I spent the majority of my first two weeks of quarantine, just like many of you, on Petfinder.com. This is not a presumption; I know because Petfinder told me that its traffic increased 43 percent and adoption inquiries jumped 116 percent in the second half of March. Remember March? It was right around the time many people were starting to realize they were about to be spending a lot more time at home, where it suddenly felt very empty.
I had always tortured my parents, who did not want a four-legged creature anywhere near our house, by begging for a cat, or a puppy, or anything more sentient than a plant. Ultimately, with no actual bargaining chips, I settled for a freshwater tank of 10 neon tetras, all named after famous ’90s figure skaters. When we moved, my dad flushed them down the toilet, to the great ice rink in the sky.
So when my boyfriend and I finally moved into our own Brooklyn apartment in early March, cat adoption was at the top of my to-do list, after “buy a couch” and “have a very frank and serious discussion about what counts as ‘clean.’”
We were not planning on spending the majority of the month quarantined there, but one of the benefits of working from home is that no one can see that you have 25 open tabs in your browser filled with pictures of Laurie, an “affectionate, attention-seeking seven month old kitten looking for her FUREVER home,” or a tortie called “Gorgeous May” described as “slightly shy at first but turns into a LOVEBUG before you know it!!!” (All online cat descriptions sound like this, it’s incredibly dorky and very charming.)
You know what happened next. Things started to get bad in New York, and then bad everywhere else in the country, and then really bad in New York. Suddenly I happened to be adopting a cat at a time when thousands of other people were looking for something to keep them company during a certain “uncertain time.”
It had become a rare gem of good news in 2020 — “Newest Shortage in New York: The City Is Running Out of Dogs to Foster,” read one of such Bloomberg headlines. Animal shelters across the country were suddenly overwhelmed by applications to foster and adopt cats and dogs, even in places with traditionally low human-to-pet ratios, like New York City. Now that animal shelters had limited hours, many even agreed to foster after just one virtual FaceTime or Zoom call (sometimes also called a “meow meet”; again, animal people are corny as hell).
“At any given time we have over 600 animals in our care and right now we have less than 100, if that’s any indication of how it’s going,” says Katy Hansen, communications director for the Animal Care Centers of NYC.
“We put a call out for fosters on March 13, when everything kind of was really starting to hit full steam,” she says. “All we knew was that we needed to get as many animals out as possible because we didn’t know how this would affect our staff. We thought we would get 50 applications. We got 5,000.”
Not everyone is suitable to take in a foster animal, of course. Hansen jokes that “4,999 of those applications were for teacup poodles that are hypoallergenic and get along with kids and cats,” but the organization was still able to place 280 animals in foster homes that week.
This isn’t how animal shelters expected the pandemic to go. “We thought people were going to bring their animals in and then run for the hills,” Hansen says. Instead, it opened up an entirely new demographic of potential pet fosters: “The people that were filling up the applications were primarily millennials who lived with roommates. That’s not a demographic that we usually see coming forward to foster, because they’re working and they live with three people.”
The ASPCA, meanwhile, has seen a 500 percent increase in applications through its New York and Los Angeles foster programs since March 15, according to president and CEO Matt Bershadker. In Kansas City, a good day for the KC Pet Project animal shelter is getting 10 pets placed in foster homes, but it received 250 applications in the span of just a few days. So many people applied to foster animals through the Wisconsin Humane Society that its website briefly crashed.
I submitted one such application to countless local animal shelters, but knew my chances of hearing back would be far lower than normal considering the circumstances. It was a few weeks into the search, though, that I came across an adorable tortoiseshell kitten named Aubrey on Adopt-a-Pet.com (where daily traffic has increased 60 percent and inquiries have doubled, according to the site).
After going through the now-familiar slog of confirming that, yes, my landlord was okay with pets, and no, I had never surrendered an animal, and here are two people that can attest to my ability to keep a small thing alive, the tiny mom-and-pop organization that had rescued Aubrey sent me the text I’d been waiting for: “Hello rebecca congratulations your adoption application has been approved pls let us know what evenings after 7 works for you to meet the cats thx.”
The rescue shelter had an extremely wonderful setup for anyone hoping to choose the best possible cat for them: I’d pick out eight of the available cats on its website and would get the chance to meet them all inside an adoption van. The following evening, I put on a face mask and met Luis (not his real name) in his driveway. I was at the home of a stranger, alone, at 9 pm, 20 minutes away from my apartment or anyone I knew, but it was the most exciting place I’d ever been. My cat was in here!
Lined up in little crates, all eight of them were perfect, but two were more perfect than the others: a white female with gray spots I silently named Edelgard, after a character in a video game I had become recently obsessed with, and Hubert, the tuxedo male next to her, named for Edelgard’s slightly evil and very goth second-in-command. (Luis told me that Edelgard had been recently returned because she had been kind of a nightmare, and so I took the hint.)
When I picked up Hubert, though, it was all over. Not only did he have the softest fur and the prettiest facial markings I’d ever seen on a cat, but he loved me. The other cats were cute, but Hubert was mine.
A few days later, he was. Luis arrived at our apartment with food, litter, and a giant cage that held Hubert. We let him out; we took pictures. I held him some more, my very own cat, the furry thing I had wanted for an entire life of settling for inch-long tropical fish and other people’s pets.
Then Luis left. I have been around stressed-out cats before; I know what they do. They hide — for a few days, sometimes. “Dogs love you, cats tolerate you” is a thing that dog people like to say as an insult and cat people like to say as a brag.
For the first few days, Hubie barely tolerated us. He finally ate and used the litter box after the third day, while we were asleep. From morning through the afternoons, he’d burrow on a small ledge behind the couch, where I’d sit and work to try to let him get used to the smells and sounds of a new apartment. It was normal in the beginning; it was normal for the first week, I kept telling myself.
“He’s broken,” joked my boyfriend, and then we got into a fight.
With each day I’d started to spend more and more time reading advice columns on websites with titles like “The Way of Cats” and “Cuteness.com,” all of which told me to be patient, and luckily, cat people tend to be the sort who love giving advice. The lady at my local pet store recommended a particular brand of treats; one of the dorky websites suggested playing classical music to drown out scary noises.
The Vox Media cats-specific Slack channel said to make sure he sees me filling his bowl every day so that he associates me with food. Perhaps the most useful piece of perspective came from one of my coworkers, who said, “Cats are fickle little bitches and we love them for it.”
For better or for worse, pets almost never turn out the way you expect them to, particularly in a time when adopting one is supposed to fill the giant hole in your heart where your social life used to be. In March, my best friend, a lifelong cat whisperer, agreed to take in four day-old kittens. She woke up each night to bottle-feed them every two hours, and two still died — a sad but inevitable outcome of many litters.
My friend’s little sister just adopted the world’s most photogenic Australian shepherd puppy and now it won’t stop biting everything. Another friend fostered a puppy at the beginning of quarantine and was so sad when he went to his forever home that they adopted his sister. I suspect I’m not the only one dealing with a terrified new cat: When I asked if my pet store had any calming pheromone spray, the clerk laughed and said they were “very out.”
The important thing, though, is that we continue to love our quarantine pets after things start to feel somewhat normal again. Katy Hansen of the NYACC says that they’re prepared for an increase in surrenders over the next few months, but not for the usual reasons. “As people lose their jobs, there’s going to be financial hardships,” she says. Animal shelters, too, are facing the same concerns as any small business right now. The ASPCA says it is still unclear on the pandemic’s impact on animal welfare, but that “in addition to the unprecedented challenges this crisis creates for people, it also puts animals at risk by straining essential owner and shelter resources.”
During our phone call, I told Hansen about Hubert, but she wasn’t worried. “They’re what we call spirit cats,” she says. “They just need some time, and then before you know it they’ll be crawling all over you!”
Hubie isn’t there yet, and that’s okay! We’ll get to know each other together — the treats he likes, the sounds he hates, the corners in the apartment he prefers to vomit. All that matters is that he’s home, just like the rest of us will be for the foreseeable future. It’s a scary time for everyone right now. Even cats.