Tina Bonney – with foster dog, Thai – is one of many Mainers who have offered to take home shelter pets during the current health crisis. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Mainers looking for ways to feel useful and upbeat while stuck at home have discovered the ultimate pet project.

Animal shelters in southern Maine have seen a steep increase in the number of people volunteering to take in foster pets temporarily while they work from home, offering their time and love in exchange for fuzzy companionship. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other groups say the same thing is happening across the country.

“We’ve had a lot of applications from teachers who are working from home and from others who say they usually have a very busy schedule, but right now they have time to give an animal love and attention on a temporary basis,” said Jeana Roth, director of community engagement for the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland in Westbrook. “Pets are a really dependable source of trust and love. During a time like this, having animals can be therapeutic.”

The Animal Refuge League has gotten more than 182 new applications from people wanting to provide foster homes for pets since the beginning of March, compared to just 20 in February, said Roth. Greater Androscoggin Humane Society in Lewiston had 18 people apply to host foster pets in the first two days this week, compared to the two or three applications that normally come in during the same period, said Katie Lisnik, executive director. Homeless Animal Rescue Team (HART) of Maine in Cumberland normally has to solicit foster families but has had a half-dozen people call out of the blue in the last few days, said operations director Andy Hanna.

Tina Bonney of Portland is one of the recent foster volunteers who finds herself working from home these days, joined there by her two teenage sons while their school is closed. Bonney and her family lost their beloved pet dog, Hampy, to cancer last year and have not yet gotten another pet. She had heard that most local shelters are closed to drop-in visits, resulting in lower-than-normal adoption rates. So Bonney decided to help the Westbrook shelter by opening her home to a dog – a 10-year-old from Puerto Rico named Thai – while helping her own outlook as well.

“It’s amazing what a great mental health benefit having a dog in the house is. You can’t just sit around and do nothing when they need a walk,” said Bonney, a partner in Foundation Brewing Company in Portland. “And I love the fact that I’m helping him to not be in the shelter, that he has a cushy blanket to lay on here. I feel good about that.”

Nationally, the ASPCA has seen a nearly 70 percent increase in animals going into foster care through its New York City and Los Angeles foster programs in the past week or so compared to the same time period in 2019, said Matt Bershadker, the group’s president and CEO. Animal Care Centers of New York City put out a call for additional foster homes March 13 and got 2,000 applications, when they’d normally expect to get about 50, the Washington Post reported this week.

The increase in people offering foster homes to animals is important right now, local shelters say. Most have closed to the general public, meaning people aren’t allowed to drop in and look at the animals at any time, resulting in a decrease in adoptions. Last week, the Animal Refuge League in Westbrook finalized 31 adoptions, compared to 61 during the same week last year, said Roth. The shelter is caring for about 208 animals right now, including 112 in foster care. Having an animal live with a foster family helps it become socialized, and therefore more easily adoptable in the future.

“Animals are still coming in during all this, so it’s so important for us to have places they can go and be socialized and settle down so they can be adopted some day,” said Lisnik, at Greater Androscoggin Humane Society, which has about 60 animals and takes strays from 11 area towns.

As of Wednesday, shelters were working to process applications and assign pets to people who had recently offered their homes. Jennie Pakradooni of Portland on Wednesday was awaiting a cat from Greater Androscoggin Humane Society. Because of the coronavirus, she’s now working her office job at home from her apartment. She had volunteered at an animal shelter in California when she lived there, so it was natural for her to want to help animals in this time of crisis, she said.

“I know living in a foster home makes a cat more sociable and easier to adopt, so I’m glad I can help with that,” said Pakradooni. “Plus, having an animal companion can really help people get through all this. I’m hoping that people who foster an animal now end up adopting. It would be great if we could get adoption rates up in the long run.”

Jen Johnson of Auburn volunteered to foster an animal because she read that in some parts of the country people were “dumping” pets at shelters because of the misconception they can spread coronavirus. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s no reason to suspect that any animals might be a source of infection, and that there have been no reports of animals becoming sick with the virus, according to the CDC website.

Johnson is working her manufacturing company job from home now and has time and the ability to care for animals. She already has one rabbit and a Newfoundland dog as pets. On Thursday, she will be taking in a rabbit from Greater Androscoggin Humane Society that has had medical problems and needs to gain weight.

“I’m working from home and really not socializing so I just wanted to offer to help out,” Johnson said.


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