A small pet carrier sits on an empty sidewalk outside Seattle Humane in Bellevue. Through a window, the animal shelter’s staff peer out at the crate, huddled in anticipation. They don’t have to wait long to be rewarded. A few moments later, Lisa Johnson emerges from her car, scurries over to the carrier, and greets Inara, a black lab puppy whom she’ll bring home right then and there, becoming her new mom.
This curbside union was one of the early successes of Seattle Humane’s adoption-by-appointment program. Like many nonprofits and businesses, Seattle Humane had to swiftly pivot to digital and no-contact operations after the novel coronavirus outbreak. Normally, Johnson would have adopted Inara after getting to know her and other shelter dogs during visits to Seattle Humane’s campus. But the pandemic forced the Factoria facility to close to the public on March 7. Over the next three weeks, Seattle Humane developed a new system, one that allows for social distancing and provides plenty of details to inform a life-changing decision.
Rather than browsing at the shelter, potential adopters can now view profiles of the animals online. If they're interested in proceeding, they can fill out a digital application and questionnaire, listing a preferred pet or two. Staffers eventually reach out to the applicant to review their priorities and, if all goes well, set up an appointment for a no-contact pet and parent meeting, one that hopefully ends with a grand send-off.
The method’s guineas—literally, a pair of guinea pigs—were the first pets successfully adopted through the curbside process. Applications poured in shortly thereafter. But the influx of interest didn’t necessarily mean a rapid increase in animals adopted out. Less volunteers are on hand, leaving the laborious task of sorting through more than 1,000 applications (that came in only a few days’ time) to just the shelter’s staff.
Seattle Humane recently paused the process to tackle those applications and make a few adjustments, including an effort to promote some of the animals that—despite the flood of applications—didn’t get as much attention in the first round of adoptions-by-appointment. One spectacular young pup was the first preference for almost 100 applications, but many elders fetched less interest. Now that the shelter is accepting applications again, interim public relations specialist Brandon Macz would like to see that change. “We have a lot of senior animals that I'm hopeful people will take an interest in.”
Though some shelters have closed, others like Seattle Humane and Progressive Animal Welfare Society (better known as PAWS) have remained open and seen high demand. That comes with challenges, says CEO of PAWS Heidi Wills, when a limited staff must keep up with a rise in pre-adoption questionnaires as well. In PAWS's case, it's also one of the many nonprofits working with a revenue shortfall as it switches its major fundraising events to online campaigns.
“PAWS can only take in and serve so many animals, providing them with the adequate care that they deserve,” Wills says. "So that means we have less animals available for people to adopt.”
Pivots at PAWS may have staying power, though. Wills says the appointment-only method of working with potential adopters over the phone and deploying an online system appears to streamline the original process. It also adds a personalized touch. Previously, long lines on busy days meant it could take an entire afternoon to adopt an animal. Now that adopters “meet” various pets online and over the phone, it’s a swift and smooth process to take the animal home, working so nicely that PAWS is considering sticking with it after most operations go back to in-person.
Adopting now, however, may have added benefits for owners. Dr. Michelle Garner is an associate professor of social work at University of Washington-Tacoma who specializes in the role animals play in their owners’ mental health. She attributes some of this rise in pet adoption interest to applicants’ inclination to do something helpful and safe from their homes, countering their sense of stagnation.
Bringing a new pet into any household, of course, takes extra energy and resources. But now might be a good time for many to consider making some adjustments in the home, Garner says. And when people feel generally uncertain and fearful, petting a companion animal can help relieve stress and anxiety. “There's a good deal of research that confirms what most pet owners already know,” says Garner. “Pets provide companionship. They break loneliness and isolation... and force some structure into our lives.”
If that sounds like a remedy you need these days, consider beginning the appointment-only process at one of these local shelters.
Adopt at Seattle Humane, PAWS, and Seattle Animal Shelter all through a similar set of steps.
- Browse available pet profiles on the shelter’s website to find a dog, cat, or critter that best fits your needs. Then fill out a pre-adoption questionnaire. Depending on the shelter and type of animal, you might answer questions about your history with pets, living environment, other pets, plans to train and care for the animal, and more. This is where you might note the names of animals you are interested in.
- Staff members will call you—or at Seattle Animal Shelter, set up a virtual meeting, pet included—on a first-come, first-serve basis. They’ll recommend the best potential pet for you based on your responses to the questionnaire. Then they’ll set up an adoption appointment.
- A no-contact, curbside-style exchange ensues, and you finally unite: Pet, meet parent!