I hope this doesn’t come across as a desperate attempt to find a silver lining in a dark cloud, meaning the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it is a happy fact that for the first time since Philadelphia’s animal shelter was reborn as ACCT Philly in 2012, the building at 111 W. Hunting Park Avenue in the city’s Feltonville neighborhood is far under capacity.
There are 46 dogs in the shelter that has cages for 70 large dogs and dozens more cages for smaller dogs. “About 85% of all ACCT animals are in foster care,” I am told by ACCT Philly Executive Director Aurora Velazquez, who started work here in November. She previously had been chief operating officer of New York City’s animal shelters.
There are 19 cats in the shelter, which can house 125. Shelter numbers this low are almost unbelievable.
ACCT Philly takes in more than 18,000 animals annually, and in 2019 achieved an 85% live release rate for dogs and cats with nearly 5,700 adoptions and more than 6,100 animals transferred to rescue partners, according to its records.
So while the pandemic has been catastrophic for human life, it has been an unanticipated boon to animals caught in shelters, not just here, but around the country. Lots of people find they now have the time, and the need, for animal companionship.
Even more amazing is that the life-saving is being accomplished with the shelter basically closed to the public, working on a limited emergency services basis, says Velazquez. I have been writing about the animal shelter since 2004, when I wrote an expose under the headline “Cruel Cages,” and these are the best numbers I have seen at the shelter.
“It seems strange to say there has been positives for lots of animal shelters,” says Velazquez, but it has happened at shelters across the nation. It happened here “due to an outpouring of support from the community and the amount of engagement,” she says.
When ACCT Philly knew it would have to close, it put out an urgent call for foster homes, and an amazing 1,200 people stepped forward. That’s where most of the shelter dogs are residing, in comfortable homes without the stress found in any animal shelter.
Since COVID-19 hit, 454 animals have been put in loving homes, 375 are in foster care, and 591 have been transferred to rescue partners.
Because of the low number remaining in the shelter, the dogs get walked twice a day and have play periods with staffers who have time to take a breath. This is a luxury fir man and beast.
But if the shelter is closed to the public, how can dogs be adopted out?
It’s kind of like Amazon for animals. Potential adopters go to the ACCT Philly website and see photos of all the furry friends in the shelter. They call the shelter and speak to an adoption counselor who provides details about the dog or cat — age, gender, breed, temperament, and so on. Once the paperwork is done, an animal control team drops the animal off at its new home. Place an order and wait for delivery. Just like Amazon.
If it doesn’t work out, as sometimes happens, the animal can be returned.
“With so many animals in foster,” Velazquez says, “we can connect adopters with foster homes,” which can provide in-depth information about the animal.
I suspected that the number of people surrendering their pets might be rising along with the unemployment rate and families going broke. Pets must be fed, but Velazquez says there has been no rise in surrenders. There has been an increase in ACCT Philly’s charitable pet pantry, from 100 to 200 clients per month.
Things are going so well, I hesitated to ask when things would return to “normal.”
“What we are doing right now,” Velazquez says, is figuring out what they are doing that can be carried forward.
Whenever the green light is flashed, the “return will be a phased approach,” in consultation with the PSPCA and the PAWS rescue group, says Velazquez, who is living through a dark cloud with a deep silver lining.