original article appeared in the September 15, 2020 edition of the Tri-City Voice
Raining Cats and Dogs
“We essentially had to rewrite every process we have in the shelter,” says Dr. Cristie Kamiya Chief of Shelter Medicine at HSSV. “Early on, there wasn’t very much information or understanding of what a pandemic meant for us. Once the SIP order went out in March, we completely shut down and it took us a few weeks to figure things out.”
Established in 1929, HSSV offers adoptions, spaying/neutering, vaccinations and microchipping services, pet care services and education programs. In 2009, they moved into a new, state-of-the-art, 48,000-square-foot facility in Milpitas. Kamiya oversees a medical team of about twenty. With over 6,000 adoptions and over 8,000 surgeries last year, the amount of typical daily pet traffic is staggering.
After the SIP order, their immediate concern was what to do with all of the animals being housed on site. Animal shelters are considered essential services, so HSSV was still taking in sick and injured animals from the community and from their partner shelters in Santa Clara County and the Central Valley. With a maximum capacity of 150 – 200 animals, they would fill up quickly if no outlets were found. Placing pets into foster homes became a priority.
A Pet in Every Home
According to Kamiya, HSSV can have over 600 kittens in a foster home at any given time. To say their network of families is robust would be an understatement. Yet staff knew they would need even more homes to help stem the incoming canine/feline tide. They put out a call for foster families on social media and were inundated with over 3,000 applicants. Says Kamiya, “We were blown away by the response. It was amazing! So many people were willing to help.”
The next step was to create an all virtual process to train all of these new foster families quickly and efficiently. Pick up and drop off procedures changed to allow social distancing, and public areas of the shelter were reconfigured to help protect everyone involved. In the end, almost all of the animals at the shelter were transferred to foster homes.
Adopt, Adapt, and Improve
The biggest change by far for HSSV has been the way they adopt animals. Says Kamiya, “Adopting is a very personal one-on-one process where you have a conversation with one of our adoption counselors to determine what type of animal would make a good fit for your family. Then you meet different animals in person at our facility. We had to adapt this service to a virtual model.”
The result is a Zoom meet and greet where potential adopters can interact with animals and ask questions online. It has become extremely popular, with appointment times filling up within minutes after being posted on their website. Since March, HSSV has found forever homes for more than 1,600 animals, which equals the number of adoptions from the same time frame last year. That’s roughly 100 per day. Payment and paperwork are completed online as well.
Another adoption option is a newly created program called Kitten Match. Fill out your preferences online (age, sex, color, markings, etc.) and HSSV will do their best to find a kitten that fits your description. Or check the “Surprise Me!” box. Kitten Match is faster as it bypasses the regular adoption process.
Shelter Medicine – The Name of the Game
One of the factors for their success may be in the nature of shelter medicine. Kamiya, who is one of only a handful of Shelter Veterinarians in the country, puts it this way: “It’s pretty straight forward to provide care for one sick cat, but when you have 50 cats in your care it becomes a little more complicated. You still have to provide individualized treatment, but at the same time you have to protect the health of the entire population.”
In 2017, HSSV became the first shelter in the country to become a Model Shelter, following over 500 guidelines put forth by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians to create an environment that promotes happy, healthy animals. This means that animal shelters like HSSV have a lot of bio security in place to prevent the spread of disease. When the pandemic hit, they were already ahead of the game. Kamiya laughs as she shares a running joke amongst her colleagues – that they should have put a Shelter Veterinarian in charge of the National COVID-19 Pandemic Crisis Response Team.
In response to the pandemic, HSSV has also expanded their Pet Pantry Program, providing free pet food and supplies to any family in Santa Clara County facing economic hardship. They have also instituted an Emergency Boarding Program in which anyone hospitalized by COVID-19 or displaced due to wildfires can temporarily board their pet with them.
It’s an amazing story of resiliency and hope. Says Kamiya, “We were all blindsided by the pandemic, but we’ve still been able to make a positive impact thanks to our community, even if that support looks a little different right now. We’ve worked hard to make changes that improve the way we do things and that are sustainable, so that when we come out the other side we can easily move forward.”
For more information, to donate, and to help fight those quarantine blues, visit http://www.hssv.org
Photos courtesy of Humane Society Silicon Valley