The coronavirus pandemic has put a lot of people’s plans on hold, leaving extra room in otherwise-busy schedules. Austin resident Sophia Ding is spending her newfound free time volunteering for a cause she's passionate about: helping animals get adopted.
"A lot of times there are animals like dogs or cats at the shelter that perhaps just require a little more attention and training or just love and comfort to get to that stage to be ready to be adopted, and it’s hard to provide all of that within a shelter," Ding said.
When she was in college, Ding went through training with the local animal shelter Austin Pets Alive! to foster dogs, but her schedule was filled with classes and work. And when she started her job as a business consultant, most of her days were spent at the office. That all changed when Austin and Travis County issued orders requiring nonessential workers to stay home.
"Normally, the hours that I work aren’t really conducive to having a dog, or sometimes we’re traveling as well for work, so this was kind of like perfect timing," Ding said.
Ding and her partner took in a 3-year-old German pointer/hound mix named Tilly, fostering her until she found a permanent home.
Tilly is one of the nearly 1,250 dogs that have been adopted from Austin Pets Alive! since COVID-19 hit. APA said so far this year, cat adoptions have increased about 50% and dog adoptions have gone up nearly 30%.
Raychelle Jensen, an adoption counselor at APA, said the shelter has seen an uptick in adoptions because people are spending more time at home.
"It gives them an opportunity to bond with these animals, being that we usually work eight-hour jobs outside of the home," Jensen said. "Adjusting to a dog coming into a home takes time, so they can be home and bond with them and train them."
Jensen’s responsible for ensuring all adopters feel prepared to take their new furry friend home, which includes interviewing potential new owners, going over paperwork and scheduling doctors’ visits for the animals. The shelter had to shift its operations in the middle of March because of the pandemic, and the adoption process has completely changed. She said the hardest part has been working remotely.
"We were seeing our adopters face to face, and now [we're] having to make everything digital and making sure these adopters understand everything that’s going on and making sure they get all the information about the dog we can give them without doing it in person," Jensen said.
The shelter has implemented safety measures such as virtual animal meet-and-greets and no-contact pick-ups.
When Ding picked up Tilly, a volunteer tied her leash to a fence and backed away so Ding could take the leash from a safe distance. Then, she bought Tilly a frisbee and took her home.
"She had light brown spots all over her body which was very adorable," Ding said. "[She was] very energetic, like loved to play fetch and play with any squeaky toys.”
But her first-ever foster didn’t stick around for long. Tilly was adopted by a couple in less than two weeks and renamed Sosa.
"It was bittersweet. I’m sad that she was leaving but really happy that she was able to find her forever home,” Ding said. "She seemed to really love the couple that was adopting her and did not look back when they came to pick her up.”
Ding said she plans to continue fostering dogs until she’s ready to adopt.
"I like the idea of being able to provide some sort of at least temporary comfort to a dog instead of being in a kennel or shelter," Ding said.
APA said it has approved more than 2,800 new dog foster applications and about 1,200 new cat foster applications within the last two months.
Stephanie Bilbro, APA’s director of lifesaving operations, said because more pets are being fostered at home, the shelter has extra room. The facilities usually house up to 500 animals in total, but Bilbro said now there are only 150 animals because so many Austinites, like Ding, are stepping up to help.
"I think it’s been really great to see people come out and maybe try fostering for the first time,” Bilbro said. “Our hope is that people will see you don’t have to be home all day to care for an animal and be with them 24/7 in order for them to have a good life."
Alyssa Weinstein contributed to this story.
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