Within the larger tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic, many pet owners are struggling with economic setbacks caused by the virus.
Across the country, many animal owners have been forced to surrender pets they can’t afford to feed or get medical care for.
When COVID-19 hit, causing widespread unemployment, some families were forced to choose between covering the cost of necessities like child care, a mortgage or auto insurance and their pet.
Animal welfare organizations in Jackson anticipated that and prepared for the worst.
But something else happened.
The mass surrendering of pets never came. In fact, the opposite took place.
Applications to adopt and foster pets in Jackson began rolling in. Local shelters emptied. Jackson’s Animal Adoption Center has arranged 150 adoptions since mid-May, Executive Director Carrie Boynton said.
“People want to connect,” Boynton said. “For us to be able to double our numbers for intake and adoption ... is an amazing showing of who the Jackson community is. People want to help animals here. It’s an amazing place.”
Rates of adoption and fostering were so high the nonprofit was able to begin taking rescue animals from farther away. Since COVID-19 paused spay and neuter programs, the number of stray animals has spiked, especially in southern states.
(Ed.: See the Peak Pets special section, inserted in this edition of the News&Guide, for more on the Animal Adoption Center’s programming.)
Fearing the worst
When the virus began to shutter businesses in mid-March, local animal welfare groups braced for widespread pet homelessness.
“We thought there might be pets all over being surrendered,” Boynton said.
The Animal Adoption Center, in partnership with the Humane Society of the United States, began working on ways to help people hang on to the pets they already had.
The center received a $5,000 grant from the Humane Society to cover medical expenses for owners who needed help paying for their pet’s surgery or other life-saving vet care.
Since receiving the funds the Animal Adoption Center has been able to cover the medical costs of repairing two broken legs, a double knee surgery, and even surgery for a dog that was shot.
PAWS of Jackson Hole, a local organization that works to prevent pet homelessness and promote responsible ownership, launched a COVID Pet Fund. The money raised by the fund covers spay and neuter surgeries, pet food vouchers, financial assistance for veterinary bills and emergency pet boarding.
Jess Farr, program coordinator at PAWS, said the organization’s COVID Pet Fund has spent over $27,000 on support services since the middle of March. Nearly 160 families in the Jackson area have benefited.
Farr said the reasons owners apply for financial support span “across the spectrum,” but her organization isn’t interested in why owners need assistance.
“We’re not going to sit on the phone and ask people their life story with their animals,” Farr said. “We’re just going to ask them what they need to get through it. We just step in and help.”
PAWS has to constantly fundraise to keep up with demand, Farr said. The overwhelming majority of the money has come from individual donors.
“It’s more apparent now than ever how important the bond is between people and their animal,” Farr said. “No person who is experiencing a crisis should have to lose their pet on top of it.”
Wind River Reservation
The Animal Adoption Center and the Humane Society realized the COVID-19 outbreak would be particularly difficult for members of rural communities who were struggling to buy pet food even before the crisis.
“Pets mean so much to their families, especially during times of isolation and fear,” said Lisa Kauffman, the Humane Society of the United States’ senior state director for Idaho and Wyoming.
Several times each year, members of the Animal Adoption Center staff travel into the Wind River Reservation to host free spay and neuter clinics. One of those clinics had to be canceled when COVID hit, so Boynton and her staff began to brainstorm other avenues for aid.
They got in touch with Kauffman, who, within a few days, had secured enough money to donate 22,000 pounds of cat and dog food to the Wind River Reservation. The food was enough to feed pets in over 300 households in the Northern Arapaho Tribe, according to tribe member Brenden Harjo.
“We are very grateful to have a partnership with HSUS during this time of need, the support and wellbeing of family loved ones expands to our furry friends as well,” Tribal Health Director David Meyers said.
The first shipment of pet food was given to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes in early May. A second shipment, along with privately donated people food and sanitation supplies, was due in early June.
Isolated, but not alone
At a time when a third of Americans are experiencing signs of clinical depression and anxiety, having a pet in the home can make a massive difference.
Local animal welfare groups knew it would be important to keep people with their animals during social distancing, especially for elderly community members or individuals who live alone.
“When you’re in the animal-welfare business, it’s not just taking care of the animals. It’s also about taking care of the people,” Kauffman said.
The hope was that the food donations, medical funding, emergency boarding and other support services would help take some of the pressure off of owners.
“Having a pet takes the edge off of self-isolating. It gives [people] something else to focus on,” Kauffman said. “Everybody’s life has been turned upside down. A pet gives you a sense of grounding.”
That is certainly true for Guthrie Coughlin and his girlfriend, Carter Denison. Guthrie’s hours were significantly reduced at his job when the lockdown orders were put in place. Denison lost her job.
The two decided to view the surplus of free time as an opportunity to do something they’d been talking about for months: adopt a dog.
Enter Corndog, their 4-month-old shepherd-Lab mix.
“It’s a great distraction,” Coughlin said. “It gives us something to grow with during this whole ordeal.”
The couple initially tried to foster through the Animal Adoption Center, but no dogs were available. They began looking at adoptable dogs, but the closest they were able to get was seventh in line.
They found a Craigslist ad for a dog in Rock Springs that had unexpectedly had a litter of puppies that needed new homes. Coughlin and Denison jumped at the opportunity.
The Animal Adoption Center still stayed in touch. When staff heard Coughlin and Denison had found a puppy, they checked on Corndog’s progress and offered to answer any questions.
Coughlin and Denison said Corndog has brought a sense of regimen back into their lives. She gives them a reason to wake up early and get outside, which has had a big effect on their mental well-being during quarantine.
“We practice social distancing, but walk the Emily Stevens Trail and get to see other hikers, bikers and dog walkers,” Coughlin said. “It’s good to know other people are out and going on with their lives in a respectful and safe way.”
More than anything, Coughlin said, Corndog has been a welcome reminder not to take themselves too seriously.
“She just makes us giggle,” he said.
Kauffman would not be surprised. She pointed to swaths of scientific evidence that indicates interaction with animals can lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
“Animals make us smile,” Kauffman said. “If you can stop long enough to appreciate that, it’s very precious.”