In late 2018, when Cole Thaler first started developing an idea for temporarily fostering pets of families evicted from their homes, he didn’t foresee the pandemic of 2020. A Jewish attorney working for the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, Thaler focused on low-income tenants who had problems with landlords.
“Evictions were high even before the pandemic,” he pointed out. “Many led to homelessness. Usually after two to three months, families can find a more stable situation. I knew from volunteering with animal shelters that the shelters were overloaded. So in late 2018, I had a lightbulb moment. What if there was a temporary foster option for the family pet for a couple of months, and then the family could reunite with it?”
As Thaler researched the options, he learned that “there was something for [pets of] families of domestic abuse.” He called the director who told him that she had been having similar conversations about helping evicted families with pets. Fast forward to January 2020, and the founding of Paws Between Homes.
A month later, Rabbi Don Seeman, wife Debra Shaffer Seeman and their four kids started fostering “Boss,” a “playful, fun and sweet” pointer-mix dog through Paws Between Homes. “The agency is so responsive and so involved,” gushed Shaffer Seeman. “They provided food, a cage and bowl. It has really been a privilege. We can take care of this sweet animal while its owner can get back on his feet.”
The timing has worked out perfectly for the Seeman family, which almost immediately – like nearly everyone – became homebound due to the highly contagious coronavirus. “We’ve been able to give the dog a lot of love and attention and he’s the perfect excuse to escape from the house for a 20-minute walk,” Shaffer Seeman told the AJT.
Indeed, the pandemic has offered an unexpected silver lining to many Atlanta Jewish families, with both adults and children home rather than at work and school. Suddenly, there’s been a huge increase in interest of families wanting to foster or adopt pets they might not otherwise have had the time for.
Toco Hills resident Ashley Marx, a social worker, started researching various support opportunities for her clients when she learned about PAWS Atlanta, a no-kill animal shelter and pet rescue agency. Her two daughters had been asking to foster a dog. With everyone home, she decided the timing was right. For two months, her family fostered a dog, which subsequently was adopted by a neighbor.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” Marx said. “It was great to get everybody out walking.”
Not every family is willing to fall in love with a dog, and then be forced to give it up. Shaffer Seeman admitted that it is “definitely going to be a transition.”
Emily Kaiman and her family had been discussing adoption of a dog for a while, “but we didn’t think we had enough time” for it – until the pandemic struck, she said. “With the virus, we are at home and can commit the time and space to get to know it. We eventually knew it was the right time” to try to adopt. Her four children, ages 6 to 10, were quickly on board. “My husband was the last,” she said, referring to Rabbi Ari Kaiman of Congregation Shearith Israel.
Unfortunately, the family didn’t know how difficult adoption would be. They turned to animal rescue organizations and Petfinder, an online, searchable database of animals who need homes. “We started the process in mid- to late-April,” Emily Kaiman told the AJT. “It wasn’t that there was a shortage of dogs, but every time we sent in an inquiry, the dog was already adopted.” For now, the search is on temporary hold while the family takes a camping trip, but Kaiman said they are determined to restart the process upon their return.
Adoption may not be any easier when the Kaiman family returns. “On Petfinder.com, adoption inquiries in the four weeks between March 15 and April 15 jumped 122 percent from the previous four weeks,” reported Lorie Westhoff, a spokeswoman for Petfinder. “The number of adoption inquires throughout the pandemic has consistently been at least double the volume that we saw prior to the pandemic.”
Similarly, the Atlanta Humane Society said that pet adoptions have not increased since the coronavirus pandemic, but adoption inquires have. “This is partly due to a change in our adoption process, and virtual adoptions taking longer than our normal adoption process, and partly due to us having to temporarily stop our intakes due to COVID-19,” said Christina Hill, director of marketing and communications at the Atlanta Humane Society.
On the other hand, Hill added, “at the peak, we had about a 200 percent increase in adoption interest!”
Thaler reported that Paws Between Homes is “getting more calls from people who lost jobs and had to move.” Atlanta has one of the highest eviction rates in the country, according to his organization’s website. Thaler said evictions are on hold in Fulton County until late June, “so this is the calm before the storm. There is a backlog of evictions so I know the phone will start ringing off the hook,” which means more pets will need foster homes in the next few months.
Some animal experts are already looking ahead to when families return to their normal activities outside the home, leaving behind their pets in an empty house. “We highly recommend pet owners start preparing their pets now for when they start returning to work,” said the Atlanta Humane Society’s Hill. “As pets felt the change to our routine when we started being at home more, they’ll also feel the change of routine as we start going back to work. Separation anxiety is going to be the hardest hurdle for our pets to overcome.”
She said simple tips for preparing one’s pets can be found at www.atlantahumane.org/separation-anxiety-in-pets. “We also have a free behavior helpline for those with questions or those noticing changes in behavior in their pets: www.atlantahumane.org/free-virtual-behavior-assistance/.