"We are finding there truly is a silver lining," Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation co-founder Pam McAlwee says of COVID-19's effect on shelter pets

By Alexandra Rockey Fleming
April 09, 2020 04:00 PM
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Credit: Courtesy Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation

The spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is causing problems for the nation’s shelter pets. Stuck in crowded shelters — many shut down to the public due to municipal restrictions — some dogs and cats are facing imminent euthanization as workers are forced to make heartbreaking decisions based on a lack of resources, space, and staff.

But through one volunteer-fueled rescue based out of suburban Washington D.C. called Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, the virus is sparking a chance at new lives for scores of adoptable animals.

Since the pandemic took off, Lost Dog and Cat has received an unprecedented number of requests from the larger community to foster or adopt pets. The metro area is ripe for it — it’s home to nearly 364,000 federal workers, a huge body of whom are teleworking from home.

Lost Dog and Cat, an earthy and diverse group of nearly 300 active volunteers founded in 2001, has joined forces with southern partners in Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas whose members have been plucking dogs from death’s door. These dedicated animal lovers are driving from county to county in these southern states, hand-picking the most adoptable dogs from kill shelters and then vaccinating, crating, and transporting them north to D.C. by the truckload.

While the supply is no surprise — 6 to 8 million cats and dogs enter the country’s animal shelters every year, according to the ASPCA — the demand is extraordinary.

“We never could have imagined a surge in adoptions and foster applications like we’ve seen since the outbreak,” says Lost Dog and Cat co-founder Pam McAlwee. “As each day in March became more dismal and terrifying, we began to see an increase in people wanting to adopt a new family pet.”

Credit: Courtesy Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation

Now, the rescue is welcoming a new load of animals at least once a week. Nearly all the dogs are reserved for homes even before they pull up to the kennels, thanks to a skilled and dedicated matching team that melds the desires of fosters and adopters with the quirks and characteristics of incoming animals.

The weekly adoption numbers have doubled since the virus hit and the rate shows no signs of slowing, McAlwee tells PEOPLE. “We are adopting out 60 to 70 dogs per week now. The whiteboard where we post all our adoptions is too small and we are so excited to have to order a larger board.”

Credit: Courtesy Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation

And these relationships — even though formed in times of fear and anxiety for many — are as beneficial to the humans as they are to the animals.

“I had one family tell me that the lessons their new dog is teaching their kids about responsibility, nurturing, and unconditional love are the things they couldn’t have learned in school,” McAlwee says. “We are finding there truly is a silver lining.”

Credit: Courtesy Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation

Longtime volunteer Kim Williams of Springfield, Va., spends many of her days ensuring the rescue’s new dogs get where they need to go, whether she’s coordinating transport or facilitating medical appointments for sick animals. She says she has been deeply moved by the community’s response to the need.

“We have had an incredible number of families who’ve said, ‘We just want to help in any way we can,'” she says. “And within days of getting a foster dog or cat, they’d email us back and say, ‘I had no idea how much we needed this animal.’ I dropped a foster dog off with a family who got in touch with me immediately to say they’d received so many email inquiries about their foster that they already wanted to apply for another — before their current one was even gone!”

With area schools closed for the remainder of the year, Kelly Schlageter of Fairfax County, Va., mother to twin teen girls, volunteered to open up their home to a pair of rambunctious puppies.

Credit: Courtesy Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation

“When our twins found out they’d be housebound for at least three months, we knew just what to do: foster puppies,” says Schlageter. “These adorable 3-month-old puppies, Mike and Ike, have brought countless hours of joy and purpose to our daughters. Having something to love and care for during these dark days has been a real gift.” Note: Mike has found a permanent home with the Schlageters, and Ike is spoken for as well.

These are some of the heartwarming anecdotes — and then there are funny stories too.

Credit: Courtesy Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation

“When we were forced to stop holding our usual local in-person adoption events, the phone calls and emails began to flood our foster teams,” says Williams. “People were willing to meet their potential pets via Facetime and before long our counselors felt they were working at match.com! A potential adoptive family asked on FaceTime whether a dog was housebroken — as the dog was lifting his leg on a dining-room chair in the background! And yes, the family adopted the dog.”

To donate to the rescue’s COVID-19 response efforts, please go to lostdogrescue.org

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.