Pandemic sparks creative solutions for challenging pet needs in Tampa Bay Area

When the coronavirus hit the Tampa Bay Area in March, people flocked to local animal shelters and rescues to find four-legged “quarantine companions.”
Some were so eager to adopt they slept in cars overnight in the Humane Society of Tampa Bay’s parking lot to be the first in line the next morning. When St. Petersburg shelter Friends of Strays temporarily closed, it was able to clear its cages in just three days, sending every animal in its care to a loving home in record time. 

St. Francis Animal Rescue, a volunteer-run rescue that operates through foster homes instead of a shelter, says people turned to its website while many physical shelters were closed. The increased demand helped dozens of long-term fosters that may have been older, shy or special needs get adopted.   

However, as time passed, momentum for adoptions steadied and the real impact of the pandemic set in. Local shelters and rescues were faced with the never-before-seen challenges of rescuing and adopting out animals during a global health and economic crisis without an end in sight. Some closed for weeks, some had to cancel major fundraising events, and all had to find a way to continue their mission while keeping staff, guests, and animals safe. 

The pandemic also came with hardships for pet owners, leading to an increase in surrenders to some shelters. 

“Once we got into April and May, we noticed an uptick in pet surrenders,” says Maria Matlack, spokeswoman for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. “A lot of people, unfortunately, were losing their jobs and they could no longer afford to take care of their animals.” 

To counter that uptick, shelters have focused on intake diversion -- providing pet owners with the supplies and resources they need to keep their pets. 

Many shelters, including the Humane Society, provide free pet food to owners in need. For other groups, the pandemic has encouraged them to launch larger-scale initiatives. 

Scott Trebatoski, Director of Hillsborough County’s Pet Resource Center, says the county-funded center has taken this time to focus on addressing the needs of the community and helping pets stay with their owners. Since the county declared a state of emergency in March, the Pet Resource Center has been able to divert 85% of owner surrenders by supplying over 40,000 pounds of pet food and connecting owners with low-cost veterinary clinics. 

Most owners who think they need to surrender their pets don’t realize they have other options, Trebatoski says.
Friends of Strays has also used this time to implement an intake diversion program. The shelter did not typically take in owner surrenders before the pandemic, but recently started to in order to better serve the community during this time. Still, keeping animals out of the shelter in the first place is the goal. 

Friends of Strays launched the Safer at Home Fund to help pet owners who experienced the loss of work or income due to COVID-19. Now, the program is available to any Pinellas County pet owner facing financial hardship. Through the fund, Friends of Strays' partners with Petfood Warehouse to provide vouchers for food and other supplies, and helps connect owners to two affordable veterinary clinics in Pinellas County. The shelter also recently began partnering with Meals on Wheels St. Petersburg to provide pet food for recipients who need assistance feeding a pet. 

In another effort to keep pets out of shelters, Friends of Strays joined a national program called Home to Home, helping owners rehome their pets directly without bringing them to a shelter. Through the free program, Friends of Strays posts pets available for rehoming on its website, and promotes them via social media.

These initiatives that focus on intake diversion and supporting the community help ease the burden on the shelter system while alleviating stress on owners and their pets, Friends of Strays Director Dara Eckart says. 

“We want to make sure animals aren’t being surrendered to a shelter unless it’s absolutely the last option,” she says. 

Fundraising has also been challenging during the pandemic. Friends of Strays and the Humane Society each had to cancel their largest fundraising events of the year. Fortunately, a combination of Paycheck Protection Program loans and an increase in online donations are helping both shelters stay afloat. 

Shelters have gotten creative with their fundraising. The Humane Society hosted a “cutest pet in quarantine” photo contest, encouraging social media followers to donate $1 per vote for their favorite pet. Matlack says participation far exceeded expectations. 

Despite the challenges, rescue leaders all agree the current situation has some silver linings. It has propelled them to re-evaluate priorities, find creative solutions, and focus on meaningful initiatives that they previously did not have the time or infrastructure to carry out. 

Hillsborough’s Pet Resource Center and Friends of Strays say programs that help pet owners in need will remain a focus at their shelters, even when the pandemic is no longer an issue. Both also used this time to implement online adoption systems, which will continue to be useful in a post-COVID-19 world. 

For the Humane Society and St. Francis, the pandemic has generated significant interest from people wanting to foster adoptable pets. St. Francis Treasurer Lisa Knight says they’ve received so many requests to foster that they had to create a waitlist. 

Although the process of adopting a pet may look a little different today -- some shelters are appointment only, while others require masks and temperature checks before entering -- the goals and values of these organizations remain the same. 
“We’ve been around since 1912, and no matter what, we’re always still going to be here for the animals,” says the Humane Society’s Matlack. “Of course people are having problems, but we can’t forget about the animals.”

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Read more articles by Tyler Killette.

Tyler Killette is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in St. Petersburg. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying a Tampa Bay-brewed craft beer, catching a local band, or sneaking treats to the community cats of her Historic Uptown neighborhood.