When the stay-at-home order was announced March 19, Santa Barbara County’s animal shelters were left scrambling.
What should we do, with volunteers no longer allowed to come care for the hundreds of animals living in cages, and visitors unable to browse and choose a pet to adopt? How could we serve these animals, and how could we protect essential staff who were still coming in to work to provide basic care?
Then the miracle happened.
The animal-loving public, stuck at home, stepped in. And the animals flowed out, into foster and adoptive homes, until almost all of those dogs and cats were where they should have been all along — in a home, getting love and attention, not sitting for weeks, months, even years in a cold lonely cage.
Our experience was not unique. Shelters nationwide experienced the rush of eager caregivers. Videos showed exuberant staff celebrating what we in animal welfare dream of: EMPTY SHELTERS!
And the professional animal welfare community had a lightbulb moment. This is what we could have been doing, and should be doing, to make animals’ lives better, engage the community in their care, and reduce the load on often overwhelmed municipal animal shelters.
Under the leadership of Dr. Kate Hurley at the UC Davis Veterinary School’s Shelter Medicine Program, some 10,000 shelters nationwide are sharing ideas and tools to transform how we handle homeless animals – by finding them foster and adoptive homes quickly, where we can learn who they are in a natural setting, not under the artificial stress of cage life in a crowded shelter.
Program participants “meet” weekly to discuss strategies for supporting foster and adoptive homes, turning animal “sheltering” into a community-supported effort that protects staff from exposure and allows fosters and adopters a chance to help and be helped by a homeless pet. We are building programs and resources to outlast the pandemic, transforming sheltering for now and the future.
In Santa Barbara County, ASAP, Animal Services and Santa Ynez Valley Humane Society/DAWG jumped at the chance to join this effort. ASAP quickly placed almost all of its cats with fosters and adopters (many of the former have become the latter!), then took cats from the two North County Animal Services shelters, quickly placing them as well. We even imported cats from Ventura County, so great has been the demand!
Animal Services’ community outreach coordinator leaped into action, placing hundreds of dogs in homes – even hosting an Instagram Live virtual meet-and-greet for adoptable dogs in foster care, where foster parents could brag about their charges’ talents to potential adopters! Santa Ynez Valley Humane Society/DAWG found fosters and adopters for even some of the most challenging of their residents, including a bonded dog pair that had been with them for over five months.
The best thing about animals in homes: We learn so much more about who they are. Animal welfare professions know shelters are unnatural places, full of stress and fear, and they often bring out unnatural behaviors in dogs and cats. Once in a home setting, we can learn what a dog or cat is really like, and then provide the support necessary for that animal to succeed there (or relocate it to another home, if the match is not a good one).
Many fosters adopt their charges. Those who can’t adopt can learn about the animal and share information that makes a final adoptive placement much more likely to succeed. It’s a recipe for success.
The other best thing about this new model of sheltering: It engages so much more of the community! People who can’t bear to see an animal in a cage will take one home with the right support. Those people together create a whole new volunteer base of rescuers. They don’t come out to the shelter to walk dogs or clean litter boxes, but instead provide a home for an animal until that loving lifetime family can be found. And in return they have the comfort and companionship of a canine or feline friend!
Santa Barbara County Animal Services and its rescue partners have been part of an extraordinary moment, where crisis turned into opportunity for our animals, animal welfare professionals, and the broader community. There is more to be done. Join us in this transformation, as we build a better future for our county’s animals!
Angela Walters Yates is the executive director of ASAP (Animal Shelter Assistance Program), which helps cats and kittens. Its headquarters are kitty corner to Santa Barbara County Animal Services in Goleta. For more information, go to asapcats.org.