The COVID-19 pandemic has affected businesses and organizations of all kinds, including animal shelters. In response, the Front Street Animal Shelter has developed innovative, new practices to continue offering services to people and pets in the Sacramento community, practices that will be put to the test during the Fourth of July holiday.
The weeks surrounding the Fourth of July are some of the busiest for shelters nationwide, which see a 30% increase in lost pets between July 4-6, said Phillip Zimmerman, manager of Front Street.
Zimmerman recently spoke with City Express to discuss July 4 pet safety as well as changes in shelter operations in response to COVID-19.
Q: Why are there so many lost pets around the Fourth of July?
A: Both legal and illegal fireworks create loud booms that are terrifying to many animals, making them desperate to escape their home or yard, which they often do. We see similar increases in stray animals after thunderstorms for the same reason.
What can owners do to prevent their pet from running away?
For the weeks leading up to and at least a week after the 4th, pet owners shouldn’t leave their pets in yards alone after dark, even if tethered, even if an animal has never escaped your yard before. Fear can change their behavior drastically, leading to jumping over or digging under fences or finding an alternative escape route. Animals should be kept inside, and especially on the 4th, should be left in a quiet, dark room with soothing music to drown out the sounds.
How else can people prepare?
Owners should keep a collar and ID tag on their pet at all times. If unable to have a metal tag made, owners can even make their own out of paper or plastic with permanent marker. Owners should also have their pet microchipped, if possible, and ensure their information is updated if the pet already has a microchip.
What if a pet does run away?
If a pet goes missing, text STRAY to 555888 to see pets at all Sacramento shelters and get expert pet-finding tips.
What should people do if they find a stray pet?
If someone finds a lost pet, the owner is likely looking for them. Only one third of dogs and one-tenth of cats are found in shelters by their owners. So if the finder is able to hold onto the pet and help find the owner using flyers and online tools, that animal likely will have a much better chance of being reunited with its family. Finders can text FOUNDPET to 555888 to fill out a found pet report and get all our tips for finding the owner.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on most organizations. How did the shelter continue essential operations during the shelter-in-place mandate?
On March 18, nearly all our animals were evacuated into temporary homes after a plea for fosters on social media, which resulted in over 1,300 applications. Most of our staff began working from home, and our entire industry began experimenting with ways to safely house, rehabilitate and find permanent homes for strays entering the shelter. The collective strategy is being called “community-based sheltering,” and major animal welfare organizations such as Maddie’s Fund are investing in exploring its benefits.
Part of our initial response was reducing non-emergency surgeries, such as spay and neuter, to preserve PPE and medical supplies for health care workers. We also prioritized intake of injured, sick, orphaned, or dangerous animals to ensure we had enough resources to provide essential care to the animals most in need.
Can you explain a bit more about “community-based sheltering?”
When shelters started moving their entire populations to foster care in response to COVID-19, they discovered many “accidental” benefits. One was that far fewer animals were getting sick. Shelters are a breeding ground for infectious diseases like kennel cough. In addition, fewer animals are experiencing behavioral issues.
The shelter is one of the worst possible environments for animals, especially dogs, which experience high levels of stress that can lead to self-harm in kennel, boredom, barrier aggression towards other animals, and other undesirable behaviors like excessive barking that are a big turn-off to potential adopters. There’s no doubt a couch is better than a kennel for a dog’s mental health.
If someone finds a pet and decides to foster them while trying to find the owner themselves, the animal will likely have a much better chance of finding their family. That’s because the finder can invest much more time and effort into locating the owner and advertising the pet than can a shelter, which often takes in dozens of strays a day.
Beyond that, most animals are either adopted by their foster family, or the family finds them a home through their own networks and social media. Since they know the pet much better than a shelter could, it leads to better home placements. Previously, 4%-10% of adopted animals were returned to the shelter. Since implementing community-based sheltering, over 400 animals have been adopted, and not a single one has been returned.
How are the shelter’s services changing during phased reopening?
We are excited to resume most of our services. The shelter’s Pet Pantry, which provides free dog and cat food to those struggling to feed their pets, will be open every Wednesday from 10 a.m.- 12 p.m. starting July 1. Face masks and social distancing are required.
We are accepting sick, injured, and aggressive dogs and cats, along with orphaned kittens and puppies, found within the City of Sacramento limits. Ideally, community members who find lost pets will foster the found animal, and the shelter will provide resources to help the finder locate the owner, as well as resources to help the animal get adopted if an owner isn’t located.
Although many animals are adopted or placed by their foster families, available animals are listed for adoption on FrontStreetShelter.org by appointment only.
If most shelter pets are being cared for in the community, what is the staff doing?
Our staff are busier than ever coordinating foster and adoption placement for animals and are now able to give specialized care and attention to the animals at the shelter who truly need it, like animals with medical or behavioral problems.
We’ve formed a number of specialized teams. For example, the Managed Intake Team schedules appointments for strays to ensure we have space for every animal. The Wellness Team provides mental stimulation through frozen treats, clicker training and other enrichment to reduce stress and increase adoptability. The Behavior Evaluation Team conducts tests to detect any behavioral issues and make a plan to work on them, in addition to running playgroups where dogs can play and interact with each other. The Foster Placement Team quickly moves stray animals to foster care to reduce spread of disease and minimize stress on the animal, as well as coordinating vaccines, medical care and spay/neuter surgeries. The Foster Counseling Team provides support to foster parents, creates detailed bios for the animals, screens applicants and identifies ideal homes for each animal, and coordinates the virtual adoption process.
Moving forward, we will continue to explore and monitor this new model, which includes many community benefits that Front Street and shelters across this country have not been able to offer before. Before we finalize any permanent changes to Front Street’s operations, we will engage our community in discussions about these evolving best practices and will present recommendations for City Council consideration.