The Gerrity family of Windham had always been a one-dog family. But with extra time at home during the pandemic, they decided the time was right to adopt a second dog.

It wasn’t exactly easy.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, interest in pet adoption has been high in Maine, even for a state where people often turn to their local animal rescue group to adopt. But fewer animals have been transported to Maine shelters from southern states, creating more competition for people looking to add a new dog or cat to their family. At shelters in southern Maine, most dogs and cats are adopted within hours or days.

“It feels like demand is just soaring,” said Abigail Smith, executive director of the Animal Welfare Society in Kennebunk.

Gone are the days when prospective adopters would show up at the shelter to visit animals. Instead, animal shelters have set up systems where people call or sign up online for adoption appointments and do remote interviews with shelter staff before ever visiting the animal they hope to adopt. Snagging those adoption appointments gets competitive – and sometimes frustrating – because there are far fewer dogs and cats in Maine shelters, largely because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic outside of Maine.

“It was an intense process for sure,” Krista Gerrity said of finding and adopting her dog, Squiggy, from the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland after multiple attempts to add a new dog to the family.

Animal shelter staff say many people adopting pets tell them they are home more than before the pandemic, giving them more time to welcome a new pet. Hundreds of families in southern Maine have also signed up to foster shelter animals, often because they are working and attending school from home.

“There was a definitely an increase (last spring) and continues to be an increase in adopting,” said Jeana Roth, director of community engagement for the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland. “However, shelters are seeing less animals come through our doors. It’s created a little frustration because there are more people looking to adopt fewer animals.”

Shelters across the country have reported a surge in pet adoptions since last spring and continuing into 2021. Shelter Animal Counts, which is a database to track shelter and rescue activity at 500 rescue organizations across the U.S., recorded 26,000 more pet adoptions in 2020 than the year before, a 15 percent increase. The group’s monthly impact reports shows sharp increases in pet adoptions starting in April.

“Adoptions are up, demand is huge and shelters just don’t have any flow,” Smith said. “It’s crazy. I don’t think anyone would have predicted what would happen in the animal welfare world.”

Having enough adoptable dogs and cats to keep up with demand has been a challenge in the Northeast for years because the region has largely solved the overpopulation problem through spaying and neutering, Smith said. Shelters in New England have partnerships with shelters in southern states where overpopulation of strays remains a problem. Thousands of animals are transported north to shelters every year.

Those transports stopped for several months last spring because of restrictions on interstate travel and concerns about spreading the coronavirus. Transports started again in June, but many of those southern shelters didn’t have as many animals to send because they were adopting out more animals locally.

Smith said the director of a shelter in Georgia told her that she had been seeing fewer people surrender their animals in spring and summer, when Georgia shelters typically saw a surge of people giving up animals so they could travel.

“That just didn’t happen this year,” Smith said. “Everybody is home, so they kept their pets or adopted new pets.”

Even before the pandemic, it was not uncommon for a highly adoptable animal to be adopted within a day, said Kate Griffith, the shelter’s community programs manager.

“That’s a little more exaggerated now,” she said. “We put a picture of a kitten or puppy on the website and two hours later we have to take it down because we’re receiving so many inquiries.”

‘IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD TIME’

Krista Gerrity and her family adopted their dog Lenny from the Animal Refuge League three years ago after their previous dog died of cancer. They had never owned two dogs at the same time, but the idea of adding a second was more appealing with Gerrity working from home and her two children, 13-year-old Ava and 10-year-old Renner, attending school in person only two days a week.

“It seemed like a good time right now,” she said. “We’re home most of the time. We can get him trained and acclimated while we’re here.”

The Gerrity family with Squiggy, the 1-year-old Rat Terrier-Jack Russell mix they adopted in October from the Animal Refuge League. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

To find a dog at a time when few were available for adoption, Gerrity would check the Animal Refuge League website every day when new dog profiles were posted at 7 p.m. The next morning, she’d log on to her computer and refresh her browser over and over in the minutes leading up to 10 a.m., when prospective adopters can register for a spot in line for an interview with shelter staff.

“There were multiple times we didn’t get a slot,” she said.

Gerrity saw a photo of Ruger, a little rat terrier-Jack Russell mix, in September and fell in love immediately. She was third in line, but Ruger was adopted by someone with an earlier interview time. The family was devastated, she said, but she kept looking for a dog to adopt.

A month later, Ruger’s photo showed up again on the refuge league website after he returned to the shelter because he didn’t get along with other pets in his new home. Shelter directors say animals are rarely relinquished back to shelters and they’re not concerned that will increase when people resume post-pandemic work and school schedules.

When Gerrity saw Ruger was available for adoption again, she kept her fingers crossed and managed to snag the first spot in line. After an interview and a family visit to the shelter, Ruger went home to Windham. He was renamed Squiggy, a nod to the characters Lenny and Squiggy from the television show “Laverne & Shirley.”

“It’s given the kids something fun to do. It gets them out of the house and active,” Gerrity said. “It’s been really great for Lenny, who is pretty lazy and wasn’t overly playful before Squiggy.”

Squiggy, a 1-year-old Rat Terrier-Jack Russell mix, leaps for a dog treat held by owner Chris Gerrity. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Smith, from the Animal Welfare Society, said shelters have tried to set up systems for adopting that are fair but also protect staff from the spread of the virus. The Kennebunk shelter now starts taking phone calls from prospective adopters promptly at 10 a.m. and schedules appointments every 30 minutes.

“It’s a nice, calm experience rather than a lobby full of 50 people who want to adopt the six puppies we have,” she said.

Smith said she has seen some frustration and grumpiness from people who call over and over trying to get to the front of the line to adopt a cat or dog. But seeing so much interest in pet adoption isn’t a bad thing, she said.

“When we make animals available for adoption, it’s hours or days, not weeks before they’re adopted,” she said. “It’s amazing and wonderful that I could have a diabetic cat with one eye and half a tail and it gets adopted the same day.”

SURGE IN INTEREST

Roth, from the Animal Refuge League, said the shelter saw a surge in people interested in fostering animals until they were ready to be adopted, with 485 new families signing up to foster.

“That’s three times the amount of applications we usually see to foster,” she said. “The majority of them are working at home so they have time to devote to caring for an animal. For families schooling kids at home, it’s a learning opportunity. We’re trying to find silver linings (during the pandemic) where we can and that was definitely one of them.”

Barret, left, and Cloud are 3-month-old cats from Georgia, who are currently under foster care in Falmouth. Kate Taylor and her family started fostering animals during the pandemic. Her 13-year-old son, Thomas Evers, is doing hybrid learning and spends lots of time with kittens while he’s remote learning. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

That interest was especially welcome and needed last summer when the Westbrook shelter took in a more kittens than usual, which Roth attributed to fewer animals being spayed during the early months of the pandemic. Animals are typically placed with foster families for a few weeks until they are ready to be adopted.

In Falmouth, 13-year-old Thomas Evers convinced his parents to apply to foster animals through the Animal Refuge League.

“Over the summer, we started talking about doing a little bit more because we knew his school would be in hybrid,” said his mother, Kate Taylor.

The family took an online training course through the shelter and started receiving emails about animals coming into the shelter that needed to be fostered. They started with a puppy but have since fostered kittens. Currently, the family is caring for two kittens who came to Maine from a shelter in Georgia. The kittens are being treated for ringworm, a condition commonly seen in cats that come up from warmer climates.

Thomas Evers, left, with Cloud, and Kate Taylor with Barret sit in Evers’ bedroom in Falmouth. The family started fostering animals, like these, during the pandemic. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Evers, who is in eighth grade, is home three days during the week. The kittens often curl up to sleep in his lap while he’s attending his online classes and he takes lots of photos of them to share with the people who will eventually adopt them.

“It’s a win-win. (The kittens) aren’t alone and have a lot more human companionship. He’s not spending hours by himself or online,” Taylor said. “(Thomas) has this feeling of giving back and it expands his world more than just being in his online classes. It adds a different richness to his life right now.”

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