Over the past year, businesses and organizations have had to adjust because of the pandemic. This was no different for local animal shelters, League for Animal Welfare (LFAW) and Save the Animals Foundation (STAF).
As staff and volunteers at these locations return to a more consistent workday, they reflect on the troubles they faced during the pandemic and the adaptations that they have decided to keep because of their efficiency.
The number of animals housed at both of the shelters is only one of the areas affected during the pandemic. The cats and dogs that each location could hold fluctuated through COVID-19 due to changes in the adoption process, a hold on non-essential surgeries, a fear of temporary shutdown and more internal modifications.
At the shelters
The League for Animal Welfare, based in Batavia, Ohio, is the oldest and largest no-kill shelter in greater Cincinnati, according to the League’s website. With a staff of 32 and about 275 volunteers a month, the shelter typically pulls animals from local traditional shelters that are unable to offer a no-kill policy.
“Some shelters don’t have that luxury because they are county-run,” said Carrie Leary, volunteer manager at the League for Animal Welfare. “They just have to do what the tax dollars say they have to do. So we try and pull from them.”
Save the Animals Foundation, another private no-kill shelter in the Cincinnati area, located on Red Bank Road, works in a similar manner. Although a smaller establishment with only volunteer workers, STAF also tries to save animals from crowded kill shelters.
“We work with a lot of rescue groups and county shelters, especially across the river in Kentucky, who have very high kill rates and want to give their dogs more of a chance,” said Suzanne Culbertson of the STAF board of directors. “We take cats and dogs as we have room for them.”
During the pandemic
STAF had to limit the number of animals it could take in because of the concern that a total lockdown would cause the shelter would close, meaning staff would have to find temporary housing for shelter animals.
“We did decrease the number of dogs and cats that we were accepting when COVID hit,” Culbertson said. “Not because we didn’t have the resources, but because we were afraid that we would get closed down. There was a big fear a total lockdown would be imposed, meaning that we would be unable to go anywhere and have to scramble for last minute housing for animals.”
Additionally, some volunteers decided to pull back their time because of safety concerns. That left a smaller crew to care for the animals.
“We did have quite a few volunteers who are retired and older, and they were not comfortable coming in especially at the beginning of the pandemic,” Culbertson said.
STAF does not rely on any funding from county, state, or federal government. The shelter relies on grants and donations. The elimination of fund raising due to COVID-19 caused a devastating blow to the shelter’s budget.
The shelter usually relies heavily on in-person events for fund raising but were unable to do so during the past year. To help with funding, STAF created online campaigns. These are far less labor intensive than events, so STAF will likely continue them.
“We are just trying to get creative like just about every other nonprofit out there as to what we can do to continue to bring in money,” Culbertson said.
Not only did STAF have to cease most fund-raising events, but it could no longer accept some supply donations in the ways it had before. Previously, the shelter could accept donations from individuals of gently used items or food, but to look out for the safety of the volunteers and animals, these donations had to end, especially considering the zoonotic cases of COVID-19 that were found in the United States. Zoonotic cases are cases of COVID-19 found in animals.
When volunteers tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to the virus, they would have to quarantine and alert the shelter of the circumstances.
“We did have shifts who would have to quarantine,” Culbertson said. “That caused a scramble to get people, to make sure that every day we have two shifts and that there was somebody there to feed and take care of the animals.”
Additionally, STAF added shift-cleaning procedures to ensure all surfaces, doorknobs, tables, gates and other areas were cleaned.
Non-essential surgeries, which includes surgeries that normally occur at animal shelters, were halted during the height of the pandemic. For LFAW, this meant spaying and neutering had to be temporarily stopped, causing a dip in the number of animals that could be taken.
“There are just not enough homes for homeless cats and dogs that are adoptable and healthy, so the most important thing you can do is spay and neuter,” Leary said. “So, to have had to shut that down, we kind of had to slow down our adoptions because we couldn’t bring in new animals and then also send them back out.”
Additional precautions taken by the foundation included locking the main entrance to limit the number of individuals entering, taking temperatures at the door and keeping a log of the volunteers’ entrance and exit hours. A website called Better Impact has proven to be helpful for Leary in keeping the number of volunteers she has working and in tracking volunteer data.
The staff at LFAW began to regularly update the League’s Facebook page during the pandemic, as they found it to be one of the best ways to interact with the local community and keep pet lovers informed about adoptions. Additionally, volunteers could use it to communicate with one another about specifics of the animals. The page was not used as frequently before the pandemic, but once its importance was realized, the staff decided to keep up with it.
Another area that has been affected pandemic is adoptions. The shelter would typically do a few off-site adoptions each year and allow individuals to come to enter the shelter for adoption inquiries, however, due to the pandemic adoptions had to be limited to appointments only.
Adoption rooms, located in the middle of the main building, serve as locations where the volunteers could bring the animals to get them acclimated to indoor spaces with crates to promote crate training and to offer potential pet adoptees a location in which to see their potential pets. These rooms have proven successful when it comes to pet adoptions because they provide adoptees with one-on-one interaction with the potential pet in a calmer environment. Here they are able to work with the dogs and see them in an indoor space that provides them with a better idea of how the dog might act in a home.
Prior to COVID-19, potential adoptees would view the dogs through “pods,” a viewing area from which one could see the dogs in their spaces. But this typically led to adoptees choosing a pet based solely on the demeanor of the dog they were viewing and not in a real setting. By eliminating the viewing pod option, LFAW has found that more adoptions have been successful.
Additionally, LFAW had to begin to set up adoptions by appointment only during COVID-19. Potential adoptees would fill out a survey, then meet with the pet adoption counselors to discuss the type of pet they hope to adopt, the environment in which the pet would be situated in and the work of the adoptee. In this way, the adoption counselor could find a pet that best fits the profile of the adoptee and introduce the pet to the adoptee. This has also helped to limit the number of individuals who wish to return animals because it works to create a perfectly matched solution. This change has remained in effect still and will continue due to its success.
“This has been very helpful, and we’ve had some phenomenal adoptions,” Leary said. “We’re really focusing on what they’re telling us, what they’re writing down and then what we know about the animals. So that change, it’s been really great, and we’re keeping it.”
Some animals, like the dog Phantom at LFAW, are unique cases brought in by a niche type of animal rescue that pulls animals out of hoarding situations. In these situations, the animal rescue teams take the dogs and cats from the scene and partner with animal shelters to house the pets. Animals such as these are part of court cases. Until these cases are cleared, the animals are unable to be adopted and therefore remain on location all the time.
Phantom’s case is particularly special as well because of his lack of vision. Although it is unknown for certain, it is expected that he has been blind his whole life because of how well he functions. Nonetheless, Phantom, as well as other dogs or cats that need additional care, are kept in rooms separate from the rest of the animals for their best care.
Since the pandemic, LFAW has started a pet food pantry in the annex house. Here volunteers take in donations, bag the food and partner with other pet and human pantries to provide individuals who own pets with food for their animals, with one of these partnerships being Clermont County Meals on Wheels.
LFAW sat at 49 dogs and 109 cats as of early July, according to Carole Andrews, a staff member at LFAW.
“We aren’t at capacity, but we are noticing the national adoptions were down for us,” Leary said.
The circumstances of volunteers at LFAW have changed recently as well.
“A lot of volunteers aren’t here as much,” Leary said. “They’re all on trips. Everything is now opened up so they’re doing everything they couldn’t do last year.”
Although this does affect the shelter and amount of human interaction all the animals receive, they are still maintaining a high number of volunteers.
According to Leary, some other shelters face an issue of individuals returning the animals they adopted during the pandemic.
“People just don’t want to deal with it anymore, and they’ll just return a dog,” Leary said. “A lot of people are now back to work. It is going to hit them pretty hard, and they can’t afford those animals anymore.”
LFAW has had a few of these types of issues with individuals returning “pandemic pets” but not enough for it to have serious effects and most of these pets have since found other homes.
As the shelters return to a more normal routine, the staff and volunteers readjust to a new combination: the way they used to work before the pandemic and changes that were set in place during it.
“We are still not at capacity,” Culbertson said. “But I think we’re getting there.”
Rebecca Schweitzer is a fourth-year Journalism student minoring in International Business at the University of Cincinnati. She has written articles for her university’s independent student paper, The News Record, and currently works through the Marketing & Communications Department at the College of Arts & Sciences for the University of Cincinnati, writing feature and news articles for UC News.