A shelter is emptied as the public responds to the call to adopt and foster during the current coronavirus pandemic. In other communities, however, pounds are being emptied by killing. The current crisis is bringing out the best in us. And the worst…

When it comes to dogs, cats, and other animal companions, the coronavirus pandemic has brought out the best in people. Shelters have put out the call to the community for help with animals and the community has emptied out those shelters, by adopting and fostering. In New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, Nevada, Iowa, and more, shelters are find homes for every single animal in their facility. The placement rate is upwards of 24 times the typical number of animals. One of those shelters typically puts 10 animals in foster homes on a single day. During the pandemic, it placed over 250 in one day.

We live in a society in which most people want to maximize the happiness of cats and dogs. It is the job of animal shelters to provide opportunities for them to do so. With schools closed, people off of work or working from home, and seeing their communities in need and wanting to help in ways big and small, progressive shelters are embracing ingenuity, a “can do” attitude, and technology to save the animals, while also protecting the public and shelter workers.

How?

Some shelters are simply limiting the number of people who can come in at any one time. Others are getting creative, such as doing virtual adoptions both online and by telephone. At one shelter, “Staff members will complete the adoption virtually and help schedule… [curbside] pick-ups or deliveries.” These efforts have been so successful that entire regions are running out of dogs and cats to place in homes.

Unfortunately, whether a community realizes this kind of success depends on local “shelter” managers and the officials that oversee them, following a typical pattern, with regions that embraced innovation before the current crisis merely extending it to novel circumstances and those that had not simply closing to the public, putting animals at grave and mortal risk.

Little innovation is coming out of many Kentucky communities, for example, where a 2018 report found that pounds are some of the most notorious abusers in the state, with only 12% in compliance with state law governing care of animals. That means roughly 9 out of ten Kentucky pounds routinely neglected or abused animals including:

  • Not feeding the animals every day;
  • Not providing clean water to animals;
  • Housing animals in cages too small for them to stand up or turn around;
  • Not providing heat or indoor housing during cold weather;
  • Keeping animals in dirty cages;
  • Keeping dead animals in cages with live animals; and
  • Not providing needed medical care.

Kentucky is not alone. There are pounds across the country that are still not online, meaning if they close their physical facilities to the public, there is no way to do fostering or adoptions. Efforts to legislate mandatory posting of animals online in several states have failed, having been opposed by groups such as Best Friends, HSUS, and the ASPCA which sided with regressive facilities that did not want to modernize. On their behalf, Best Friends argued that shelter reformers should not second-guess the decisions of “shelter” managers and claimed that mandating online posting of animals was “unrealistic for some small rural shelters to meet.” Animals in those facilities have long paid the price. The stakes are even higher now.

To the extent that these pounds, like those in Kentucky, were neglectful to begin with when the public (and, if allowed, volunteers) could see, now that they are closed to the public and closed to volunteers, there is no one to ensure the safety of the animals: No eyes. No ears. No community conscience providing some measure of oversight.

With nurses protecting themselves with garbage bags, with hospitals weighing “do not resuscitate” orders for all patients, with lack of testing, lack of ventilators, lack of hospital beds, lack of basic supplies, and with refrigerated trucks in hospital parking lots being used to store the dead, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep insufficiencies in our country’s social and public health safety net for people. For those paying attention, it is also exposing — in too many communities — our total abdication of the safety net we owe dogs, cats, rabbits and other animals.

As philosopher David Pearce writes, “Over the last century, a welfare state for humans was introduced in Western European societies so that the most vulnerable members of our own species wouldn’t suffer avoidable hardship.” “The problem,” as he notes, “is not just that existing welfare provision is inadequate: it’s also arbitrarily species-specific. In common with the plight of vulnerable humans before its introduction, the welfare of vulnerable non-human animals depends mostly on private charity. No universal guarantees of non-human well-being exist.”

Ideally, animal shelters would provide those guarantees, through embrace of the No Kill philosophy and the programs and services which make it possible — programs that can save lives not only during ordinary circumstances, but extraordinary situations like the one we are currently facing. Unfortunately, many communities are failing to live up to the debt and duty we owe and using this shared crisis to provide an automatic death sentence for animals.

If this crisis leads to positive change, perhaps the position long held by Best Friends, the ASPCA, HSUS, and others that we cannot expect all shelters in all communities to enter the modern age will now be seen as what it always was: cruel and untenable. It is not unrealistic to expect all shelters in the 21st century to embrace 21st century solutions. It is also not unrealistic to force them to do so.

One shelter, embracing 21st century solutions, has emptied out its shelter through online adoption and drive thru’ fostering. Every single animal in the facility is now in a home. A neighboring one has closed, choosing to empty its facility with 19th century methods: poison and garbage bags. We need to pass laws that take away that choice.

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