Shelter pets should be in foster homes all the time, not just while we're quarantined
It's time to talk about how to do things differently
By: Dr. Ellen Jefferson
The silver lining in the madness of this pandemic is clearly the giant response Americans have had to taking in shelter animals during quarantine. In my hometown of Austin, Texas, more than 1,500 animals are currently in foster care, making the shelter I run emptier than it has been in 70 years. We’ve been hearing from so many of our shelter partners across the country that their cities are running out of animals, with empty kennel doors swung wide, showing off how few animals they have in their care.
Before the pandemic, animal sheltering was a broken industry covered in bandaids–death by a thousand paper cuts. Animal shelters were originally created as a place to house “loose” animals suspected of rabies, holding them for a few days and then euthanizing them, though rabies has been almost eradicated. In the last 70 years, fewer than 125 rabies cases in humans have been reported, yet our nation alone is still killing two million companion animals in shelters every year. Animal sheltering has made improvements over the last 10 years or so and many national organizations like Best Friends, Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA and Petco Foundation have stepped up to do their part in trying to stop the hemorrhage of animals being euthanized in shelters for space, funding and convenience– we still have a long way to go.
While the response to homeless pets during COVID-19 has been fantastic, it raises the question, why haven’t we always done it this way? For many Americans, before this crisis, animal shelters in need weren't even on their radar. Now that the country has put on its comfy pants and seen how easy, fulfilling and rewarding it can be to foster a pet, how do we continue this trajectory so that fostering can be, at least one, major solution to overcrowded animal shelters and euthanizing millions of animals?
I propose animal shelters serve a new purpose. The city/county tax funded animal shelter should be just one point in a coordinated set of community resources for saving companion animals. We’ll always need animal shelters just like we’ll always need emergency rooms for people, but they should not be the answer for every homeless animal, just like a hospital isn’t the place for every person in need. Animals are part of families now, but there aren’t systems in communities yet for supporting a family through crisis. Where animals are waiting, there are foster homes ready for them. Now we need to coordinate resources for those people who lose their homes and can no longer keep their pet, or that family that can’t afford a lifesaving surgery when their pet is hit by a car.
What if we use the momentum of this crisis to carve out a new future and end the pound model of community animal control for good. For the next few months, it won’t be possible to use animal shelters the way they have always been used– to round up and house animals until they die– because shelter workforces have been dispersed. Now is the time to leverage homes as the new shelter, whether they be original homes, temporary homes or new homes and disperse the necessary resources to enable that to become our new normal. We have the gift of time, right now, to rethink old methodology and break away from our 100 year old legacy of catch and kill. Join the movement at americanpetsalive.org
Dr. Ellen Jefferson is the Executive Director of American Pets Alive! and has spearheaded components of this new model of community coordinated lifesaving in Austin, Texas. Now, the entire city of Austin euthanizes less than five percent of animals coming through the shelter each year making it the largest No Kill city in the country. She is now leading the way in teaching the Austin model to animal shelters across the country, helping to reshape the way we look at lifesaving.