How Pittsburgh animal shelters weathered the pandemic | Animal Issue | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

How Pittsburgh animal shelters weathered the pandemic

click to enlarge How Pittsburgh animal shelters weathered the pandemic
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
Humane Animal Rescue customer care associate Michaela Yonto with rescue dog Cinderella
The coronavirus pandemic shifted so much of the world, and for many places, brought things to a grinding halt. But not animal shelters, where things went into overdrive. Thanks to spiking demand for adoptions and fostering, animal shelters in cities across America — including Pittsburgh — saw very busy times while complying with gathering restrictions and social distancing standards.

Animal shelters in Pennsylvania being deemed essential by Gov. Tom Wolf meant keeping up all the same services, but making some adjustments to how things were run. Dan Rossi, CEO of Humane Animal Rescue, says that meant major changes in operations, while still making sure the animals were put first.

“A year-plus ago, we went into a very quick shutdown, and we weren’t sure how to adjust to things. We had to pivot how we served people,” says Rossi. “They were still picking up strays off the street, so we kept all those key services up and running.”

Weathering the pandemic meant large, Pittsburgh-area animal shelters like Humane Animal Rescue and Animal Friends had to work extra hard to keep workers safe and make sure animals were finding suitable homes. But it also led to some silver linings. Animal Friends says shelter animals were visibly less stressed with the buildings being calmer and quieter during the pandemic. And Humane Animal Rescue saw an increase in dog adoptions throughout the pandemic. Both large Pittsburgh shelters also say that surrenders, when people return adopted pets, have not happened on a large scale in Pittsburgh.
click to enlarge How Pittsburgh animal shelters weathered the pandemic
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
Humane Animal Rescue volunteer Pohla Smith sits with one of the rescue cats.
Now, Rossi says Humane Animal Rescue, which has shelters in the North Side and Homewood, is back to normal operations and the shelter has a surplus of kittens. He hopes the post-pandemic adoption trend to hit Pittsburgh will be to adopt a cat or kitten.

Rossi says Humane Animal Rescue sees a lot of cats each summer, but this summer coming out of the pandemic has been especially dramatic. “We are seeing a lot of pregnant moms coming in with kittens, which is typical of most summers, but it seems to be heavier this year,” says Rossi.

He adds that cat adoptions aren’t limited to house cats, noting how Humane Animal Rescue socializes and matches cats to barns and warehouses, where they can help with rodent control.

“Adopt a cat,” says Rossi. “This is a great time to adopt a cat, especially kittens.”

In comparison to now, the height of the pandemic last year brought different challenges than a surplus of kittens.

Rossi says that Humane Animal Rescue saw a 31% increase in animals brought into the shelter in 2020 compared to 2019. He also says that the shelter’s Ellie’s pantry program — which provides pet food to people struggling to afford it — had a huge increase in use during the pandemic. In 2019, the pantry doled out about 14,000 pounds of pet food, but in 2020, that amount more than tripled to nearly 50,000 pounds.

The staff at Humane Animal Rescue also had to shift to a curbside model, which included veterinarian technicians and other staff members adjusting how they worked.

“Our vet techs were all car side and would take the animal in from the car and into the shelter,” says Rossi. “It was a pretty tedious setup. They had to do that in hail and 85-degree weather. Our staff really stepped up.”
click to enlarge How Pittsburgh animal shelters weathered the pandemic
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
Animal Friends volunteer Jeff Gleeson walks one of the rescue dogs.
Animal Friends, which runs a shelter in Ohio Township, also changed how they took in and adopted animals. Animal Friends spokesperson Cody Hoellerman says there were many challenges the Animal Friends team faced, from staffing to maintaining programs to fundraising.

But like Humane Animal Rescue, having fewer people in the physical shelter had a calming effect on the animals.

“Although a shelter can be an incredibly stressful environment for an animal, the shutdown actually had some silver linings for them because the building was much calmer and quieter, which visibly decreased stress in many of our animal residents,” says Hoellerman.

Hoellerman says the pandemic also brought a renewed interest in people fostering pets as a way to bring in temporary companions during the shutdowns. Eventually, many of those foster pet parents decided to adopt their new furry friend.

“Since people were working from home and cancelling vacations, it was a great chance to give our residents a chance to get out of their kennels and spend some time in a home setting with a family,” says Hoellerman. “And, we weren’t surprised when many of those fosters turned into adopters and gave permanent homes to their foster pets.”

Both shelters are looking forward to a return to something resembling pre-pandemic. Humane Animal Rescue is hosting its annual gala this year onsite in Homewood, and hoping for a big turnout to make up for the lower fundraising totals they saw in 2020. Rossi says they typically host the gala at a convention center or hotel, but having it in Homewood means people can tour the facility and enjoy the outdoors under a tent. People can also attend virtually.
click to enlarge How Pittsburgh animal shelters weathered the pandemic
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
Adoptable bunnies sit in their habitats at Animal Friends.
“We are really excited to have a hybrid gala,” says Rossi. “We will have tours of the facility and a big tent so people can feel comfortable about attending in person.”

Hoellerman reminds potential adopters that 2021 is much different than 2020 and that routines have likely changed, and to keep that in mind when bringing in a new animal into the family.

“The most important thing for a family who was considering adopting a pet during the pandemic was to keep their ‘normal’ routine in mind,” says Hoellerman. “Although most people were spending more time at home during the pandemic, it was critical to remember what their regular routine would be once the pandemic ends.”
Humane Animal Rescue. 1101 Western Ave., North Side/6926 Hamilton Ave., Homewood.

Animal Friends. 562 Camp Horne Road, Ohio Township.