Despite pandemic, Portland area remains a haven for homeless pets

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The coronavirus pandemic may have overburdened animal shelters around the world with strays and pets people can no longer care for, but in Maine, a different story is unfolding.

Jeana Roth, director of community engagement for the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, last week said Maine’s “community belief in adoption” has continued to help local homeless animals.

Roth said the league has seen a “sharp increase” in people interested in adopting pets during 2020. She thinks the change is partially due to people spending more time at home, which has given many “the time and energy to invest in a new animal.”

Minnie, a blue heeler mix, is one of the dogs that has lived at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland the longest. The organization has seen an increase in adoption interest and fostering since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy ARLGP)

The Westbrook-based organization has facilitated 2,100 adoptions since March and has seen 432 families sign up to foster animals since April 1, which Roth said is triple the number it would typically see.

The adopted pets have been not just dogs and cats, but also animals like rabbits.

“The interest in adopting is at an all-time high right now,” Roth said. “We simply don’t have enough animals to meet that interest at this moment in time.”

It’s a better problem to have than what many global animal shelters have experienced in recent months. 

According to environmental news magazine EcoWatch, as the pandemic surged earlier this year, shelters around the world saw spikes in pet abandonment and a “near-zero rate of adoptions.”

Animal organizations in China reached out to EcoWatch to report animals “abandoned in apartments, on the streets, and in shelters” because their owners died from COVID-19 or were unable to continue caring for their pets.

Other countries faced different issues. In the Dominican Republic, where stray animals usually rely on businesses and individuals to feed them, shelters implemented a feeding program for strays because stores and restaurants were closed.

Various regions of the United States have also had difficulties. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Sacramento, California, has seen an 11 percent increase in abandoned animals since the beginning of the pandemic, according to CBS

The Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland works with 40 organizations across the country to bring animals to its shelter, and Roth said they come from American shelters that are overpopulated and do not have enough adopters.

But COVID-19 restrictions on bringing animals from other states to Maine means there are fewer animals coming into the state to be adopted.

“We know that’s having sort of a domino effect in the south or the Midwest where they really rely on that partnership to save lives,” Roth said.

Maine has seen a consistent decline in stray and surrendered pets in the last two decades, she added, thanks to initiatives including reduced costs to spay or neuter animals. The South and other regions that regularly have a large number of unaccounted-for animals, Roth said, have not implemented legislation or worked as hard to make such programs widely available.

The refuge league offers a low-cost, income-qualified spay/neuter program for people who cannot afford the service at a typical veterinary clinic. Roth said the organization saw an increased demand for the service when the pandemic began because many veterinary practices closed for non-emergency procedures at that time.

Six to nine months later, she said, the result is that more animals in greater Portland are having litters – especially cats, which means more stray kittens.

“A lot of people are finding litters in their backyards, under the shed, in the neighbor’s garage,” Roth said. “A lot of litters are being found in communities and neighborhoods (and) being brought to us.”

The Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland has also seen an increase in people using its pet food pantry since the beginning of the pandemic. The organization works with local food pantries like the South Portland Food Cupboard to dispense pet food and allow people in need to make one stop “for human food and for pet food.” 

Gift a pet? Talk first

As for people giving pets as holiday gifts, Roth said adopting a pet should always be a “family decision.” While receiving a pet for Christmas or a birthday can have a “fun surprise element,” she said, there should first be conversations about caring for that pet for its entire life.

She also said adopting a pet for someone outside your household usually is not a good idea.

“It really should be a person or a family adopting a pet for themselves and not gifting it outside of that household,” she said.

Roth said the increase in Mainers fostering pets has been an unintended positive consequence of the pandemic. Sometimes “a few days or a few weeks” of in-home care can be helpful before a pet is ready to be adopted, and often a pets’ foster parents end up adopting them.

One of the dogs that has been in the shelter the longest, she said, is a mutt named Minnie that is part Australian cattle dog, or blue heeler.

Minnie came to Portland from an organization in Oklahoma. Roth said Minnie would “love to be home for the holidays,” but finding the right home is what is important.

Luckily, animals stay at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland until they are adopted.

“There’s no time limit and that’s because of the situation Maine shelters are in where we aren’t overwhelmed with animals,” Roth said. “We can give them all of the time that they need.”