By Sarah Panitch
Quarantined minds think alike. Since social distancing during COVID-19 meant that people couldn’t interact with as many other human beings, people throughout the US turned to animals. Animal shelters experienced a sharp rise in adoptions once stay-at-home orders were implemented. Jami Hirstius, the Vice President of Metairie Humane Shelter, stated that in 2019 the shelter had 244 dog adoptions at the end of the year, while they already adopted out 224 dogs by the end of August this year. The shelter has experienced periods of time during the pandemic in which only a few dogs resided there. Currently, they have less than ten dogs, and only two are ready to be adopted. When asked if she was concerned that the shelter would see an increase in returned dogs that were adopted during the pandemic, Jami explained that although she was initially cautious, she’s not as worried anymore, and the shelter has had very few returns thus far. According to Jami, “The look of the work environment is going to change, and a lot of people I know who worked in offices – it looks like they may actually be working from home, if not forever, for a very, very long time.” She claimed that since the long-term future appears to consist of working from home, she isn’t too concerned about people no longer having time to take care of their pets. Additionally, Jami mentioned that Metairie Humane tends to deal with more returned dogs in March and April, after the holiday season has ended.
Although they have been adopting out more pets, donation-based animal shelters throughout the US have been struggling to keep up with their funding needs. A typical fundraising event at Metairie Humane consists of a large social gathering. Because of the need to follow Coronavirus-related safety precautions, they’ve been unable to host the events that they normally would. On the third Wednesday of each month, the shelter has done percentage nights at the Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers located across the street from them. They’d receive ten or fifteen percent of the money made from each order. However, Jami stated that the restaurant is still only doing drive-thru and carry-out orders, so they aren’t willing to do fundraiser events because they’re worried it would cause too much traffic. There have been several other small yet consistent events that the shelter held that they no longer can. The funds obtained from smaller events may seem insignificant, but Jami stated, “When you’re in a rescue that is a non-profit, twenty dollars is – you know, that’s a bag of dog food… Every little bit helps.”
The largest hit to Metairie Humane’s funds will be the loss of their Howl-O-Weenie event that they host every October. According to Jami, Howl-O-Weenie alone earns the shelter half of their yearly budget. The problem is that to hold such a large gathering, there are specific social distancing and sanitizing protocols that they must follow. For instance, there must be a hand sanitizer station every so square feet. The costs incurred by following all of the protocols end up not being worth it for the shelter. At this point, they are scrambling to find funds wherever they can. Jami commented that she’s been organizing so many bake sales that she’s sure people have gotten sick of her baked goods.
Social media usage has played a significant role in Metairie Humane’s fundraising attempts. Since they couldn’t host the events that they normally relied on, they resorted to reaching out on Facebook. Jami runs their Facebook account, and she recalled an instance during which she went to four different stores and couldn’t find any paper towels. She posted about it on the Facebook page, and the shelter received over 300 rolls of paper towels within two days. Similarly, she had trouble finding Lysol spray and made a Facebook post about it. People donated two cases worth of it over the next couple of days. The shelter’s social media usage has had to shift from promoting adoptable dogs and fundraising events to asking for extra support from the community.
Metairie Humane prioritizes taking on the costs of providing their dogs with the medical care that they need, so they often end up adopting out dogs at a loss. Jami mentioned that people often come in and complain that their adoption fee of $200 is too expensive, and they’d rather go to Jefferson Parish Shelter, where they can adopt a dog for $67. This is frustrating for her to hear, as she explains that “For every one that I make fifteen dollars on, I’ve got ten that I’m losing eight or nine hundred dollars on.” Metairie Humane often takes in dogs who are heartworm positive, and that ends up costing at least $1000 per dog. They’re working with a small fraction of the budget that for-profit shelters have available to them, and the pandemic has only made this disparity more prominent. As stated by Jami, “We’re not in this to make money; we’re in this to save the dogs – you know, to give them a better life.”
Jami has hope for the future of Metairie Humane. Although she foresees the shelter continuing to struggle financially, they’ve become accustomed to the new normal and have been working hard to keep the shelter functioning. The hardest part for them was the adjustment period, and at this point Jami’s biggest concern is finding ways to earn day-to-day funding. Above all, she’s determined to keep the shelter standing and claims, “I’ll just stay up all night and bake goodies if I have to. Whatever it takes.”