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Pet adoptions in high demand during pandemic

Gwen Smith of Pawcatuck always had dogs, so last March when she was ready to adopt several months after her two beloved dogs had died, she didn’t expect to be slammed by the COVID-19 pandemic pet rush.

“It took us months and months to put in an application,” Smith recalled. “As soon as we put it in, the dog we were looking at was gone, and we had to start all over again.”

Smith and her husband, Tom Ahlgren, heard similar stories at the Westerly dog park. People wanting to adopt pets during the COVID-19 pandemic were running into the dual problem of low supply and high demand.

She finally connected with Elena Cecil at Mona’s House, a pet rescue program based in Groton and Bozrah, and in August she met Gracie, a Rhodesian ridgeback mix from a shelter in North Carolina.

“She hid in the closet for two months,” Smith said.

About a month ago, Gracie started coming out of her shell.

“She’s great with kids,” Smith said — a must for a family with five young grandchildren.

Liz and Scott Farley of Salem started looking for two kittens, an orange one for her and a tabby for Scott, after their daughter returned home from Oxford University last March when the pandemic hit and reclaimed the two cats she had left with her parents.

“It was so difficult to adopt kittens during the pandemic,” Liz Farley said. “I spent days on the Internet, on Petfinder, calling vets we’ve worked with. The Connecticut Humane Society was not up and running. That’s where we would have gone, but they were shut down.”

She finally called Animal Friends of Connecticut, and owner George Murtha connected them with an orange kitten, Liam, and a black tabby, Charlie. The couple’s 12-year-old cat, Molly is “not a fan,” Liz Farley said, but their two great Danes have adopted the kittens.

Aaron Haggan of Jewett City got lucky with his plan to adopt his first dog for his 19th birthday last week. He visited with Mozzy, an 18-month-old American Staffordshire terrier mix, at Fun, Play, Bark in Groton, run by Cecil of Mona's House.

Haggan originally agreed to try a 30-day trial foster period. Within days, he decided Mozzy was home to stay.

“He’s the perfect dog,” Haggan said. “I can’t expect a better dog.”

Mozzy sleeps with Haggan every night and wakes his mother up at 6 a.m. to go out to the bathroom. He hasn’t had any “accidents,” Kelly Haggan said. Aaron already has taught him to sit and shake hands.

Although he didn’t adopt a dog because of the pandemic, he said he is home more now. He works nights at UPS.

“I’ve been inside a lot more, and being around the house, I can walk him around my neighborhood and on hikes," Haggan said. "He’s not the greatest on a leash yet.”

Murtha, who runs Animal Friends of Connecticut kitten adoption program based in Canton, said he can’t keep up with the demand. If he posts a litter of kittens in the morning on his Facebook page he could receive 25 phone calls that day. Most adoptees used to come from towns within about 30 miles, but now people are calling from Boston or New York too.

“I placed three kittens (on the Facebook page) at 6:05 a.m., and by 6:20 a.m., they were all gone,” Murtha said last week.

When COVID-19 hit, pet rescuers were frantic, Murtha said. Many shelters closed suddenly and had to get rid of their animals.

“I got a call from a shelter in Tennessee,” Murtha recalled. “They were going to euthanize all the cats they had, and we took them all. Almost all of them were kittens. They had about seven adults and 25 kittens.”

Murtha got calls from shelters in Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Georgia wanting him to take their kittens. His volunteers drive to meet pet transport vehicles wherever necessary to bring the kittens to Connecticut.

Murtha works with about 45 foster families, who care for the kittens and often the mother cats until the kittens are weaned at 8 weeks. He focuses on seeking adoptees for the kittens but finds homes for mothers as well. At his Canton shelter, he has about 45 adult cats, most of which are not adoptable.

James Bias, executive director of the Connecticut Humane Society, said many adoption agencies are experiencing an increase in demand and reduced intake of pets. Working at home, people have more time to take care of pets, and fewer people are surrendering pets.

Others now at home look to adopt a pet and, with dogs, to get some outdoor exercise.

Thankfully, shelter operators said, the thousands of Connecticut residents thrown out of work by the pandemic have not been giving up their pets for money reasons. Pet food drives and programs help with veterinary care.

The Humane Society plans to restart its popular low-cost pet care clinics this spring, Bias said, including in Norwich. The clinics, not yet scheduled, will be outdoors and by appointment, Bias said.

“I don’t feel that pet care is an option for people,” said Cecil, of Mona’s House and Fun, Play Bark. “It’s not considered to be a luxury.”

Bias said people often surrender pets because of “a disconnect” with the bonding, the pet not being the right fit for the household or lack of time to care for the animal.

“We are bonding more than ever with our pets, and I think remote officing is here to stay for many offices, which is going to be a win for our pets,” Bias said.

Caitlin Reynolds, general manager of the Norwichtown Pet Resort in Norwich, said with more pet adoptions, the facility has seen a higher demand for dog training classes. Even with more people at home, day camp attendance on good weather days is up by 10 to 15 dogs.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, (day camp) really dropped, but once summertime hit, it really started to pick up," Reynolds said.

Because of COVID-19 precautions, group dog training classes are limited to six attendees, and classes have been full. About 20 dog owners have opted for a customized drop-off training program that started in August, she said.

The demand for pet adoptions also has affected the supply many Northeast shelters typically receive from the South, Bias said. Now, rescue transport networks are finding homes for animals much closer, maybe 400 or 500 miles away, rather than 1,000 miles it could take to reach New England.

The pandemic last March sent animal rescue activists scrambling at first. Many shelters closed to the public and sought foster homes for animals. People wanting to adopt could no longer visit local pounds, shelters or the humane society to “shop” for that puppy or kitten that caught their eye.

Bias took the helm at the Connecticut Humane Society on Feb. 3, 2020, arriving here from a position in Texas. By the last week in March, the Humane Society had to shut down shelters in Waterford and Westport.

“Within a few days, 80 dogs and cats were placed in foster homes,” Bias said. “Our existing volunteers really stepped up, and we were greeted by a host of new volunteers, who were home and working, so we had better access to foster homes.”

Bias said with fewer pets available for adoption, people also are more willing to take on a pet with medical needs or behavioral problems, another win for typically hard-to-place animals.

The personal touch is missing from the current adoption network, however, with adoptees either seeking pets sight-unseen, or trying to make that initial love connection with an online photo. Visits are by appointment only to see specific animals, without the chance to also see other available dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs and other animals.

Bias said pets have adapted to one big pandemic change: our masks.

“Halloween masks freak out our pets,” he said, “but our pets have somehow adapted. I can walk through our shelter with a mask on and not have the animals freak out.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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