Covid-19 creates cause for paws

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WINK Prince, a one-eyed cat, lounges at Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation.

People flocked to shelters during the first month of the Covid-19 pandemic to foster or adopt an animal according to Elena Bicker, executive director at Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF).

“Everybody was on lockdown and wanted the unconditional love and companionship of a furry friend,” Bicker says, about the early days of quarantine. 

Soon, the Walnut Creek shelter housed only nine animals—medical cases who stayed on site for veterinary care. As of last Tuesday however, they had 92 animals in their system. That’s back to a normal number of cats and dogs being prepared for adoption.

ARF has adjusted to social-distancing regulations in the same way restaurants have. First, the animals go through the process of getting appropriate shots, spay/neuter surgery and microchips before being placed in appropriate homes. Potential pet owners fill out an online application, which is followed by a telephone call or video chat with a counselor.

“Once the adoption is finalized, we schedule a time for you to come to the curb and pick up your dog or your cat,” Bicker says. 

While the division of animal care and control is still active at Marin Humane, the shelter currently cares for just four dogs, three cats and a reptile. Lisa Bloch, the director of marketing and communications, says that they sent nearly all of their animals to foster homes within a day or so of the shelter-in-place order.

“We were lucky to have a solid group, already on hand; vetted, knowledgeable, caring, loving people who opened their homes,” Bloch says. 

Marin Humane was initially concerned that they might have to furlough some employees but the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan prevented them from having to take that step. There’s a core group of employees at the main campus in Novato but the rest of the staff, and nearly 600 volunteers, have been working remotely.

“We’re not out of the woods,” Bloch says. “We have not really determined the effect of losing revenue from the cancellation of our spring events, summer camp and animal behavior and training program.”  

Bloch also recalled some of the early unknowns shelters across the country faced at the start of the pandemic. Would so many people get sick that they wouldn’t be able to take care of their animals?

“We were worried that people would get scared that their pets might give it to them and they might start relinquishing their pets,” she says.

But that hasn’t happened.

At Oakland’s Cat Town Adoption Center, development director Quinn White says people have been responding to financial appeals, “kindly and beautifully.” But those donations haven’t provided any extra revenue. A large part of their funding comes from visitors who come to the center. They pay $10 to play with cats for an hour, while having an espresso and a pastry at the Rawr Coffee Bar. Like ARF and Marin Humane, Cat Town canceled a big fundraising event, and likely will cancel one planned for the fall.

One change that is working remarkably well is the virtual-adoption process. Typically a potential adopter would meet a cat at a foster’s house. Now, the visit is virtual. This is turning out to be a benefit to the shyest cats, who normally hide under the bed at the sight of a stranger. In these virtual visits, the cat is already comfortable in a foster home and shows off their personality. The cat is, of course, going to hide when it arrives in a new home. But the new owner has already seen a playful or snuggly side of the animal.

“It’s a nice incentive for people to be patient and put in the work to win over a shy cat’s heart,” White says.

Cat Town might even keep this protocol in place for those especially shy cats after shelter-in-place ends.  

Deemed an essential business, the owners of the Sonoma Pet Center, Eric and Lauren Warddrip, haven’t had to close. They’ve changed their approach to daily operations, offering delivery, curbside pickup and limiting the number of patrons allowed in the store. Before Covid-19, they had kittens and cats that were available for adoption from places such as Pets Lifeline and the Napa County Animal Shelter and Adoption Center.

“That’s come to a halt,” Erik Warddrip says. “We don’t think it’s a great idea to have people congregating in the store like we typically would.” 

Sonoma Pet Center is two doors down from a Whole Foods, but many of the other stores in the mall have kept limited hours or remained closed. The energy of customers coming and going is missing.

“I don’t want to say it’s depressing, but it’s eerie, is a better way to put it,” Warddrip says.

Jack, the shop cat who’s been at the store for 14 years, used to hang out with the lunchtime crowd. He’d wander out to the gazebo in front of the store for attention and treats but, Warddrip says, “those folks aren’t there right now because they’re limiting the amount of time they’re spending outside of the home.” The Warddrips know most of their customers. Now they see them on a monthly, rather than a weekly, basis. 

Along with “an army of trapping volunteers,” Adam Myatt has continued his work during Covid-19 as an active board member of Feral Change. Myatt’s mantra is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). Feral Change is “dedicated to helping the Oakland community control and manage its feral and homeless cat population.” Myatt—a.k.a. the Cat Man of Oakland—defines his role as someone who “keeps the machine rolling.” He acts as a conduit to connect trappers with people who contact him about feral cat sightings. He also teaches people the trapping trade so they can do it themselves. Or, as on the day I spoke with him, he can transport a van of 15 to 20 cats to the Richmond-based Fix Our Ferals for neutering.

Resources are thin during these “weird times,” but Myatt is an expert at dispensing the crucial tenets of TNR, education and communication.

“I can point you to the resources to make it happen,” he says. “You don’t want to show up in someone’s neighborhood and start snatching cats. Leave notes. Put up a sign, ‘Have these cats been fixed?’ Talk to your neighbors.” 

Myatt, along with Ann Dunn, co-founded Cat Town in 2014. Although he left the organization on a sabbatical in 2016, he continues to admire the way they’ve approached their mission during the pandemic.

“They still have their foster homes; they’re still doing virtual adoptions like crazy,” Matt says. He believes they’ve been highly adaptive. “What’s the situation? How do we continue and still help? That’s the spirit of Cat Town and of Oakland.”

By Jeffrey Edalatpour

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