For Lori Konawalik, it was a day of success and sadness. Konawalik is the owner of Mac Tabby Cat Café, a bar and coffee shop in NoDa that doubles as an animal rescue, where patrons relax and interact with felines available for adoption. She remembers the café had just celebrated its first full year in NoDa.
“We had momentum and knew that 2020 was going to be a defining year after two years of putting roots down in Charlotte,” Konawalik says. “Then it all came to a screeching halt.”
Even under normal circumstances, regional animal care and rescue is a delicate balancing act. But under the stresses imposed by the stay-at-home order and social distancing, gaps have appeared in Charlotte’s animal welfare safety system.
Like many other Charlotte businesses, Mac Tabby closed its doors in March to comply with the county’s stay-at-home order, a protocol designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. On top of shutting down, Konawalik faced an additional challenge: In three days she had to find homes for the 12 felines living in her cat lounge.
Konawalik turned to her rescue partner Catering to Cats and Dogs (C2CND), a nonprofit that supplies animals to Mac Tabby and cultivates a network of foster homes and adoption rooms at stores like Pet Supply Plus and PetSmart. Mac Tabby is legally a kennel, and the animals in its cat lounge technically belong to C2CND, says the organization’s feline director Roseann Forbes.
“We had to quickly come up with a plan for all our foster homes,” Forbes offers. “Who can take in extra cats? How quickly can we move these cats?” Fortunately, adoptions were already pending for seven of Mac Tabby’s 12 cats, so the paperwork was completed and appointments were scheduled for each person to pick up their new feline friend. The five remaining cats were moved into foster homes. “They were there for about a week and we were able to do adoptions [for them],” Forbes says.
“It was bittersweet for me because it was so nice to see the cats go home, but it was also hard to see everything dissolve so fast,” Konawalik remembers. “It was weird to see all the cats leave at the same time and all the doors shut.”
Animal rescues adapt
Konawalik and Forbes are not alone in finding solutions to save animals in a landscape defined by COVID-19 and public health measures to stem the spread of the disease. Several organizations, ranging from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Animal Care & Control (AC&C) to the all-volunteer, all-foster Greater Charlotte Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) are devoted to rescuing the city’s cats and dogs and finding them forever homes.
Each organization has pivoted to address the unique challenges posed by the pandemic. Their efforts include adopting procedures to maintain social distancing, relaxing some guidelines to streamline operations, finding ways to function despite funding shortfalls and more.
“Pretty much by definition any shelter in the South is going to be a high-kill shelter, particularly in rural areas,” says Fara Robinson, vice president of the Greater Charlotte SPCA. She stresses that the rural shelters do their best, but are frequently hamstrung by limited resources and staff.
If the region’s rescue efforts can be seen as a cooperative and overlapping ecosystem, then the building blocks of the system are those municipal shelters. First, unwanted animals enter the shelters, either through owner surrender or stray intake. Most facilities, like AC&C’s shelter on Byrum Drive, provide animals with a medical screening that includes vaccinations, deworming, sterilization, microchipping and more. While some cats and dogs get adopted by patrons coming to the shelters searching for pets, still others come under the care of animal rescue groups who relieve the shelters by taking animals under their wing.
One of these options is the Humane Society of Charlotte’s facility on Toomey Avenue in the Southside Park neighborhood in southwest Charlotte. The Humane Society is better equipped and funded to care for animals’ medical needs and to find them homes than smaller municipal shelters. Otherwise, the rescue groups find foster homes or place animals at Mac Tabby and Charlotte’s other cat café, Daily Mews, cozy hangouts where cats can meet their new owners and lifelong companions.
Many tears in the safety net caused by the COVID-19 crisis affect Charlotte’s cat population. AC&C’s kitten nursery, where young orphaned kittens’ lives are saved through bottle-feeding and constant attention, has not been opened this year. The result may be higher kitten mortality, and the kittens that do survive in the wild can only add to the area’s population of homeless animals.
The unwanted adult cat population may also increase because The Humane Society of Charlotte (HSC) has temporarily suspended its Community Cat program, under which stray cats are captured then sterilized before being set free in their communities. These trap-neuter-release (TNR) initiatives have proven effective in reducing feral feline populations.
Animal Care & Control sees donations dwindle
Other changes impact both cats and dogs. Many clinics have temporarily suspended spay and neuter procedures. With many organizations requiring sterilization before they can adopt out animals, cats and dogs may find themselves trapped in a homeless limbo while they wait for spay and neuter to resume.
Perhaps most damaging, spring is when the animal rescue nonprofits launch the initiatives that enable them to meet their annual budgets. The shutdown necessitated by COVID-19 has severely limited these organizations’ fundraising efforts. The shortfall is a widespread concern.
Even bigger operations such as AC&C, which is funded by the city, has had to curtail donation-funded enrichment services. Popular programs like Staycation and Daycation, which allow people to take pets out for one to five days, have been temporarily suspended. While the HSC collects service fees for adoptions and vaccinations, the majority of its budget is also funded by donations.
The good news is that adoptions are up, says AC&C director Josh Fisher, despite the fact that the shelter on Byrum Drive has reduced its hours (11 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week) and is limiting the number of visitors at the shelter to two at a time. Between March 16 and April 23 this year, AC&C has seen a 26.7% increase in adoptions for dogs and a 19.5% increase in adoptions for cats compared to the same dates last year.
HSC has also seen a spike in adoptions so far this spring, says spokesperson Emily Cook. In March, the shelter on Toomey Avenue hosted 276 adoptions, up from 212 last year. Normally open to walk-ins, the shelter is now essentially closed to the public, meaning if someone wants to adopt through HSC, they must go online to check out animal profiles and fill out an application. They are then contacted by HSC’s adoption counselors and matched with an animal that fits their lifestyle. Adopters then come to the facility on Toomey to pick up their new pet by appointment.
“Normally when people walk through the door, only 30% of them adopt an animal,” Cook offers. “But now we’re seeing that 70% of people are adopting. They are coming in with a purpose, a goal in mind to bring home an animal that day.”
People who have been mulling over getting a dog or cat are now sitting at home and finding the time to adopt and get to know an animal, says Robinson. The number of people wanting to foster has also risen, Robinson offers.
“Right now, for the first time ever, we have more people wanting to foster than we have animals to place with them,” Robinson says. “It’s a nice problem to have.”
In contrast, Forbes is cautious about pet adoption’s upswing in popularity. The organization is taking extra precautions in screening adoptions, ensuring that people are committing to an animal for life, not just for the duration of the pandemic.
“We want families who are interested in welcoming a family member long term,” Forbes offers, “and not just looking for immediate companionship.”
Spay and neuter services to resume
Adoption numbers also need to be seen in context. While AC&C’s adoption rate has climbed, their animal intake numbers for 2020 are significantly lower than the intake numbers from 2019.
“In 2019 we had a total intake of 857 dogs and cats between March 16 and April 23, 2019,” Fisher says. “In 2020, for those same dates we have taken in 470 dogs and cats.” The lion’s share of animals coming into the facility have been stray dogs with a smaller percentage being owner surrenders.
The HSC cites similar statistics: 80 to 90% of their animals are municipal shelter transfers, Cook reports.
AC&C still responds to public health and safety calls, but they are prioritizing their responses. Citizens are encouraged to try to get animals home safely on their own without requiring an officer to go out on call, Fisher offers, ensuring that fewer people interact and potentially cross social-distancing boundaries.
While AC&C still takes in stray dogs, they stopped taking in healthy stray cats on April 1. The policy has made animal rescue workers like Forbes worried that the city’s stray-cat population may climb as a consequence.
“The reason behind [the policy] is that we do not have a leash law for cats in Mecklenburg County so there’s that challenge of saying whether a cat is actually stray or not,” Fisher explains.
The chance of an animal finding its way home is substantially higher if the animal is left in its community rather than coming into AC&C’s shelter, he continues.
AC&C has also not opened its volunteer-staffed kitten nursery, prompting concerns about rising cat mortality in the region. In 2017, the nursery helped increase the kitten adoption rate by 38.7%, while reducing kitten euthanasia by 42.3%.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, AC&C didn’t have enough newborn kittens coming in to merit opening the nursery, Fisher explains.
AC&C decided not to bring volunteers into the Byrum Drive shelter, as they’re trying to limit the number of people interacting onsite.
“Though several [kittens] have come in since March 16, we were able to get all of those out into foster homes,” Fischer says.
Local facilities shut down
Forbes says that several bottle-baby kittens have gone to animal rescue organizations instead, including C2CND.
Right now, though, Forbes’ main concern is the lack of affordable veterinarian care for pets. Low-cost clinics like Stand For Animals and SnipWell shut down their spay and neuter services prior to the stay-at-home order, Forbes offers.
She believes that action is going to have huge ramifications on animal rescues like C2CND as well as community cats.
Cook explains that HSC followed the recommendations of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), suspending their spay and neuter services to keep people safe and to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
“While there is no threat in terms of the actual spay and neuter surgery, it is nearly impossible to maintain safe social distancing from another person while doing the procedure,” she maintains.
AC&C suspended spay and neuter services on April 1. The recommendation came from the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, based on a need to assess the availability of respirators and personal protective equipment.
On May 4, the AC&C staff confirmed that they will resume spay and neuter services on May 11.
“Currently we have 45 cats in rescue pending spay and neuter,” Forbes says.
Since C2CND won’t adopt out any animal that hasn’t been sterilized, her main concern is whether those services will be up and running soon enough. “How long will it take to get an appointment to get our animals spayed and neutered?”
Charlotte’s spay and neuter delay is less of a concern for Greater Charlotte SPCA. Of their veterinary partners including Stand For Animals, Harris Boulevard Veterinary Clinic, DownDog Veterinary Clinic and Pressly Animal Hospital, all but DownDog have put a temporary hold on any non-essential procedures, including sterilizations, for a couple of weeks, Robinson says.
“It’s been less of a concern for us because many of the animals we have pulled from area shelters have been spayed or neutered at the shelter,” she offers.
Compounding difficulties caused by the temporary spay neuter stoppage, animal rescues are also reeling from funding shortfalls precipitated by the pandemic. C2CND has seen a 40% reduction in donations since stay-in-place was implemented, Forbes says. Food and material donations gathered through partners like PetSmart and Pet People have also dropped.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Robinson. Skyrocketing adoptions are countered by plummeting funds, she continues. Robinson also doesn’t expect the current surplus of foster homes to hold once stay-at-home orders are lifted.
“The shelters are going to be filling up again, and we will be going just as quick as we can,” she continues. “We’re accomplishing a lot, but without the fundraising that we normally do this time of year, I’m very concerned about what it will look like at the end of the year.”