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Windham County Humane Society veterinary technician Mary Jane Rickards checks an owned cat who had to have surgery to remove a large mass. WCHS was the first in Vermont to implement an affordable pet care program, the Pet Care Assistance program, to help keep pets in their homes and allow owners to access veterinary care.

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Pet shortage reports are barking up the wrong tree

WCHS responded to pandemic by increasing vet care, curtailing animal intake by transport

For more information about the shelter and adoptions, visit windhamcountyhumane.org. If you have an animal abuse emergency, contact the animal control officer for your town, the Windham County Sheriff’s Department, or the Vermont State Police. Animal Control officer contact information can be found on the WCHS website.

BRATTLEBORO—What has really happened regarding pet adoption during the COVID-19 pandemic is complicated, but silver linings have abounded for the Windham County Humane Society (WCHS) — many because the organization took steps early to look at the bigger picture and fill an immediate need.

One much-appreciated windfall came recently with the delivery of 33,000 pounds of pet food and supplies from the online pet supply retailer Chewy.com and the Humane Society of the United States, says WCHS Executive Director Annie Guion.

That delivery, intended for regional food pantries and other shelters via distribution from WCHS, saw Guion and volunteers spending six hours unloading a tractor-trailer truck.

A man named John, whose last name Guion doesn’t even know, happened to stop by to donate a bag of dog food and ended up spending several hours helping with unloading.

“He just walked in and said, ‘Do you guys need help?’ and he helped for hours and hours,” she says. “I kept saying, ‘It’s OK if you have to leave,’ but he stayed.”

The WCHS van — a donation in its own right by Brattleboro Auto Mall in 2016, for which Guion is extremely thankful — was put to work getting some food to the shelter for temporary storage.

“The need is great, and people are coming from all over to take it to their various food pantries,” Guion says. “It’s a condition of the donation that it’s not for the shelter, which is fine. We feed our in-house animals on Hill’s Science Diet.”

Covid stats skewed

At WCHS, the return rate of cats and dogs adopted by people in the throes of the pandemic has not risen since folks have started returning to the workplace.

“But then, we did not adopt out a lot of animals in 2020,” Guion says.

The media reported an uptick in adoptions, but it is not what was seen in the two big sources of data, Shelter Animals Count and PetPoint.

The upshot, Guion says: “Adoptions were down in 2020, but so was intake in shelters.”

She said that PetPoint, which 1,464 animal welfare organizations use, shows the WCHS adoption return rate at 3.4 percent this year to date, with Vermont overall at 4.4 percent and the U.S. at 3.9 percent.

The average adoption return rate in the past 11 years at WCHS is 7 percent.

“Our owner surrender rates went up as a percentage, but that is largely due to the huge drop in transports for us in 2020,” says Guion, noting the issue is “complicated” because many small-animal rescue transport operations don’t track the animals they move.

PetPoint and Shelter Animals Count both have more shelters as members than rescues, which Guion says represent “a large unknown in terms of data.”

“For me as the director here, and having to respond to a pandemic that ascended quickly, and following orders, we did not think transport, such as from Louisiana, was a good idea [during the height of the pandemic],” she says.

What complicates the picture, Guion says, is the rescue groups.

“They often don’t have a facility. They pull animals from a shelter and drive them up, and that continued, but a lot of the animals aren’t tracked,” she says. “The truth is we don’t know what those numbers are. So whether the media had it right, I don’t know.”

“We don’t have the data,” she says. “If you go to adoptapet.com, it says we have 677 dogs and we actually have four.”

If one looks directly at the listing for the WCHS on the site, it shows a reasonable number of animals available — five, as of June 14. But search directly for dogs, and a screaming bold headline informs you, “We Found 708 Dogs Near Brattleboro, Vt.”

Guion says that count is actually predicated on transporters saying they’d be willing to travel to Brattleboro — not on how many pets were actually delivered to town.

How and if transporters worked during the pandemic shutdown also added confusion, she says.

“Some of the transporters honored the governor’s orders, but enforcement, of course, was the issue,” Guion says. “Some rescues are putting their data into these various things, but we don’t know who’s doing what. It’s been an issue for years.”

She explains that part of the reason so many animals are transported from Southern states to Vermont and New England “is because we don’t have any guidelines. Other states do, and that makes it harder to just pull into a parking lot with a bunch of dogs and wait for people to come for them.”

Guion said the vast majority of rescues “are well intended, but there is a concern that people are taking advantage and moving puppy mill animals north. We just don’t know.”

“When you create a vacuum, you invite a black market,” she says.

As a result, “We have started a database of all rescues who say they will bring dogs to Brattleboro to find out if they’re really a charity and how they work,” Guion says.

Thinking ahead to fill a need

What WCHS did do was identify a need for veterinary care. To date, the organization has helped care for 2,000 animals.

In fact, WCHS was the first shelter in Vermont to provide affordable vet care, beginning with a small pilot program funded by the Banfield Foundation in 2011.

“New England has made so much progress on pet overpopulation for both dogs and cats that we could add a transport program and our Pet Care Assistance program to address the need for affordable veterinary care to keep pets in the homes they have,” Guion says.

“When Covid hit, the need for vet care skyrocketed and has kept us very, very busy,” she continues. “The need for affordable vet care is a national issue, but we are so glad we addressed it back in 2011 so that our program was cruising along when the pandemic hit.”

Silver linings

The Pet Care Assistance program at the start was income-based, and WCHS was helping those who couldn’t afford proper veterinary care for their animals.

Covid changed that threshold.

“With the pandemic, folks couldn’t get to vets, and even the town of Brattleboro reached out to us to help with things like rabies vaccinations,” Guion says. “We now have a vet at the shelter two days a week.”

She calls affordable vet care “the primary need in New England.”

“Places dealing with pet overpopulation can’t move to that next step like we can,” she says. “It’s exciting.”

“We’re really happy to be helping people,” she adds, noting that WCHS personnel “also went to Groundworks in April and May to provide care to those folks.”

Another silver lining of the pandemic, says Guion, is that “shelters are talking more to one another.”

Supply and demand

Despite rumors about a shortage of cats for adoption here, that’s not exactly correct, she says.

New England shelters, says Guion, “have done such a good job in spaying and neutering animals that WCHS has to import many of its animals from southern shelters that are overcrowded and would kill the doggies and kitties if not for places like WCHS that have waiting lists for animals.”

But that has not been the case during the pandemic.

“We have been transporting cats for many years and at the peak of it, over 30 percent were coming from elsewhere,” says Guion. “With the pandemic, we weren’t transporting. There are still strays and surrenders, but it’s not the issue it once was.”

During the past year, three adult cats with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) made the trip thanks to Good Karma Pet Rescue of South Florida, and they will find homes here in which to safely live out their lives.

Many WCHS cats come to the shelter courtesy of Good Karma, when they come from outside the area. Guion says this applies also to dogs, but that shortage of adoptable dogs started much longer ago.

“Which is why we had very few dogs this winter,” she says. “Fifty percent of our intake was transport dogs, even prior to the pandemic.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #617 (Wednesday, June 16, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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