The Rescuers: In Times of Crisis, Pets are Saving New Owners

Local shelters adjust their services to connect families with new companions during the pandemic.
by Miranda Evon | photography by Joshua Steadman

“Sanderson’s a super happy dog—he puts a smile on our faces every day,” says April Payne. The Paynes recently adopted their Japanese Akita mix, Sanderson Cooper, from Paws for Life N.C., a program of Franklin County Humane Society, after fostering him for a few weeks. “He’s definitely helped us stay positive during the pandemic,” says her husband, Steve Payne. “He’s even given our older dog, MacKenzie, some more spunk and energy. She’s playing more than she has in years!”

The Paynes aren’t the only ones who took the plunge and added a furry friend to their family amidst the pandemic—and that came as a relief to local animal shelters and pet rescue operations. “We were worried about how the pandemic would affect our adoptions,” says Molly Goldston, founder and owner of Saving Grace, an independent shelter in Wake Forest. But with help from the community—and some innovations of their own—they have been able to continue their mission. “We have a really great community and foster program,” says Goldston, who connected hundreds of dogs with families during the stay-at-home order. “For that, I am so thankful.”

Goldston opened Saving Grace on her family’s former farmland in 2004. The unique setting offers space for up to 80 dogs to run and play—and, it turns out, to safely meet their future families. To keep up with interest in adopting dogs, Saving Grace kept meet-and-greets appointment-only and limited the number of guests allowed to come at once. Even before the pandemic, the organization was offering personalized adoption counseling and time for potential adopters to play with the dogs on the farm, so these changes weren’t too far from standard operating procedure. “It’s important to us that a dog stays with their forever family once they’re adopted,” says Goldston. “So if someone doesn’t find a match when they visit, we set something up for later.”

The SPCA of Wake County has also had to make some adjustments, says director of communications Darci VanderSlik. Among them, she says, “We’ve created something like the home adoption network.” Once a week, on Facebook Live, they have one person in the shelter showcase the animals available for adoption. The response, she says, has been “amazing.” Facebook Live has also made it easy to connect dogs and cats with potential owners, who submit applications online. “It has been especially beneficial for older dogs and animals,” she says. “Those who have been in their shelters for months have a renewed interest and have been the most popular.”

Kaitlyn Tickle, the president of Paws for Life, says they have had a huge increase in adoption and foster applications in the last few months. “Dogs are great companions and love unconditionally, so for some people, they offer relief from stress or depression brought on by the uncertain climate,” says Tickle. But with the shelter events and meet-and-greets they’ve typically relied on suspended, they have had to go about adoptions differently. “Adoptions now fundamentally rely on a solid social media presence—good photos, videos and biographies,” she says. “Effective communication between our organization and applicants is top priority.”

According to Carla Roshitsh, one of the board members and Dog Team Leaders at Paws for Life, the group has seen a wider age range of people looking for pets in recent months. “Historically, the majority of our applicants are families with children,” she says. “But we have seen a healthy increase in twenty-something singles and couples with no children.”

Audrey’s Barkyard, which offers pet boarding, grooming and training, works with Paws for Life to foster dogs until they are connected with their forever homes. “We are honored to be the stepping stone to help connect these rescue dogs in their journey to a new future,” says owner Mandy Donahue. “We are so proud to be a part of the team and be a small part of the successful placement for these worthy dogs.”

For new pets and pet owners, more time at home has a silver lining: “Stay-at-home offered a unique opportunity for owners to bond with their new dogs and train them on home routines,” says Roshitsh. The shelters have backed them up, too: SPCA, for example, recently offered Facebook Live sessions with training specialists on Fridays for anyone who needed advice on training their dog, and both Saving Grace and Paws for Life routinely call and check in with the owners to hear how the dog is getting used to its new surroundings.  

While shelters have always felt called to connect pets to their forever homes, the last few months have been a reminder of how important pets can be to their families—these days, it feels like pets are rescuing their new owners, not the other way around. “Horrible situations are happening all around us,” says VanderSlik. “We’re happy that we’re
able to provide some comfort during this time.”