Ever since the Pets In Need took over Palo Alto's animal adoption services in late 2018, it has been operating in an atmosphere of change and uncertainty.
The nonprofit, which also operates a shelter in Redwood City, took over operations of the municipal shelter on East Bayshore Road with the understanding that the city would soon be upgrading the shelter, which has been deemed shabby by modern standards. While the city completed construction of the shelter's medical suite in September, plans to build new kennels remain in flux, with the project facing a funding gap of about $500,000, according to city staff.
But the ability of Pets In Need to adapt to difficult circumstances was tested in an unprecedented way last year, when shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19 swept through California. In the first week of March 2020, the nonprofit instantly transformed itself from a full-fledged shelter to a remote operation that both tended to the hundreds of animals in its care and served the hundreds of Bay Area residents who suddenly found themselves sheltering at home and aching for companionship.
Immediately after deciding to shut down its facilities, Pets In Need sent out urgent emails informing people about the imminent closure of the animal shelters. Within 48 hours, nearly all 150 animals in the organization's Redwood City and Palo Alto shelters were placed with foster households, said Al Mollica, the organization's executive director.
The sudden shift was followed by months of other adjustments to the shelter's operations, with Pets In Need shifting to a system that relies on Zoom meetings to demonstrate animal behavior and email networks to link potential adopters to their pets-to-be. Its plan for the pandemic was to have only three people per shift to provide medical services, oversee kennel and perform administrative functions, Mollica said.
Like other facilities throughout the city, Pets In Need is now on the path to business as usual. It already allows visitors to stop by, albeit only by appointment. Its volunteers are back. And with California officially hitting its full reopening phase Tuesday, the organization plans to increase the number of appointments and make face-to-face meetings more routine (with face masks, at least for now). In the coming weeks, the nonprofit expects to allow residents to pop in and look at animals like in the old days — a sure sign of things returning back to normal.
"It's something we haven't done in a year," Mollica told this news organization.
For Mollica and the nonprofit's staff, the pandemic was a time of creativity and improvisation. Fully operational on March 6, 2020, the shelter became a "ghost town" a week later, with only a handful of staff members present to provide veterinarian services and oversee the kennels, Molllica said.
Pets In Need, which prides itself on being a no-kill shelter, also had to immediately halt performing rescue runs to other shelters to pick up at-risk animals. It also shifted its focus on the most vulnerable animals, which tended to be the larger dogs on euthanasia lists.
"All our partner shelters were getting backed up with animals. The pandemic didn't stop cats from having kittens and people from turning in their dogs and such. That was a struggle for us," Mollica said. "It's what we do. Our business was to save as many animals as possible."
Through creativity and connections, the organization cautiously resumed its rescue runs. Occasionally it would send a team to a shelter in the Central Valley to pick up at-risk animals in a parking lot — an exchange that was conducted with virtually no human contact. At other times, staff from two shelters would rendezvous in the parking lot of a third shelter to transfer and process the animals, Mollica said.
When the vaccines arrived, Pets In Need staff got their shots and staff became more "ambitious" with its rescue runs, Mollica said. Adoptions went up — reaching a total of 1,635 over the course of the organization's last fiscal year, which ran from May 1, 2020 to April 30, 2021, Mollica said. While this is a drop from its all-time high of about 2,100 adoptions, which the organization reached in the year prior to the pandemic, Mollica is proud of the organization's ability to forge so many connections during a time of social distancing.
Now, the organization is on a path toward normalcy. About a month ago, it began allowing volunteers to come in for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, Mollica said. Volunteers are now assisting with both caring for the dogs at the shelter and in finding new homes for the roughly 205 animals currently in the organization's care (of those, about 175 are in foster care, while the remainder are in Pets In Need shelters, Mollica said).
"The silver lining over the past year is the fact that all of us now understand — on a visceral level — what it's like to deal with adversity," Mollica said. "Trying to carry out the mission for an organization like Pets In Need when you can't do rescue runs or meet with people is difficult."
There is another positive sign, Mollica said. Even with the influx of adopters during the pandemic, the shelters have not seen too many owners return their pets. That, he said, is a sign that the agency's adoption staff and volunteers are "very discerning and very careful" when linking pets with owners.
"We still follow the same protocols and procedures we always followed," Mollica said. "Not everyone will pass muster. You turn some people down, but the bottom line is, weeks and weeks and months and months later, you don't have the owner surrender and return rate."