The COVID-19 pandemic prompted many people to fill social voids with a new furry friend, but officials say financial struggles and other factors have resulted in many animals being surrendered to humane societies.

Humane societies have experienced the pandemic differently than vet clinics, which found the rise in adoptions made it more difficult for pets to be seen.

“Adoptions have skyrocketed,” said Rae-Ann Demos, executive director of the Humane Society Waterville Area. “We’ve seen a surge in animal adoptions and an influx of surrenders.”

Local shelters directors theorize that the easing of pandemic restrictions might be a factor, as some people adopted pets when they were working from home the past two years and are now returning to in-person office settings.

According to Demos, 1,313 adoptions occurred at the humane society in 2019, but 84 of the adoptions were returned. In 2020, during the peak of the pandemic, that number rose to 2,022 adoptions with 66 being returned, while 2021 saw an adoption rate of 1,992 with 62 adoption returns.

Casey Montminy holds Gypsy, a 5-year-old Australian shepherd, border collie mix, while exiting the dog’s kennel Wednesday at the Humane Society Waterville Area in Waterville. Montminy cleaned kennels during her work at the humane society. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Despite animals being adopted, surrenders also were high throughout the pandemic as many people faced financial insecurities and other struggles. In 2019, Humane Society Waterville Area saw 589 animals surrendered. 2020 saw that number rise to 727 and in 2021 the number of surrenders was 607.


Having a small, strong team of staff members that works really well together has been beneficial to Humane Society Waterville Area, according to Demos. They did not really face any staffing shortages through the pandemic like many industries did.

Despite being adequately staffed, at times they were seeing more animals coming in than they could provide appropriate care for.

Demos said their Angel Foster Program, which is used to temporarily house animals for someone who may be homeless or lost their job, but doesn’t want to surrender their pet, saw an influx throughout the pandemic.

“Members of the community assume because we are a shelter we have to take in all animals, but we have to look at capacity to care,” said Demos.

Capacity to care, as Demos said, refers to the space, staff and resources available to support the various animals in their care. They cannot take in more animals than there is space for or more animals than the staff can take care of. Overlooking capacity to care can result in staff burnout and further harm the humane society in the long run.

Additionally, humane societies are only able to accept surrenders and lost animals from the towns and communities they are contracted with; others get rejected and sent elsewhere.


Kennebec Valley Humane Society in Augusta was recently approved to build a new $6 million facility on the Leighton Road. Hillary Roberts, executive director of the Kennebec Valley Humane Society, said the new location is good for the humane society for various reasons.

“It’s a real promise to the future of the organization — to own 77 acres and have a modern facility with the capacity to meet many needs of our shelter animals and community animals is exactly what we need,” said Roberts. “We will have increased opportunity for community programming, programs for animal health and wellness, dog training, etc.”

Early in the pandemic, Roberts said they switched to appointments only and required masking. By July 2021, they got rid of the appointment only policy, but still required masking. As of the beginning of March, they have switched to a more typical means of operations with masks optional for visitors, but required for staff when engaging with the public.

With a staff of 17, Roberts credits them with a lot of the success of the humane society.

“I feel incredibly proud that we have not experienced staffing issues throughout the pandemic. Our staff are the backbone of this organization — they are brave, strong, and loyal to our work and our mission,” she said.

For the last four years, the humane society has had an adoption rate of 97%, said Roberts.


A cat named Paul is sheltered at the Humane Society Waterville Area on Wednesday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“In 2020, we had a fairly significant decrease in both stray animal intake and local surrenders. Our intake across the board was lower that year. When the pandemic first began to impact our community in March of 2020, we almost emptied the shelter through putting animals in our foster program,” said Roberts. “Many people realized that they would be working remotely for some time and chose to foster a dog or cat during that time. It was a very good way for us to keep our shelter numbers low while we couldn’t be open to the public for adoptions.”

Bonnie Brooks, the Somerset Humane Society operations director, said their experience interacting with the public has been similar throughout the pandemic.

“We lost a huge part of our volunteer base at the beginning of the pandemic,” she said. “It is slowly coming back now, but is not the same as it once was. We have changed how we interact with customers on a daily basis.”

“We used to be open to the general public almost every day of the week, and we are now only open for walk-ins without an appointment for three afternoons per week,” she continued. “We make up for this by scheduling appointments with customers to come in, meet the animals and do adoptions during the rest of the week.”

Initially, Somerset Humane Society in Skowhegan did not see an increase in surrenders, but as the pandemic raged on and more people experienced financial hardships the number of surrenders rose. In 2018 they had 165 pets surrendered to their care. That number rose to 177 in 2019 and peaked at 241 in 2020. The number of surrenders in 2021 was 230. So far in 2022, there have been 38 animals surrendered.

Brooks said they currently are a staff of eight, but are usually around 10. They have experienced staffing issues.


“As a smaller nonprofit, we are only able to offer minimum wage to start out, and some other businesses in our area are able to offer a higher starting wage, so it is often difficult to retain employees,” said Brooks. “We are fortunate to have a committed core staff right now that keeps things on track and running.”

Having expected donations to drop during the pandemic, Brooks said they were grateful for the support of their community.

Some good has come from the pandemic in Brooks’ eyes.

“I feel that because we had to adjust our public walk-in hours and switch to mainly appointments,” Brooks said, “we are now able to provide a better and more focused adoption experience than before.”

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