In early March, when it became clear the novel coronavirus pandemic would effectively shut down much of Atlanta, LifeLine Animal Project leaders feared a dire scenario was brewing for Atlanta’s abandoned, confiscated, and stray dogs and cats. The timing, after all, was terrible.
As Atlanta’s largest animal services provider, managing shelters and low-cost clinics in the city and DeKalb County as well as providing both counties’ animal control, LifeLine officials envisioned facilities being forced to shutter as staff fell ill, just as the highest animal intake months were unfolding. Between 40 and 60 dogs typically stream into LifeLine’s facilities every day, joined in warmer months by up to 10 litters of kittens per day. Lifeline spokesperson Karen Hirsch foresaw “a crisis of animals” on the horizon.
To prevent a deluge of healthy animals with no place to go but woefully crowded kennels or euthanasia chambers, Hirsch and colleagues distributed a press release March 13 and pleas on social media asking for the community’s help. (Although shelters were deemed an essential service, most other options in metro Atlanta have closed, citing safety concerns in some cases.) The region’s response, according to LifeLine officials, was astounding. More than 700 animals were placed in homes the first week alone. Empty kennels—a source of joy for shelter employees—have become the norm. Lacking supply to meet Atlanta’s demand, the agency has resorted to rescuing dogs, all destined to be put down, at shuttered kennels in seven rural counties.
“We’re all such animal nuts, to see this just reinvigorates everybody,” says Hirsch. “There can be times when you think you hate people, because they can do horrible stuff to animals, but now we’re seeing quite the opposite.”
In a month-long period ending April 13, LifeLine had tallied 925 adoptions and 946 foster placements (1,871 animals total) at its three facilities, trouncing the tally for the entirety of March and April last year by about 200 pets. The pandemic numbers are all unprecedented, says Hirsch. And for the first time in LifeLine’s nearly 20-year history, there’s a waiting list for foster animals.
The uplifting stats don’t end there. Lara Hudson, director of LifeLine’s Fulton County Animal Services, says dog bites reported in the field have plummeted in recent weeks by 82 percent compared to 2019. She has a theory as to why. “The vast majority of dog bites have always been by owned animals,” says Hudson. “People [during the pandemic] are out walking their dogs and taking advantage of spending more time with their pet family members. Happy pets are safer pets.”
Many adopters and foster “parents” have been first-timers who’ve grown tired of sitting around the house, with plenty of time to acclimate a new pet. Others are hungry for a sense of structure, a new routine. Goofy young dogs in particular, as Hirsch notes, can be a reliable source of humor in bleak times.
“Parents tell us that their kids are enjoying going to online school with this dog on their lap, or next to them,” says Hirsch. “[New pets are] forcing the adults to exercise in the morning because they’ve got a young dog that needs a two or three-mile walk.”
The heartwarming stories are multitudinous. There’s Savannah Smiles, a Shepherd mix recently rescued from a rural shelter, who happily rode shotgun in a van full of other foster dogs to a new home. A spunky brown-and-white pup named Lionhart had been a shelter “long-timer”—abandoned near an elementary school 14 months ago—but won his foster mom’s heart and has been adopted. (That’s a “foster failure,” and a positive.) Like many senior animals, a little cat named Mistletoe was having trouble finding placement until the quarantine, but she just earned an adoption with fosters in only five days. A sweet dog named Cerise filled a need for an owner whose previous dog had succumbed to cancer. And a 2-year-old terrier mix Checkers didn’t take long to change status from foster to forever with an owner who answered LifeLine’s plea. “Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, I finally fulfilled a goal of mine to adopt a beautiful loving dog and on Saturday afternoon I met my favorite four-legged friend,” Checkers’s owner later wrote. “She [has] such calm but wonderful mannerisms and has enjoyed getting acclimated to her new home with me.”
Hirsch notes that no animals or employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at LifeLine’s shelters, where new restrictions require gloves and masks and limit guests to 10 at a time. A sort of curbside preview option is available for people who’d like to drive up and see a prospective pet in real life. And thanks to a private company’s donation, LifeLine is able to offer $20 adoptions until May, which includes spay or neuter costs, microchipping, and vaccines.
“For anybody who’s never adopted a shelter pet, they will be amazingly loyal and grateful and just glue themselves to you and fall in love,” says Hirsch. “They know, somehow, that you’ve saved them.”