More people than ever are fostering dogs and cats, say Tampa Bay rescues

They’re helping animals, and shelters, without committing to adopt.
Scruffy, a cat that was being forstered by a St. Francis Society volunteer, seen in her new home.
Scruffy, a cat that was being forstered by a St. Francis Society volunteer, seen in her new home. [ Courtesy of St. Francis Society ]
Published April 14, 2020|Updated April 14, 2020

The days of not having enough time for a dog or cat seem to be behind us, at least temporarily.

Animal shelters around Tampa Bay say the number of volunteers fostering cats and dogs at their homes while the animals await adoption has grown quickly over the past few weeks. The numbers ticked up as people adjusted to working and studying from home, while staying put on nights and weekends.

Hillsborough County’s Pet Resource Center had more than 100 cats and dogs in foster homes this week, about four times the normal amount. Holly Clare, communications manager for Friends of Strays in St. Petersburg, said interest in fostering is “through the roof." The Suncoast Animal League in Palm Harbor and Tampa’s St. Francis Society are hearing from volunteers who’ve never fostered before.

And Pinellas County Animal Services announced that the dog kennels were empty Monday night. “For the first time in years at Pinellas County Animal Services, our dog adoption program is completely adopted out,” said Animal Services Director Doug Brightwell.

“We love fosters,” said Hillsborough animal services spokesman Todd Pratt. “If a foster parent takes a dog for two weeks they can give us notes like, ‘He’s never happier than in the passenger seat with the window down.' Anything that can illustrate their personality, that makes a big difference in getting them adopted."

Animal rescues say foster homes are always the best option. The stress of a shelter can lead to animals that don’t “show well," but would otherwise make good pets, and it gets worse the longer an animal is in a shelter. And foster families often become their foster pets’ best advocates, getting the word out about a great dog or cat via friends and family or just by walking them in public.

Interest in permanently adopting cats and dogs seems high as well during the pandemic, though the overall number of adoptions is down at most area shelters. The dip is due to fewer available dogs and cats coming into shelters, not a lack of people searching for pets.

“Normally we’d only have a line if we had puppies or kittens or any highly desirable breed,” said Maria Matlack, a spokesman for Humane Society of Tampa Bay, where adoptions are up. “Now it’s every morning we have a line outside because of so many interested people.” Spots have been marked on the sidewalk to space them out.

But Hillsborough’s Pet Resource Center only housed 14 dogs and five cats as of Monday, when it normally has hundreds.

Scott Trebatoski, director of the center, said animal services is actively working to keep cages empty, in case they have to take in animals exposed to the coronavirus. That could quickly eat up their capacity. Precautionary guidelines about spacing out such animals would mean one animal would require three empty cages around it.

Although it’s not clear how easily the virus spreads to pets (an early study shows cats are more susceptible than dogs), Trebatoski said shelters are planning to play it safe — another reason all the new foster families are helping.

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Shelters, though essential, have had to adapt they way they operate with social distancing.

St. Francis does not have a physical shelter, and normally relies on adoption centers at PetSmart, Petco and Pet Supermarket to introduce cats to families, but the stores have stopped hosting adoptions.

The organization is now relying on its website and social media. Kim Long, a volunteer with St. Francis, recently used Zoom to hold a meet and greet with Scruffy, a tuxedo kitty she was fostering.

Scruffy and Kim Long during a meet-and-greet over Zoom.
Scruffy and Kim Long during a meet-and-greet over Zoom. [ Courtesy of St. Francis Society ]

“With people looking online, we have seen some of our older or shy kitties get adopted, ones that would not show well at adoption events,” said Christine Swoboda of St Francis. “So that has been great.”

Pinellas County Animal Services allows only one person in the adoption area at a time. Hillsborough has done around 50 curbside pick-ups for adoptions booked online. Friends of Strays dog adoptions take place 100 percent outdoors. The Humane Society of Tampa Bay is checking people’s temperatures before they come inside.

Even though every animal Friends of Strays had in their shelter in the past two weeks was adopted within a day or two, far faster than normal, they plan to start moving adoptable pets directly into foster homes. So far, it’s working out.

“Our foster list is almost too long to manage at this point," Clare said. "Makes sense because everyone is home with loads of free time, so they can take a foster pet until life goes back to normal, but they may not want to make that full-time commitment.”

Surrenders of pets are down at most shelters, but not all. Some believe those numbers will likely go up if unemployment remains high.

Devon Arcuri with the Humane Society of Pinellas said they’ve already seen an increase in the number of people using their pet food pantry. The pantry provides food for owners in need on a short-term emergency basis, as well as long-term for pet owners who are unemployed.

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