Russell Leonard and Tara Casella adopted Anna this month at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland. The organization has been closed to the public since March 16, but has found creative ways to connect people with pets. Courtesy / Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland

WESTBROOK — The Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland is typically a busy place with visitors looking for the perfect pet to bring into their homes. That changed March 16 when the shelter closed to the public to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

For the past month the shelter, considered an essential business during the state of emergency ordered by Gov. Janet Mills, has continued to offer pets for adoption and has taken in animals needing homes.

It hasn’t, however, been business as usual. The shelter is matching pets with new owners by phone, email or Zoom. It also has suspended its practice of accepting animals from out of state and, because fundraising events cannot be held, it’s relying more heavily on individual donations.

Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland adoption counselor Kathryn Hurst delivers a cat curbside to its new owner. Courtesy / Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland

“Typically, we welcome 4,000 visitors a month at the ARLGP. These visits are how our community members adopt,” said Director of Community Engagement Jeana Roth. “Once we closed to the general public and visitors, we started an adoption-by-appointment process to maintain social distancing guidelines and for safety of our team.”

Roth said those looking for a pet can go to arlgp.org and fill out a form. They are then contacted by an adoption counselor with information about the pet they are interested in.

“If it sounds like a good match for both the animal and the adopter, an appointment is made for them to come in to meet the animal in person and finalize the adoption process,” Roth said.

Since closing to the public, the shelter had completed 122 adoptions as of April 15, a little more than a third of the 300 it did between mid-March and mid-April 2019, Roth said.

“While adoptions have slowed, Maine’s shelters and rescues have done an amazing job modifying their practices in order to safely continue caring for animals and placing them with families,” said Katie Hansberry,  Maine senior state director, state affairs, at the Humane Society of the United States.

It was through the new system that Tara Casella and Russell Leonard, of Lisbon Falls, found their new dog, Anna.

“I was searching day in and out for a dog even before the pandemic had started,” Casella said.

Many of the dogs available near her were being adopted quickly. She decided to cast a wider net for an active and friendly dog.

She contacted the shelter and emailed back and forth with staff members about what sort of pet she was looking for. Anna was found to be the best fit. After a phone call about Anna’s history and Casella’s day-to-day life, Casella was able to meet Anna and interact with her in the shelter’s outdoor yard.

Casella said everyone at the shelter, from the adoption staff to volunteers, abided by social distancing and health protocols.

“I would highly recommend the ARLGP for anyone looking to adopt at this time, due to the necessary sanitary and social distancing precautions they are taking, as well as how their dogs are very clean and clearly very loved by all of the staff. They are amazing at matching you with the perfect dog for your family,” Casella said.

The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have found no evidence indicating pets can spread COVID-19 to people, Hansberry said.

“Until we learn more about how this virus affects animals, the CDC and the veterinary community recommend that you treat pets as you would other human family members to protect them from a potential infection,” she said.

Right now surrendered animals from Maine are the only animals coming into the shelter as it has put a hold of accepting animals from their out-of-state shelter partners.

“We are hearing from partners in the South that surrenders have increased, and they are anxious to start relocating animals to us,” Roth said.

“Our services continue to be needed locally and nationally, and we are ready to spring our safety net into action across the country once it is safe to do so,” she added.

Although the shelter has not seen an increase is animals being surrendered by owners financially impacted by the coronavirus, it does see a larger demand at its Pet Food Pantry, which provides free dog and cat food for pet owners who need it.  ARLGP has worked to supply pet food to area food pantries, including the Cumberland Food Pantry, Standish Food Pantry, South Portland Food Cupboard and North Yarmouth Congregational Church Pet Pantry.

“The Maine Federation of Humane Societies is working collaboratively with organizations across the state to get those resources to those in need so we can keep animals in their loving homes with their families,” Hansberry said.

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