The pandemic is a drag. There's no way around it. One good fix? A fuzzy, clumsy, cuddly puppy. Pet adoptions skyrocketed during the stay-at-home order in March. And the run on quarantine companions doesn't seem to be letting up.
For those who long dreamed of welcoming a pet into their life, the pandemic has presented an opportunity: lots of free time spent at home.
That's what finally made Amanda Bales crack. She'd been waiting until she was more settled. She used to move a lot for work, and didn't think it would be the right time to get a dog until she had a house with a yard and a doggy door.
Then COVID happened. The English lecturer found herself working remotely.
"That was definitely at a point where I was completely in isolation. I wasn't even going to the store, etc.," Bales said. "And I was basically like, 'If I don't get some kind of mammalian contact, I'm going to lose my mind.'"
She had a vision for what she wanted in a dog: older, female, beagle-sized and pretty lazy. Then she saw Axton. She was sold immediately.
"He's a male. And a puppy. He was 10 weeks old. A variety of breeds, but there's definitely some pointer in there, so he definitely needs to exercise for a couple hours a day," she said. "It's like the opposite of all the things in my head. But it's absolutely true: the minute I got him and got him home, he's been my best bud and it's been great."
Bales said this year has been hard with politics and environmental catastrophes—let alone the pandemic.
“With all of these things going on at the same time, a creature that just has no idea any of that is happening and just wakes up every morning joyful and ready to experience pure joy of chasing squirrels, it makes a massive difference," Bales said. "Everything else kind of seems tinged, except for him and the way he’s experiencing the world.”
She's not the only one finding comfort in a quarantine pet.
Don England and his wife had a dog for 15 years that passed away a few months back.
“We thought we’d go a little while without a pet, but she works from home and was kind of getting lonely in the house all by herself. Just having something around making a little noise or breathing or giving her some attention—she kind of missed that.”
The family welcomed Penny Ray into their home a month ago. England said it's been helpful to have an obligation to go outside and carve out time away from work to go for walks, or play with Penny Ray in the backyard. He said it also gives his wife someone to talk to rather than being stuck at home alone on her computer all day.
Jacob Beinborn and his wife also lost their beloved pet during the pandemic: a beautiful calico cat named Madison. After some time had passed, they were searching pet adoption apps--just to see what was out there. That's when they spotted Louie.
“We went in with no intentions of actually bringing him home that day. But we get there and he is close to 19 pounds of cat. We were just amazed when we saw him. He was just the cutest cat," Beinborn said. "We’d brought the carrier just in case.”
The interest in quarantine companions has kept adoption agencies busy.
Stephanie Buhrow work with Pet Central Helps, the Normal-based organization that found Axton a home with Bales.
Pet Central Helps started in 2017. It's an entirely foster-based organization, until they finish building a shelter for homeless pets.
Buhrow said so far this year, the agency has placed more than 650 dogs and cats—the vast majority after the pandemic began. It's a significant increase over the previous year.
She, too, has had a fair number of animals pass through her home.
"We have fostered 49 animals. We have our 49th currently in our house and during quarantine alone, we have fostered nine," Buhrow said. "We kind of foster anything we feel we can handle in our house.”
Buhrow said the foster-based model helps find better fits for forever homes. Foster parents get to know the animals' quirks and personalities.
It doesn't always work out. Owners have returned about 60 fur babies to Pet Central Helps this year for a variety of reasons—either because they didn't get along with family members or other pets, or because the owners didn't anticipate the responsibility.
“Even if you are home to train them, it still takes a lot of patience and work to do it. My brother adopted a puppy and he kept him, but he definitely went through a phase in potty training where he thought he might lose it," Buhrow said.
The Humane Society of Central Illinois has seen a similar trend.
Manager Jane Kahman said at the beginning of the pandemic, it was hard to even get animals into the shelter for adoption.
"But what I have noticed is that the people who ran out and bought dogs, I’m seeing some of those dogs and puppies come into the shelter now, because people realize, ‘Oh, I’m back to work. I just don’t have the time to take care of them.' So we have actually seen an uptick in relinquishments," Kahman said.
Still, she said adoptions are going strong. The longest the society has had an animal at the shelter is about two months. In normal times, she said, some would be there nearly a year before they found a home.
Now, animals leave almost as soon as they come in—even the more exotic animals.
"Right now, we actually have a pot belly pig," Kahman said. "His name is Taz and he is just a love. We already have somebody coming to look at him.”
Kahman said there are some questions people need to ask themselves before getting a quarantine companion.
“Are you doing it—getting an animal—for the right reasons? Because it will be a part of the family, are you looking at the whole family dynamic? Or is it just going to be a lawn decoration, more or less, to say, ‘I rescued a dog during the pandemic?" she said.
Initially, Kahman said she was worried that as the state gradually reopens and people return to relative normalcy, the shelter might get flooded with animals again.
So far, she said, that hasn't been the case.
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