04/09/2020 13:59 EDT

How An Ontario Animal Shelter Stepped Up To Feed Pets During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Calls to humane societies have tripled as pet owners look for help dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.

James Rutters/Supplied
Keisha nurses her 12 pups in early April 2020 near Collingwood, Ont. The Georgian Triangle Humane Society delivered food to her owner James Rutters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, a small animal shelter in rural Ontario got an unexpected call from James Rutters. His German shepherd Keisha had given birth to a huge litter — 12 puppies — and she was starving. 

“I was really worried. She’s eating three to four times more than she normally eats,” said Rutters, who lives on a farm outside Collingwood. 

He only had a few cups of kibble left, and didn’t have enough money to buy the food she’d need in the coming weeks to support her pups. He also doesn’t go out much, especially not in the middle of a pandemic. 

The Georgian Triangle Humane Society was prepared. 

In late March, the COVID-19 crisis had forced staff and volunteers to shut the shelter’s doors to the public and stop adoptions, but they anticipated more pets than usual would be in need of help. So, they moved quickly. 

Within an hour, the humane society had transformed a fairly new initiative, a pet food pantry, into a home delivery service, said executive director Sonya Reichel. 

Every day during the lockdown measures, her team fans out in the community to drop off free pet food to anyone who is unable to leave the house or is facing financial hardship. 

They’ve seen an “astronomical increase” in demand, Reichel said. 

“The calls are increasing every day from folks who have been laid off, or are struggling economically, or aren’t able to get to regular locations to purchase food,” Reichel said. “What we know about people with pets is they will prioritize their pet’s nutrition over themselves, so we are also helping to support our community.” 

After hearing of Rutters’ situation, a pet food pantry volunteer dropped off bags of food, to his and Keisha’s relief, within hours. 

James Rutters/Supplied
One of Keisha's 12 puppies days after it was born.

All 12 puppies are “good and healthy” now and Keisha is allowing their dad, Max (who, Rutters said, is part wolf) to help clean them. 

To tell the puppies apart, Rutters said he plans on buying different coloured collars and his daughter will name them. In a month or so, he’ll train the pups so they’re ready to adopt. 

He’s asking Canadians to consider donating to their local animal shelter. “Gas prices are down, so use that money (saved) to help the animals,” Rutters said. 

Humane societies across the country, deemed an essential service, are continuing to care for surrendered and abandoned dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and other animals, while answering calls for advice and support. 

The Ontario SPCA, with 12 centres across the province, is reporting that calls from the public looking for support have tripled as a result of COVID-19. It has launched an urgent animal care fund so shelters can buy food and supplies for their animals, pay for veterinary care and support vulnerable pet owners.

“Despite the pandemic, our work continues caring for animals,” said Daryl Vaillancourt, who is in charge of humane programs and community outreach. “We need to tell the world we are still here for people and their pets.” 

Swamped, Reichel hasn’t yet calculated how much food the Georgian Triangle Humane Society has delivered, but knows “dozens” of animals have been helped this spring. That’s on top of the 50 animals currently in their care. All adoptions have been put on hold to ensure staff can practise physical distancing. 

Animal shelters that have the capacity to continue adoptions are seeing increased demand for pets, including in P.E.I. shelters where almost all animals have been adopted. 

In late March, BC SPCA found homes for 300 animals in five days. Now it is in need of pet food donations to help families impacted by illness, job losses and other challenges during the COVID-19 crisis.

Watch: Experts explain why pets aren’t likely to spread COVID-19.