San Antonians seeking companionship during the coronavirus pandemic has led to record numbers of cats and dogs being adopted from the city’s animal shelters.

Heber Lefgren, director of San Antonio’s Animal Care Services (ACS), told City Council recently that the shelter’s live release rate for fiscal year 2020 was expected to be 92 percent, the highest in its history. The live release rate denotes the number of live animals leaving the shelter through adoption, fostering, being reunited with an owner, or other means.

“The community’s response was so positive that there were times over the past few months when we received more foster and adoption applications than the number of pets we had on our campus,” Lefgren said.

The rise in adoptions comes despite restrictions ACS and other large shelters like the Animal Defense League (ADL) have put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Following a large adoption event in late March, ACS began requiring appointments in order to meet and interact with animals up for adoption, said Lisa Norwood, ACS public relations and outreach manager.

ADL Executive Director Joel McLellan said that like ACS, his organization has seen more people looking to adopt animals during the pandemic.

“We’ve actually been able to not only sustain ourselves through this timeframe, but we’ve been able to leverage and help grow our programs because there’s more folks at home that are now actually seeking a companion animal, so it’s actually been a very positive experience for our organization,” he said.

A socially distant line, temperature checks, and required appointments now greet visitors to Animal Care Services. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The increased demand for animal adoptions has led ACS and its partner organizations to highlight their foster programs, which allow people to temporarily care for animals that have yet to be placed in a permanent home. People interested in fostering must fill out an application on the organizations’ websites.

As stay-home orders were issued for Bexar County, ACS saw the number of applications for fostering animals rise sharply. The department received 270 new foster applicants for the months of March and April when it usually receives 20 or 30 each month, Lefgren told City Council during a special session Sept. 2.

“I have been truly touched by the compassion ACS staff and the community have shown repeatedly over the past few months and look forward to continuing our quest to help strengthen the same sense of compassion within our community,” Lefgren said.

ACS is slated to receive $16.1 million in the City’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021, a $100,000 increase from the previous budget.

ACS has resumed the on-site spay and neuter services it provides for the animals in its care, which were suspended for a time due to coronavirus restrictions. In order to comply with state laws requiring animal shelters to release only sterilized animals, ACS had adopters sign a document agreeing to sterilize their animals and provided them with vouchers for free spay and neuter services redeemable at partner organizations.

Lefgren told City Council that 50 percent of the surgeries have been completed for the 2,200 vouchers issued.

ADL is one of ACS’s partner organizations that normally offers low-cost spay and neuter services but is not doing so now. McLellan said the organization has been increasing its efforts to replace that revenue with funding donations from the community.

“Now more than ever, you know we’re continuing to do our best to rescue these animals,” McLellan said. “However, now more than ever we need … donations, both in-kind and monetary, to help shore up the efforts of the organization.”

Although the new appointment-only adoption system used at ACS and ADL has worked in keeping the community and staff safe, some visitors looking to adopt are having issues with finding an animal that has not already been claimed by another adopter. 

Local real estate manager Helen Nicholson has been trying to adopt for about a month, but hasn’t yet found a pet that has not already been claimed by another adopter. Nicholson’s 17-year-old dog, Samantha, passed away from kidney failure, and she has been looking for a companion for her other dog, Millie. 

An Alaskan Husky mix named Jenna looks out of her kennel at Animal Care Services. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Every time I find one that I want and we submit the application, somebody else has already adopted it,” Nicholson said. “But, at least they’re going to ensure a good home, because all of the agencies really screen the owners. You feel like you’re adopting a human being. The dog’s life is just as important as a human being, but anyway, it’s a really tedious process.”

With both ACS and ADL offering an online system to view pets up for adoption prior to setting up an appointment, Norwood suggests getting an early start on the search process and to check the website frequently for updates.

“There’s always animals coming in and always animals going out,” she said. “So you need to make sure that you’re looking – the day before you come in, the night before you come in, and even that morning when you’re coming in – to make sure that you’re going to be able to see the pets that are available that day.”

Samantha Ruvalcaba, who grew up in San Antonio, is a Shiner intern and junior at St. Mary's University studying international and global studies with a minor in communications.