In early March, Christine DeCorse began preparing her staff for a dramatic increase in animal intakes at the Baltimore Humane Society due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were concerned many people would be surrendering their pets if they became sick or lost their jobs,” said the BHS’s executive director. “So we started limiting intakes to emergencies to have room for all the animals.”
To DeCorse’s surprise, the anticipated uptick never materialized. “The vast majority of shelters across the country have seen reductions in intakes,” she said. “[At the BHS] intakes are down nearly 50 percent from last year at this time.”
One reason for the decrease may be the availability of pet food banks, DeCorse said. “Pet food banks help people to keep their pets,” she said. “We’re seeing a 40 percent increase in pet food bank use.”
The reduction in intakes means there are fewer pets to adopt at the BHS. “For the first time, our adoptions are exceeding our intakes,” DeCorse said. “We have more animals in foster care than at the shelter.”
Lengths of shelter stays for animals have also dropped significantly, she said.
“The average length of stay for cats last year at this time was 23 days, and this year the average is 16 days,” she said. “For dogs, it was 20 days and now it’s down to 11 days. That’s wonderful because being in a shelter is so stressful for animals. The sooner we can get them out, the better.”
During the pandemic, the BHS has reduced the number of onsite shelter staff and volunteers per shift.
“We are working in shifts. Half of the staff is on one week and the other half is on the next. We’re doing that not only for the animals, but also to keep our staff safe,” said DeCorse. Adoptions now take place only by appointment, and all prospective adopters must wear masks and observe social distancing guidelines when visiting the BHS compound at 1601 Nicodemus Rd.
Due to the decrease in intakes and the increase in fostering and adoptions, the BHS finds itself with many empty cages. “We’re reached out to other shelters in case they need room for surrenders,” DeCorse said
Marty Sitnick, an Owings Mills-based animal behavior counselor and trainer, said the public has really stepped up to adopt and foster animals during the pandemic.
“It’s wonderful,” he said. “But here’s the caveat: sometimes we worry about people having big hearts. Taking in an animal is a very serious commitment. Depending on the age of the [adopted] animal, it’s a five or 10- or 15-year commitment. The expenses are significant, and so is the time and energy required. …
“The concern is that at some point, the pandemic will be over and life will normalize,” Sitnick said. “I fear that when some people get back to normal, they’ll realize they don’t have the time they thought they had, and animals may end up being returned.”
Under ordinary circumstances, Sitnick estimated about 10-12 percent of adopted animals are returned for various reasons.
“I’d just ask people to think before you adopt,” he said. “We want animals to have homes that are forever homes.”
Before families consider returning their adopted pets due to behavioral issues, Sitnick recommended they consult with a trainer or animal behavior counselor.
“Most shelters and animal rescues have someone either on staff or someone to whom they can refer you to get help with behavioral problems,” he said.
DeCorse said she hopes the end of the pandemic does not compel the return of many shelter pets. But even if that occurs, she said, “I would rather see an animal in a home, especially when there is less staff on duty at the shelter, even if some are returned. Having them in a home even for some period of time gives us a chance to learn more about the animal than we may learn while it is in the shelter. If animals start getting returned, we’ll deal with it.”
At this point, DeCorse said is delighted that her prediction of an uptick in pet surrenders has not come to fruition.
“This is one shining light that’s come out of the pandemic,” she said
For information about adopting or fostering a pet, visit bmorehumane.org.