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Shelters adapt to virus, start reopening to public

AMES — COVID-19 outbreaks, no access to volunteers and a slew of unknowns piled on the stress at Ames and Story County animal shelters over the last year.

But animal control directors say some good came out of the pandemic. A method put in place as a lockdown innovation will likely be the local shelters’ new way of conducting adoptions going forward, which leaders say minimizes stress on the animals and leads to more adoption success.

“With the whole COVID closure and just COVID in general, we’ve seen some great adoptions,” Ames Animal Control Supervisor Ron Edwards said. “When we do open, a lot of what we kind of learned and what we did during the Coronavirus closure, we’re going to continue on.”

The Story County Animal Shelter opened its doors to the public last week for the first time since March 2020, and Ames Animal Shelter expects approval from the city to do the same in the coming weeks.

The Ames Tribune reports shelters are nearing normalcy after over a year of being flexible to the Centers for Disease Control recommendations and the possibility of outbreaks to their already limited staff. The shelters are looking to bring in volunteers for the first time since they first closed to the public.

“Just the unknowns were really great,” Story County Director of Animal Control Anna Henderson said. “This is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job, and so we were really concerned about what that was going to look like.”

Henderson’s six-person staff split up into two groups of three that would alternate shifts at the shelter. Ames was stretched even thinner last fall, when four of their seven-person staff, which includes all the city’s animal control officers, tested positive for COVID-19. One of the biggest unknowns was how busy the shelters would be, Henderson said.

“At first we weren’t sure what we were going to get in for animals,” Henderson said. “If it was going to be this mass release of animal to us or if people were gonna fall ill, then we were going to need to hold on to their animals.”

Ames and Story County ended up seeing fewer animals come into their shelters and adoptions increase, which follows national trends. Though the last year has seen many successful placements, early in the U.S. lockdown, adoptions stopped completely, Henderson said. But shortly after, Ames and Story County started to bring in applicants by appointment. Edwards and Henderson soon noticed the benefits of this method.

“It just gives us more of a chance to connect with the adopter, really find out what they are looking for, and then make a better match,” Henderson said.

Many of the positives were to the benefit of the animals. Story County and Ames began to notice fewer upper respiratory infections and ringworm among their cats, which Henderson and Edwards attributed to less interaction with the public.

Before COVID-19, visitors would go from one animal to the next, sticking their hands in the cages and sometimes spreading a virus from one animal to the next, Edwards said. If potential owners only meet the animals they are interested in adopting, this spread is minimized.

“It’s just human nature. You want to reach out and pet them,” Henderson said.

After noticing these benefits among others, both shelters and the Boone Area Humane Society, which often work in concert together, are leaning toward continuing the one-on-one adoption method into the post-COVID-19 world, Edwards said. When someone’s interested in adopting a pet in Ames, they can fill out an application online and schedule a time to meet specific pets they are interested in. In Story County, an adoption request form can be filled out in their office or over the phone.

Boone adoption applications can be filled out online. The shelters saw more benefits. The one-on-one adoption offers a chance for more adoption counseling, pet ownership education and leads to better pet-owner matches.

“If they just come in and want the cutest white kitty over there, that cat’s energy level may not be what they’re looking for in a cat,” Edwards said.

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