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Are ‘pandemic pets’ really being returned to shelters?

(NEXSTAR) – Pet shelters and rescue agencies saw a significant uptick in rates of adoption at the beginning of the pandemic. But there’s another side to that story, and some of it is playing out in the streets across America.

While many folks who adopted pets in the earlier months of the COVID-19 outbreak have given their furry friends loving, lasting homes, there were occasional reports that some of these animals were already being returned or abandoned by mid-2021. However, according to officials at some of the busiest shelters in the country, it’s unlikely that these newly abandoned animals were the same ones who were adopted during the “pandemic pet” boom of 2020.

“We were diligent when it came to screening these families looking to adopt, which I think helped [keep people from returning],” said Paula Fasseas, the founder and chair of PAWS Chicago. “We got a lot of good animals into great homes.”

Diane Johnson, the vice president of shelter operations at the North Shore Animal League, agreed, explaining that the shelter requires its adopters to pass a “vigorous application and approval process,” which she credits for the low return rate.

“While there have been stories of increases in animal returns since people began returning to work/social life post-pandemic happening elsewhere, fortunately North Shore Animal League America has not experienced an increase in animal surrenders as post-lockdown protocols have been lifted and life begins to return to ‘normal,’” Johnson said in a statement shared with Nexstar.

A 2021 study from Shelter Animals Count, which maintains a national database of shelter statistics, had also found that intake levels at U.S. shelters had increased by only 0.56% from 2020 to 2021. And if you compare 2021 to 2019, shelters actually saw a 23% decrease in the number of animals that were being returned, according to the study.

There are, of course, always exceptions to these trends. A number of rescue organizations actually reported an increase in return rates at the tail end of 2021, but people across the country weren’t bringing back their animals “en masse,” the study concluded.

So if fewer people are returning their pets overall, is there really a cause for concern?

Absolutely, according to Fasseas.

In her experience, the current crisis has little to do with people giving up their pandemic pets, and more to do with existing pet owners who relinquished their animals after experiencing life changes brought on by the pandemic.

“When there’s change, animals are always the victim of change,” she said. “You hear people saying, ‘They don’t take pets where I’m moving.’ ‘I’m getting married,’ and so on. There’s also been higher rates of [human] mortality since COVID, and where do their pets go? Pets are always a part of it.”

Making matters worse, Fasseas said many municipal shelters had been forced to scale back their operations since COVID hit, and some were temporarily refusing to take in owner-relinquished animals.

In Chicago, for instance, Fasseas said PAWS was “getting calls every day” from people who reported finding abandoned animals. Others phoned up and said they wanted to relinquish a pet, but were told by municipal agencies that they wouldn’t be able to drop them off for months.

Chicago Animal Care and Control, meanwhile, had never closed to the public, but did confirm to Nexstar that it had switched over to an appointment-based intake system (rather than allowing owners to surrender their animals whenever they liked) as of March 19, 2020. That system remains in place, and it’s one of the reasons that some people had just abandoned their animals in the street, Fasseas said.

“That kind of thing happens, but it’s happening so much more now,” she claimed.

If someone really must relinquish a pet, Fasseas urges that they give themselves lots of time — months, even — to arrange for a shelter. And for those that want to adopt, well, she says they need to be ready for a long-term commitment, no matter what the pandemic throws their way.

“Everyone’s life is changing at a much more rapid pace,” said Fasseas. “And it’s important that this new family member is cared for.”

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