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The Pandemic’s Dog Days: How COVID-19 has complicated international pet adoption

Clocking in at over a year now, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen its share of offshoot trends ebb and flow: sourdough and banana bread; Zoom happy hours; the 7 p.m. cheer for healthcare workers.

But one persistent thread throughout the global health crisis has been what would seem to be, at least in normal times, a relatively simple ask: adopting a new pet.

Our adoption tail tale

My wife and I were among those searching for a new furry friend last spring and summer, eventually ending up with our Korean Jindo mix, Mary, late last September.

We’d talked about adopting a dog for a couple years prior (read: “Why don’t you ever get me a puppy?”), but with both of us working long hours and commuting on top of it, there didn’t seem to be the right opportunity to add to our family, which already comprised of cats Patrick and Otis.

But as the pandemic took hold, with stay-at-home orders in place and with precautions seeming as though they’d extend for months (if not years), we started doing a bit more due diligence to determine what kind of dog we might want to bring home while also mapping out other considerations, such as deciding which necessities to buy and charting a long-term plan for when we did have to return to office life.

My wife had grown up with dogs—some absolute sweethearts and one hellspawn that would alternatively seek to claw and pee on any available sleeping head—but had never owned one as an adult, and she admittedly spearheaded the process. I’d been all cats, all the time and had some hesitance over bringing in a new animal I thought would be more high-maintenance. She reassured me, though, that any extra effort would be paid back manifold in affection, so I wised up, decided to take the leap and started looking.

Seems as though countless others had the same idea. In the United States, a March study by TOP Data found puppy adoption rates rose 34 per cent year-over-year. While similar hard Canadian data isn’t available, there are numerous reports of agencies receiving hundreds of applications for a single pooch.

After zeroing in on some preferred characteristics and narrowing down to a few different breeds from there, we started our search in earnest, trawling the websites of a handful of rescues in the Lower Mainland and the Sea to Sky.

Our parameters starting out made it feel a bit like threading a needle at the best of times: we wanted to avoid larger breeds but also, well, smaller, yappier breeds.

In many cases, inventory was low to begin with, and those that were available didn’t seem to be the right fit for our situation.

When we did find a rescue with a seemingly steady flow of potential adoptees, including a couple that seemed to be prime candidates, we diligently filled out and submitted the applications, hearing nothing and, later scrolling through the rescue’s social media accounts, found ourselves somewhat befuddled to find photos of some dogs being placed in what appeared to be less-than-ideal situations, such as families with younger children.

The weeks wore on, but we continued our search locally, fruitless though it was at that moment.

A glimmer of hope

One late-spring Sunday morning, though, I had an email from Free Korean Dogs saying that they’d like to discuss our application for two-year-old Mary.

“Mary is a very sweet and affectionate to people; she loves to cuddle and is very friendly. She plays OK with other dogs, but is a little bit nervous around hyper, bossy, or large dogs,” her bio on the website read. “Mary is also easy-going and smart; she learns new things very quickly. She will be good for a first-time dog owner.”

Mary had been saved from being sold for meat (a practice that, though waning, is still active in South Korea) living with her rescuer for some months before moving into a boarding house, waiting for adoption.

We reviewed the provided literature from the Toronto-based agency, including a lengthy manual, and made sure to set up our initial interview and home study with executive director EK Park right away. While part of the conversation was to assess our suitability as owners, a significant portion was Park laying out Free Korean Dogs’ policies and procedures and giving us the chance to withdraw if it wasn’t a good fit. Park was thorough and committed to finding a good home for Mary (and all the other dogs, of course). Not only do she and the volunteers care so much for each dog, but even at the best of times, the cold, hard costs and logistics of bringing a pooch overseas is a momentous achievement each time, and it’s been complicated immensely by the pandemic.

As airlines have slashed the number of flights they offer over the past year, many have also reduced their cargo capacity, with some only allowing pets to be stored under cabin seats, limiting the number of adoptions from abroad.

Canada’s quarantine hotel program, which requires international air travellers to book a three-night stay at a quarantine hotel on their own dime, has only added to the challenge, given many adoption agencies rely on escorts to travel with adopted dogs from their home country.

Park admitted it was an especially raw time for the organization: an adoptive family had left their freshly arrived pup in the care of family members (a huge no-no); the dog escaped and was immediately struck and killed by a passing car.

We committed to caring for Mary and Free Korean Dogs committed to us, noting it was unclear exactly when she would be able to get on a flight. We completed our paperwork, paid our fees and began waiting.

The waiting game

With the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted in early June, we made sure to assemble the usual dog supplies; bowls and dishes, gates, toys, leashes, collar, tags and a Webmaster harness.

The items arrived one by one, but with no clear ETA, we eventually packed them away to avoid the reminder that we didn’t know when they’d be put to use. As summer progressed, we started to wonder if they’d ever be necessary at all.

Flights from Seoul to Vancouver were minimal and, for the few travellers that did make the journey, signing up to be a pet escort was not top of mind during the health crisis.

There were points where we saw on social media that the odd dog was trickling across the border into its forever home here or there, and if that rate continued, it seemed likely that it’d be years, not months, before we’d have our new addition, even with Park and her team doing everything in their power.

When the leaves started to change colour, we grew concerned. Our hope had always been to adopt, but with few options, we started scouring the online listings, wondering if we should shell out some more money (up to a couple thousand dollars) to purchase a pooch and have her home in short order. We entered discussions with a handful of sellers but talks broke down for one reason or another: timelines, distance, even wariness of the sellers’ integrity.

At our lowest points, we were nearly resigned that dog ownership might not be in the cards for us.

Becoming a globetrotter

As we approached the four-month mark, there finally seemed to be some possibilities for Mary to fly cargo instead of commercial.

The first couple of attempts failed to come to fruition, but then, all of a sudden, there was good news. Mary had a flight to Seattle.

In normal times, this would be welcome news. But with the border closed, and social media reports of adopted dogs en route to Canada stuck with fosters in Washington state for months on end, we weren’t sure if this meant we were all that much closer to Mary, at least figuratively.

When Mary and a group of other dogs were kenneled up and flown across the Pacific, Free Korean Dogs was still looking to lock down a date for an essential driver to bring all the pups across the border to B.C.

We were, however, told to be on standby and that we’d likely receive less than a day’s notice to retrieve Mary.

As with the flights, there was hope before it was dashed on more than one occasion. But just couple of days after she arrived in North America, we got word that Mary would indeed be joining us in the late morning of Sunday, Sept. 27. In a WhatsApp chat that Park coordinated from Toronto, we arranged to meet the driver at a South Surrey strip mall mere metres from the American border.

We definitely had butterflies as we saw the truck pull up, park, and the driver started pulling crates out. Soon enough, all the dogs were unloaded, we had our photo snapped with Mary in the crate, and we placed her carefully in the backseat of the car.

My wife rode in the back with her, noticing that she wouldn’t lie down much in her kennel, but she leaned on the side my wife was on; our first sign of love, trust and affection seemed to come before we had even let her out.

There have, of course, been growing pains, trial and error and frustrations with bringing in an adult rescue who likely spent some time as a street dog, but they melt away as Mary grows more comfortable with us each day, and she snuggles us more, and is genuinely happy to be with us.

The Sea-to-Sky experience

Up the road, Pemberton Animal Well-Being Society (PAWS) shelter manager and executive director Anna Scott explains that they adopted out more than 50 kittens last summer, but had a slow intake of dogs, with just two last year and none in 2021, as of early April.

“Last year was very busy as far as intakes and adoptions. We’ve had a very steady stream of applications coming in: applications for volunteers and fosters and all of that,” Scott says. “It’s sort of dropped off and slowed down a bit now.”

Scott notes that PAWS has seen a spike in applications during the pandemic, but the shelter’s thorough vetting process weeds out those who aren’t quite as serious about taking care of a pet.

“By the time people are coming out to meet us, they’re usually pretty good applicants, but it does seem like there are more applications that are done sort of more on a whim, not thinking long-term about it,” she says. “There are definitely more people who are just kind of bored and looking to fill the gap.”

While the rise in requests has the positive effect of increasing the likelihood of placing an animal in a quality home, the flipside is that fewer applicants are matched with a placement, at a time when there are fewer animals to adopt out. That, combined with the increased workload of sorting through the number of applications, has led to a perception in the community that it’s “impossible to adopt” through PAWS, explains Scott.

“It’s great to have lots of applicants to choose from, but people forget we’re all volunteer-run at PAWS as well so sometimes we don’t have as quick response times,” she says. “At the end of the day, we have to pick the best match for the animal and, at the end of the day, we’re working for the animal and trying to help them.”

While it’s difficult to predict when the volume of adoptable dogs may again increase, Scott says PAWS has space for those that need to be taken in. She also encourages families to remain patient and, even with low rates currently, to avoid purchasing from sources that may not be reputable.

“It is a bit worrisome for us to not have any dogs or puppies coming in because we do think that people are just going directly to purchase dogs from these backyard breeding situations, which is concerning because people have the incentive to keep having litter after litter if they’re making money off of it,” she says.

Scott advises applicants to remain in communication with PAWS, following up if they haven’t heard back in a timely manner. As well, she reiterates that just because someone wasn’t a fit for one animal doesn’t preclude them from being the right home for another.

Pique reached out to Whistler Animals Galore for this feature, but did not hear back by press deadline.