How Local Shelters Kept Up With Soaring Pet Adoptions

Stray dogs and cats are finding new families faster than ever before.

Demand for pets soared over the course of the pandemic, as more people began working from home. And Milwaukee-area animal shelters have struggled to keep up.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in adoption demand,” Wisconsin Humane Society spokeswoman Angela Speed says. “We moved to an appointment-based system, and appointments were booking out weeks ahead of time.”

Ironically, the Wisconsin Humane Society’s adoption numbers have actually dropped in spite of all the demand, because fewer people are abandoning their pets or surrendering them to shelters.

“If you look at any 12-month snapshot during the pandemic, pet intake was consistently down 30% to 40% from the previous year. So we actually had fewer adoptions overall because we had fewer homeless animals.”

Milwaukee’s eviction moratorium may have helped keep intake levels low, Speed says. “Most of our surrenders are because of some sort of financial issue or a lack of resources tied to housing, evictions, lack of ability to afford basic needs or vet care.”

The Humane Animal Welfare Society, commonly known as HAWS, in Waukesha has also experienced more demand for pets and a decline in animals coming into its shelter. About 3,800 animals were adopted from the shelter in 2020, compared with 4,200 in 2019. And at one point in late spring 2020, the entire cat ward was empty due to adoption demand.

“Normally our cat ward from March until the end of October is over owing with cats and kittens,” HAWS spokeswoman Jennifer Smieja says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing and was very heart-warming.”

The pent-up demand helped ensure that some long-term residents at the shelter finally found homes, including Monkey, a 13-year-old cat. Monkey first arrived at HAWS in July 2019 and found a home in March 2020.

And demand for adoptions has remained high.

Reports began surfacing this spring of a rash of pets that had been adopted during the pandemic’s peak being returned to shelters. But Speed says she’s seen no evidence of that happening in the Milwaukee area and doesn’t expect that to change.

“The bond that people form with their animals is under- estimated,” she says. “And a lot of people are still working from home, or partly from home, or their lifestyles have changed. Animals are part of our dynamic now.”

Intake and Adoptions by the Numbers

Since the pandemic began, the Wisconsin Humane Society has seen fewer strays pass through its doors. 

April 1, 2020 through March 31, 2021 | Same period prior year

Adoption Tails

ALEX AND GERTY: In September Alex Bustamante, 42, adopted a small, u y white dog, a Bichon Frise and poodle mix that had been in foster care. Bustamante runs a marketing agency from his Bay View home.

“They found her roaming at Menards. Her name was Ruby. I’m a big E.T. fan, so I renamed her Gerty, after the little girl in the movie. I had wanted to adopt for some time. All the shelters were all overwhelmed. It was just a stroke of luck with Gerty. Very sweet and social right away. I could tell whoever had her didn’t let her go out very much. She didn’t seem like she had ever seen snow before. She’s very attached to me for her entertainment. She likes to play tag every night. She catches on very quickly. She’s bilingual. So am I. I use Spanish words to get her to do things. It’s been good but it hasn’t been perfect. In

the rst few days I wondered if I made the right choice. You start thinking about all the things you have to accommodate in your life. There’s a sense of being overwhelmed. But that subsided quickly. She’s my friend.”

EMILY AND LARRY: After thinking about adopting a pet for several months, Emily Rizzo, 34, took home a 40-pound, 2-year- old dog named Larry. Rizzo, who works as a marine surveyor, needed to be matched with a dog that t the restrictions of her Milwaukee apartment building.

“I’ve been looking for a dog for a while. I went to the Humane Society one day just to look and Larry was available. I adopted him in April, kind of at the back end of the pandemic, but it was still a pretty competitive process. If you looked at a dog on the web- site the night before, chances are the next day the dog would be gone. Larry was his original name so I gured I might as well keep it. He looks like a mix between a border collie and something else, but I’m not sure. He’s from down South. I used to think that I didn’t have time for a dog but when

the pandemic hit, I realized you can make time and make it work. Larry’s a really active guy and is really well trained. He’s a great dog with a great temperament. He likes to go on walks and runs. He’s a ball of energy. I’m glad I did it. I was ready.”


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s July issue.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.