The perils of pandemic pets

abandonments abound, abuse cases more severe, but adoptions steady

IMAGE/WASHOE COUNTY REGIONAL ANIMAL SERVICES: Momo's owners abandoned her at a dog park along with her supplies and a note, above. Momo has a new forever home, but other animals haven't been as fortunate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, severe animal cruelty cases have increased in Washoe County  along with cases of pet abandonment and neglect.

On the plus side, local animal shelters have been using online systems to quickly get the pets in their care adopted — and many of the people who allegedly killed or harmed animals have been tracked down and will face legal consequences.

Last year, the county’s Regional Animal Services had nine animal abuse cases that led to felony charges, compared to four during the previous six years. In the last six months the agency’s hotline, (775) 322-46476, has had five calls about an animal being shot at. Animal welfare reports also may be made online.

“Right now, we’ve got 10 (animal abuse) felony cases we’re working through,” said Robert Wooster, animal control field supervisor at Washoe County Regional Animal Services. “Part of that case load is that it takes longer because cases can’t get into court.”

Penalties for offenses

One of those pending cases involves a Reno man who this month allegedly killed a horse on his property to prevent animal control officers from seizing the malnourished animal. Others involve beating animals or allowing them to starve. The penalties for those felonies could include fines and/or prison time.

PHOTO/WASHOE COUNTY REGIONAL ANIMAL SERVICES: An emaciated dog.

“There also can be bans on owning animals for a period of years,” Wooster said. “We can also issue civil fines after a warning if the behavior persists.” Normally, a lot of the complaints received by animal services involve relatively minor infractions, such as dogs being kept on short tethers or being left to fend for themselves when their owners have left town for days.

“People go on vacation and leave their animals in outdoor cages, garages, decks, front porches,” Wooster said. “They sit them in a kennel and take off for a few days. They put in what they think is enough water and food, but the food is gone the first day. We’ve gotten more of those in the last several months, certainly more than we typically see.”

Washoe County Regional Animal Services animal welfare calls

  • 2017: Of 2,706 welfare calls, 1,566 were considered “founded.” Of those, 7% led to fines or misdemeanor/felony charges.
  • 2018: Of 2,645 welfare calls, 1,345 were founded and 27% led to fines or criminal charges.
  • 2019: Of 2,639 welfare calls, 1,523 were founded and 27% led to fines or charges.
  • 2020: Of 1,903 welfare calls, 1,145 were founded and 29% led to fines or charges.
  • 2021, January: Of 179 welfare calls, 123 were founded and 36% have led to fines or charges.
PHOTOS/REGIONAL ANIMAL SERVICES: Otto was found leashed to the door of WCRAS last summer with the note, above, ghost-written for him, and $100, which will go to the service’s animal assistance fund. Otto has since found a forever home (without cats).

Abandonments increase

From March 2020 to April 2021, Animal Services logged 15 cases of abandonment, ranging from animals being left in a crate with a note to being left in a residence after the tenants moved out. Sometimes animals left on a property aren’t found until they are emaciated or dead.

Momo, abandoned at a dog park, has a new home.

Wooster said there’s no way to tell how much the isolation and stress of the pandemic may have directly contributed to the increase in felony-level animal abuse cases.

“So much goes into it it’s hard to determine the causes,” Wooster said. “There is an alignment with the pandemic; there have been more severe cases and more of them. But we can’t blame it all on COVID stress. People have more cameras on their homes and more people are home during the day to witness problems. We’re now seeing those higher-level things, including the beating of animals, even people shooting animals.”

The availably of witnesses and video evidence has allowed officers to track down the offenders and helps prove cases in court, he said.

Hoarding cases common

Some recent animal hoarding cases have involved 20 to 50 animals in a home. Though common, animal hoarding is hard to define.

“For one person, three dogs or cats might be a problem; others may wind up keeping 20 or 30 animals. It’s not only dogs and cats. People have had large numbers of rabbits, other rodents, reptiles – you name it and some people will collect them. They just get in so over their heads. One thing we’d love for people to do is just reach out to us before they get in that position.”

– Robert Wooster, Washoe County Regional Animal Services.

Animal services can refer people to kennels where animals can be boarded rather than left home alone while owners are out of town, or to rescue organizations that will take in the animals. “There are rescue groups for everything: dogs, cats, turtles, birds, goats… There’s no need to just abandon animals,” Wooster said.

Dogs dumped in the desert

From March 2020 to April 2021, animal control had 15 cases of abandonment, ranging from animals being left in a crate with a note to being left in a residence after they moved out. In one incident this month, someone dropped off 38 dogs  at Sun Valley Regional Park. Five more dogs were found in the Red Rock area. Wooster said the animals may have been left by people who had been hoarding them and then decided to get rid of them all at once.

By April 16, 37 of those dogs had been transferred to the shelter and 36 have found homes. Some of the animals received medical care or behavioral training before being offered for adoption at Nevada Humane Society.

“There’s been tremendous interest and support from the community after word got out (about the abandoned dogs),” said Nicole Theodoulou, marketing director of the Nevada Humane Society, which operates the open-admission, no-kill shelter connected with the county’s animal control services.

“Throughout the pandemic the Northern Nevada community has been incredibly supportive. We have seen an increased interest in adoptions in the past year, reducing the average length of stay for our shelter animals from 18 days in June of 2019, down to seven days in June of 2020.” –

– Nicole Theodoulou, Nevada Humane Society.

Virtual adoptions popular

Early in the pandemic, the shelter put out a call for emergency foster volunteers; more than 600 people responded. That made it possible for the society to have fewer staff members at the shelter and still help all the animals in its charge.

Residents who want to adopt animals may browse among the Nevada Humane Society’s online listings  and complete a required application form. Once prospective adopters decide on a pet, they may schedule an in-person appointment to come in and meet the animal, while observing COVID-19 precautions.

A baby boom and holiday surrenders

His name is Flower and he’s been adopted.

Theodoulou said the society has had a big increase in adoptions, as well as a significant decrease in its animal population. This month the shelter is starting to receive a lot of kittens and pregnant female cats in need of foster care. Those kittens aren’t yet available for adoption.

The shelter takes in bunnies during the weeks following Easter. Ducks and young chickens also are surrendered at animal services, which works with rescue groups that find homes for those species.

“People still get rabbits, chicks and ducks (for Easter) without realizing how much work is involved in caring for the animals. At Halloween, we still worry about black cats getting abused. In the 15 years I’ve been involved, the holiday stuff has become less common, but it still happens. Some people aren’t getting the message and we still see an uptick in calls, but it’s not as bad as it was.”

– Robert Wooster, Washoe County Regional Animal Services.

SPCA adoptions increase

Reno’s other main animal shelter, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Northern Nevada, also reported an increase in the number of adoptions and people signing up as foster volunteers. The shelter at 4950 Spectrum Blvd in Reno, had a lower animal population in 2020 because it usually takes in animals from overcrowded, underfunded shelters across rural Nevada.

“During the pandemic, our transports were halted, which had a tremendous impact on our intake numbers,” said Laura Van Antwerp, SPCA communications manager. With fewer pets and increased demand, the average length of stay for pets at the shelter dropped significantly, she said.

“The silver lining to all this was that we were able to adopt out all of our long-term, harder-to-adopt pets into loving homes. And because our adoption center is closed to the public, we have less traffic which means our pets are less stressed.”

– Laura Van Antwerp, SPCA of Northern Nevada.

Adoptions proceed quickly

Dogs were adopted within about nine days, rather than 14; cats found homes in about 13 days compared with the 21-day average prior to the pandemic. “Once dogs were made available on our website, they were usually adopted that same day via our virtual adoption process,” she said. “Cats were usually adopted within a few days. We had a total of 1,463 adoptions last year, which is down from 2,147 the year prior because we halted pet intakes during the shutdown.”

The SPCA also had a lower return rate on animals. Some cities have reported an increase in returned animals as pandemic restrictions ease, but that hasn’t happened in Washoe County.

 “We will see if this trend continues as more people go back to work, but so far it hasn’t changed,” Van Antwerp said. 

PHOTO/WASHOE COUNTY REGIONAL ANIMAL SERVICES: Unlike Otto the Doberman, pictured earlier in this story, some of the 38 dogs rescued from a park in Sun Valley are comfortable around felines.

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