When Osan met Zia: Amid coronavirus, Maryland animal shelters focus on fostering, feeding pets in need

With his shiny black coat and a face his foster mother called the “cutest little squishiest” one ever, 4-year-old Hair Tie was a popular pup when it came to adoption applications.

Zia Bowen felt like she was on a first date and thought she might need a treat or a toy when she was chosen from a pool of 30 applicants to meet the dog at the Baltimore Animal Rescue & Care Shelter (BARCS) to make sure he liked her. No such enticement was needed.


“It was just chemistry, immediately,” Bowen, 25, said. “And, now he’s my boy.”

The dog, now named Osan, has become her shadow in her Park Heights home. He goes crazy at the words “Momma’s Boy.” He loves belly rubs, snores and getting under the covers when it’s bedtime.


Osan has his forever home. But he’s also an example of how Baltimore-area animal shelters have leaned heavily on animal fostering during the coronavirus pandemic, while coping with revenue losses and spikes in food bank need.

“Even though the COVID-19 situation is so drastic, luckily everyone’s kind of coming together while social distancing to help animals out, help animals in need, and build a bigger sense of community,” said Nick Crawford, social media and office manager of the Annapolis-based SPCA of Anne Arundel County.

After the coronavirus pandemic arrived, one of the first steps taken was to limit the number of animals in shelters, lowering staff requirements.

BARCS holds around 250 animals, and quickly moved healthy and friendly animals to foster homes, leaving between 50 and 70, executive director Jen Brause said.

Foster homes typically care for an animal for a brief period; they can relieve shelter demand and help acclimate an animal to a home environment until their eventual adoption, with the shelter providing food and medical care in return for a happy home.

For instance, Ariel Rubenstein, who fostered Osan for BARCS when he was still Hair Tie, has — just during the pandemic — fostered three other dogs and a cat who have been placed with homes.

The Humane Society of Carroll County has over 200 animals in foster care, and is using shelter space to care for pets of coronavirus patients as they’re treated, said executive director Karen Baker.


The Maryland SCPA closed its Falls Road facility on March 23 and fostered out 69 animals in three days, giving them 145 fostered animals to keep tabs on in total as they shut down adoptions. Those that are keeping them open, like BARCS, adopted practices in line with social distancing regulations.

The rationale for fostering or adopting now, Brause said, is that families are home and can acclimate animals to a new setting.

With fostering particularly, “People are like, ‘I can do it now. I’m not sure if I want to have an animal long-term, but we’re home,’” Brause said. “And with people being home, it’s a great new entertainment to have in your house, especially if you have kids, you have something new, something to interact with, get you a little exercise and get some fresh air with if you’re getting a dog.”

Those shelters that continued adoptions show flat numbers compared with the same period last year, but also lower intake.

Shelters are also laboring to fulfill spikes in demand for animal food aid.

The Maryland SPCA typically serves 142 people every year through its Kibble Connection program, which helps those in need feed their pets. In the one-month period beginning March 23, they helped 230 people feed 593 pets and were seeking warehouse space to accommodate the increased supply, executive director Jim Peirce said.


Requests were up 20% at the Baltimore Humane Society in Baltimore County in that first month, and when the Harford County Humane Society ran low on stocks it was able to replenish them quickly with a social media callout — raising $1,000 to keep supplies up.

In addition to assisting with 10 medical procedures to keep animals from being surrendered, the Howard County Animal Control and Adoption Center is filling as many as 15 food requests each week when a typical month brings five.

“It’s a large increase, but the public has responded in kind,” Howard County Animal Control Administrator Deborah Baracco said.

Those efforts are contributing to Maryland’s part of what seems to be a nationwide trend when it relates to COVID-19 and pets.

The nonprofit collaborative Shelter Animals Count surveyed 1,127 organizations nationwide on March 2019 and March 2020 adoption and intake data, and found that shelters and rescues had 24% fewer cats and dogs entering this year compared with last, including a 28% decrease in pets surrendered by owners.


With fewer animals available and adoptions suspended at some faciltiies, adoptions are down overall 11%, the study found — yet pet adoptions as compared with other outcomes were up 4%.

All these efforts come as the financial and operational landscape of shelters is changing significantly. Several have had to cancel signature fundraising events, which could hurt veterinary services and outreach in the future.

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“You’re talking about quite a bit of money that you lose along the way because absolutely everything had to be cancelled,” Kate Pika, director of marketing and public relations for the Baltimore Humane Society, said. “That’s the downfall of it, but the uptick is everyone’s adopting a pet,” she said.

Rubenstein, 37, who had fostered Osan, said she has fostered animals who garnered no interest at all over a month’s time. But she points to the fact that she has already successfully adopted out four others during the pandemic: a senior brown pitbull mix with a wide smile named Rizza, a high-energy mixed breed puppy called Voyager, a cuddly young cat name Narwahl and a 10-month-old, white, deaf puppy they called Lite Brite.

She said there’s a theme among the adopters she’s worked with: “They have the time now, where they’re able to train an animal, they want that companionship.”

Melissa Reynolds, a 49-year-old Reisterstown resident, estimates she’s had 55 animals through her house as fosters in the last couple of years. For those that don’t want to adopt, she says there’s plenty to like about fostering as well.


“It’s exciting and new,” she said. “It’s like Christmas. What are we going to get the next time?”

Crawford said the SPCA of Anne Arundel County has over 100 adoption applications pre-submitted to allow for a quicker process once they can start back up. Their peers at the Anne Arundel County Animal Care and Control Department are going live on Facebook nearly every day to show off the animals in the shelter in hopes of finding them new homes, too.

“We have a lot of people looking,” Baker said, “and I’m hoping they’re still looking when all of this returns to normal, because we will definitely need adopters.”