their owners anyway.”
In total, then, from March to March after COVID descended upon us, Central Vermont Humane Society accepted 120 dogs at its shelter. That was just 47 percent of the number (253) it had taken in during the 12 months before.
That seems counter-intuitive. Our communities are rife with tales about “pandemic puppies” and socially isolated people finding solace in the companionship of a new pet. (We documented several such stories in our March 17, 2021 issue.) Yet, at our local humane society, policies and events conspired to actually lower the number of dogs taken in and given new homes.
Cats, as always, are another kettle of fish. In the more benign year of March 17, 2019 to March 17, 2020 — while the shelter was taking in 253 dogs — 769 cats arrived! The numbers declined somewhat in the COVID year, but they were similarly lopsided: 700 cats taken in, versus 120 dogs. Huh?
“Generally,” Holm explains, “we have 70- to 80-percent cats here.
“Cats,” she says, “tend to be left to roam a lot more, and end up getting pregnant more easily. If you look at the owner-surrender or stray numbers, a lot of those are the result of ‘oops’ litters.”
But cats, too, apparently benefitted from greater attention after COVID. There were fewer owner surrenders (274, as opposed to 445 the previous year), and 75 strays (down from 164).
On the other hand, once transports resumed, arrivals from out-of-state were way up: 351 new kitties, compared to 160 from March-to-March, 2019–2020. Call it the feline version of supply and demand. Or — probably the same thing — attribute it to COVID. Normally, the humane society needn’t import many cats because they’re so abundant locally.
“Our priority,” says Holm, “is [sheltering] local animals first. But during the pandemic we’re not getting as many local cats. So we’ve added to the transports when they have room, so we can help save lives in the South and so people here can have animals to adopt. We can bring 30 cats up in a transport and within three days they’re all adopted.
“Dogs also go quite quickly,” she adds. “Especially if they’re puppies.”
The turnover for both species can be so brisk the animals never get posted on their website; staffers simply contact people who have already applied and been approved. They can meet up in secure pens outside. But the reality of the pandemic manifests in the way transactions are handled: at a distance, often on a clipboard handed through a fence.
“We minimize our risk from people coming into the building,” Holm explains. “When you’re responsible for caring for homeless animals and you’re a nonprofit with a small staff, we couldn’t risk anybody getting sick — especially because our volunteers are often people of retirement age, who are more at risk.
“So we closed to the public and started doing things curbside. It’s a strange way to have to do things, with sentient, living beings,” says Holm. “For everybody in the world, it has been one of the strangest years we have lived through.”
In the Aftermath
The coronavirus is not out of the picture yet, and few would dare predict how we will live, and work, and relate, and structure our lives when the daily lived experience of the pandemic subsides. But in terms of our relationships with our pets, Holm foresees difficulties ahead.
“We didn’t really have the usual ‘kitten season’ [incoming newborns from the “oops” litters mentioned above], which probably meant people were able to give them away because everybody wanted one during the pandemic. So we’re worried that therefore there were more who weren’t spayed or neutered and are all going to have babies.”
Then there’s the fact that people’s schedules will change.
“We’re already seeing people go back to work — and now there’s an animal they may have adopted during the pandemic and is left home alone. The animal is not comfortable being home alone, and the human is struggling to figure it out. In some cases it’s going to mean people will be surrendering their animals. We’re already getting some, and that’s what people are saying: ‘I don’t have time anymore.’”
Then there are those who obtained their pets through an adoption service and perhaps committed to a dog sight-unseen (except for an adorable photograph). As time passes, customers might encounter unanticipated behavioral issues.
“‘The dog is afraid of the whole world,’” Holm paraphrases. “Or, ‘The dog is growling at my children. What do I do?’ And they can’t just ship it back. Those of us in the dog world are really worried what we’re going to see in the next few years and how it’s going to manifest.”
These concerns, as well as inquiries from people who just want to socialize their new dogs, have caused an increased demand for the humane society’s training classes, Holm says. But with the virus rampaging, trainers were reluctant to provide classes in a confined space indoors. (When they did, they reduced the number of dogs allowed and limited owners to one per dog.) The coming spring and summer should provide for safer opportunities outside. Holm expects that there will be a lot of business.
As for “owner surrenders,” she says the society will be there when an adoption doesn’t work out.
“We’re going to take that dog in, work with them, do assessments and figure out if this is a safe dog for our community. But it’s labor- and time-intensive, and hard decisions have to be made because we have a responsibility to the community as much as to the animal.”
One of the most important responses Central Vermont Humane Society has made to the COVID pandemic has been to join in with the Central Vermont Disaster Animal Response Team to provide pet food that people can obtain, not at the humane society, but at the food shelves where they go for their own supplemental food supplies.
“When people donate food to us, if we’re not using it at the shelter we pass it on,” says Holm. “We’ve been able to give them a lot of food.”
The Disaster Animal Response Team was originally formed, statewide, to respond to emergencies such as natural disasters. People are more willing to evacuate their homes and take refuge in a safe space — such as the BOR in Barre, for example — if they can take their pets with them. Because of DART, they know there will be pet food there.
With the pandemic, however, people are apt to be sheltering in their homes rather than at an auditorium. So the Central Vermont Disaster Animal Response Team has adapted.
“It makes sense,” says Holm, “to get it to the places where people are getting help for themselves, so they can also pick up their pet food there.”
It’s another way of keeping the family together, through thick or thin.