Sean Gallagher, an animal welfare enforcement supervisor is secured with personal protective equipment from head to toe when he entered an apartment in Northeast Miami in late March to take custody of a dog.
This 7-year-old German shepherd mix was scared, and barked at him. The dog’s owner had been infected with coronavirus and was hospitalized. Gallagher, together with Miami-Dade Police Department officers, was at the apartment after a family member in New York asked the cops to check on the pet.
“The dog was reactive and scared,” said Alex Munoz, director of Miami-Dade County Animal Services. “She lost her family.”
The shelter named her Linda, and they soon found out that her owner died of coronavirus.
Munoz said Linda was the first abandoned dog his organization took in because of the coronavirus outbreak, and about 30 pets are currently housed at the shelter whose owners died from coronavirus or has a suspected case of the virus.
Linda’s story is playing out across the country, including New York, which is the epicenter of the outbreak as it accounts for nearly one-third of coronavirus deaths nationwide. Animal Care Center in New York City said it has taken in more than two dozen pets whose owners have died from coronavirus, while other pet shelters in the city have also opened their adoption centers.
Animal shelters emptied from coast to coast after state governments issued stay-at-home orders, as many people who now work from home rushed to adopt cats and dogs.
Now, some shelters are starting to see a surge of homeless in pets who after their owners died during the pandemic.
“It was an almost creepy silence,” said Tiffany Lacey, executive director of Animal Haven, a New York City animal rescue. “My worry was always, where are the animals? What’s going on?”
Lacey said it took “about a week or two” before the shelter started receiving calls about people dying and animals being abandoned. “We knew what was going to happen, and it slowly started to trickle and now the ball is rolling down the hill faster,” she said.
Among those who came to Animal Haven: Bo, a 10-year-old blind and deaf pug. The spry senior pug was fed three homemade meals a day from his owner, who cared for him since he was a puppy.
Unfortunately, when Bo’s owner died from coronavirus, family members didn’t know what to do with him. No one could take him in permanently. They considered euthanizing him because of his age. Instead, Bo was brought to Animal Haven, which now has more than 30 dogs and cats who have lost their families to COVID-19.
“Something so sad that’s happening right now is the amount of people who don’t have that safety net at all, whether it’s family or friends to take their pets,” Lacey said.
On Sunday, Bo went to a new home.
Last weekend, a 55-year old woman and her brother died at a small apartment in Ridgewood, New York, that they shared with their mother. The deceased were believed to have contracted the virus. Their mother, who is also sick and grieving the loss of her children, was left with at least 16 Chihuahuas.
Animal Haven sent a team of volunteers wearing protective suits, masks, gloves, and blue booties over their shoes to remove most of the Chihuahuas. The team placed them in crates and carriers to transport them by van to their Manhattan shelter where they were placed in quarantine.
Due to these cases, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends that pet owners should have an emergency plan in place, identify a family member or friend who can care for your pet should you become sick, have up-to-date veterinary records and proof of vaccinations, and stock up on food and medications that could last a few weeks.
Shelters have gone through stresses before from Super Storm Sandy in New York, Hurricanes Katrina in Louisiana, and the global recession of 2008 but some shelter employees said it’s different during the coronavirus pandemic.
“What’s so unique about this situation as opposed to other economic situations is we just don’t have any idea of when things will be back to any semblance of normal and what things will look like when we get there,” said Anna Rafferty-Arnold, associate director of the Massachusetts SPCA Boston adoption center.
“It’s unpredictable. We’re bracing ourselves for everything.”