‘This would be the best time to help’: Animal shelters empty amid COVID-19 pandemic

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“High fives save cat lives.” Animal shelters across the U.S. are using the “Cat Pawsitive” initiative to empower cats and get more adopted. USA TODAY

Thomas Wheeler knows his 1-year-old rescue dog, Treble, is eagerly waiting for him at home. 

“You can tell when the door is opening, he doesn’t know who it is,” Wheeler said. “But then he would see me, and he would jump on me and lick me.

“Having a dog who is so excited to see you, it really melts your heart.”

Wheeler, who lives alone in Sparks, recently adopted Treble from the Nevada Humane Society.

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He said having a dog has kept his mind occupied, a welcome distraction from worrying about the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, which has left residents stuck at home.

“He makes me feel like I have another purpose to be at home,” Wheeler said.

According to Greg Hall, CEO of the Nevada Humane Society, more people are either adopting or volunteering to foster rescue animals.

In the past month, the shelter in Carson City has been emptied three times. Currently, there are four dogs — two of which are staying at a foster home — and two cats available for adoption. 

In Reno, only 15 animals are available for adoption. Three cats and seven dogs are still being kept at the shelter, while the rest are in foster homes.

The shelter also has two bunnies.

Typically, the Reno shelter houses about 200 animals and reached a peak of 600 last fall, according to Nicole Theodoulou, marketing director for the Nevada Humane Society.

The Carson City shelter usually has between 50 to 100 animals. In early March, the nonprofit organization decided it needed to empty out the shelters to reduce staffing in case of an outbreak, Hall said. 

“We want to keep people and our animals safe,” Hall said. “So, we made a call out to the public for emergency fosters, in case we needed to evacuate the shelter.”

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A call for help

Since the outbreak, the Nevada Humane Society has made a public call for help to empty out the shelters.

“There have been so many people who have wanted to adopt, which is absolutely marvelous,” Hall said. “Some of it might have to do with the people wanting a companion.

“I like to think it’s because people have big hearts, and they want to help the animals in need.”

The nonprofit organization launched virtual adoptions to eliminate one-on-one contact. People who want to adopt can look at photos and videos of the animals online.

They must also fill out an online application and schedule an appointment to meet their new furry friend before starting the adoption process.

Hall said the number of adoptions has exceeded the number of animals coming into the shelters. 

“I think it strengthens the bond knowing that they helped these animals in a time of need,” he said.

Staff members will also interview applicants to ensure the animal isn’t returned to the shelter.

“There is a national discussion on that topic, about whether we may expect some animals to be returned or, heaven forbid, abandoned,” Hall said.

‘He won me over’

Wheeler, 34, initially signed up as an emergency foster volunteer but didn’t expect to immediately adopt Treble. 

He recently moved to Sparks from Tampa, Fla., and has been living alone. 

“I love dogs,” Wheeler said. “Plus, not knowing anyone, it gave me someone to play with on the weekends.”

Treble initially came from an abusive home and spent nearly a year at the shelter. He had socialization and behavioral issues and was often afraid to even be around people.

Treble was enrolled in the Humane Society’s PUPS on Parole program and spent four months at the Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City, where inmates train hard-to-place dogs. There, Treble learned basic commands and good behavior.

At first, Treble was a handful, but then something unexpected happened.

“I know it sounds cliché, but we bonded,” Wheeler said. “It got to the point where the dog doesn’t leave my side at all.

“It’s nice to come home to a dog. He won me over.”

The best time to help 

Matthew Cline and Regine Alojado were also fostering a rescue dog when they decided to adopt. 

In February, Willow’s previous owner surrendered her to the shelter in Reno. The 6-year-old husky mix spent several months stoically watching as other dogs came and went. 

Cline said he knew he had to help the local shelter, especially because of the ongoing pandemic. So, he drove from Fallon to Reno to meet Willow. 

“We knew this would be the best time to help them,” he said. 

The couple was still working and could afford to adopt a dog. Cline said he was happy other people were stepping up to help. 

“We didn’t want the dogs to be stuck there (at the shelter) because that will mess up their personality,” Cline said. “It gives them anxiety. She had been there about a month, so we thought, ‘Well, let’s go take her home.’”

Cline said Willow’s smile and her happy personality won him over. When they first met, all Willow wanted to do was play fetch.

Although the couple is moving to San Diego at the end of the year, they are still planning on fostering more rescue animals.

The Nevada Humane Society is encouraging people to adopt. For more information on how you can help, visit the organization’s website at nevadahumanesociety.org.

Marcella Corona is a breaking news reporter who covers crime and justice in Northern Nevada. Support her work by subscribing to RGJ.com.

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