Laura Tipton, adoption facilitator, and Dr. Laurel Berry, the shelter’s veterinarian, review files on adoptable animals at Hilton Head Humane Association. SUBMITTED

Lovable Paws, one of the smaller animal rescues in the area, is in a former auction house in Hardeeville. The owner and his team were described by another rescue as having “hearts as big as milk buckets.”

Like every other rescuer, Steve Allen continues to work after closing, cleaning and feeding his charges.

“Finding supplies and food to keep our facility going has been the worst part about the pandemic,” Allen said. “Other than how we conduct our adoptions and paperwork, we have not closed down at all during this time.”

All of the local rescues interviewed for this story are registered as 501(c)(3) nonprofit charities. Donations are spent on surgeries, heartworm treatment, monthly vetting, housing, food and shelter. This ensures that families who adopt the rescued animals get healthy pets.

“We have seen an increased amount of adoptions, but that is also due to the increased amount of stray dogs and owner surrenders, and those reaching out for help because of being out of a job,” he said. Lovable Paws offers only dogs, but there is a wide choice from which to choose.

“We have many, many dogs available for adoption from 6 pound little cutie pies to 70 pound adult well-behaved and stable dogs. Every dog in our facility has a unique characteristic and we do our best to match up the perfect dog to the home,” Allen said.

Laura’s Little Critter Barn, a small Bluffton rescue, was not badly affected by the pandemic, said owner Laura Sterling.

“I would say it stopped me from holding a few events. Other than that, people are still bringing in found wild life,” she said.

While Sterling’s organization currently has dogs for adoption, she takes in just about anything that moves, partnering with organizations that specialize in some of her more unique guests. “We have cats and dogs, goats, pigs, horses, small things like chinchillas, ferrets and guinea pigs,” she said. Apparently small size does not mean light on maintenance, especially when it comes to guinea pigs.

“Those are the most frequently adopted and then turned back in. People don’t realize how much care they are and then they get them home and it’s a lot of work,” she said.

The pandemic made it easier for people to find wounded wild life, delivering their discoveries to the Little Critter Barn.

“More people were home and out on the paths. I do whatever the good Lord puts in front of me to handle that day,” said Sterling.

One of the most significant impacts the pandemic has had on pet rescues has been the social distancing.

Palmetto Animal League, one of the larger area nonprofits, is coordinating adoptions by appointment, offering virtual meet-and-greets, and accepting applications over the phone.

“At PAL, we took essential measures to safeguard our staff and visitors, which allowed our adoption center to remain open and ready to receive an impending influx of animals in need of immediate rescue,” said PAL President Amy Campanini.

“Adoptions have remained steady, which is great news for homeless pets. In the beginning, we saw in influx in people volunteering to foster, but, as many started going back to work and school, those numbers quickly dipped,” she said.

Fostering during the pandemic, however, changed many lives.

“Many foster families realized that a pet was an enhancement to their everyday life, and decided to adopt,” Campanini said.

The appointment process kept everyone safe, but it changed the dynamics at the rescue.

“The hardest part is not being able to see our volunteers, supporters, and other good friends on a regular basis. COVID-19 has meant limited access to our extended PAL family, and the animals miss these daily interactions,” said Campanini. 

PAL has adoptable cats and dogs, ranging from kittens and puppies, up to senior pets in need of a home where they can spend their twilight years.

“While we consider every pet a unique individual, we do have quite a few special needs pets who would make lovely companions,” Campanini said. “Some are visually impaired, and others are advanced age seniors looking to spend their last few years in a loving home.”

At Maranatha Farm Animal Rescue in Ridgeland, Karen Ede Wilkins provides shelter and care for sick and injured animals, providing medical care until most of them are well enough to be adopted. Some become permanent residents because they are unadoptable for various reasons.

Adoptions have dropped from three to five a week to one.

“We went from caring for 50 to 75 animals on a daily basis down to 25,” she said. Previously, the rescue held a weekly adoption fair at Bluffton Pharmacy, but a decline in volunteers meant fewer dogs could be shown. “Normally, eight to 10 volunteers help set up tables and canopies, and then speak with potential adopters. We had to allow some of our dogs go out to other rescues.”

Adoptable or not, the animals themselves have not gone without love, food or attention. The pandemic was a major blow to the food supply and the number of animals she could house.

“One of the worst parts is, for reasons beyond our understanding, all of the dog food companies have quit sending food to us,” Wilkins said. “Normally we would have a semi in this area twice a week. We still had to buy the food but not pay for the freight. That was free.”

“We’re very conservative in how we handle our donations, and this is the time when I can look at that policy and we hit that nail right on the head,” she said. “It hasn’t hurt us any because we still have resources where we can provide our animals with the best. And as long as we don’t get too many dogs in the gate we can keep them for an indefinite period of time.”

Although she mostly houses dogs, there’s no telling what will show up at the farm’s gate.

“We take care of just about anything from rabbits to you name it. Fortunately we have friends who have broader abilities than I do,” said Wilkins. “I can get an animal stable and out of immediate danger, and get it to somebody who knows how to take care of them.”

Jasper Animal Rescue Mission, also in Ridgeland, saw a slight decline in monetary donations, but people stepped up when the organization asked for supplies.

JARM Executive Director Caitlyn Schake said the worst part of the pandemic was access to supplies, pet food and even veterinarian care at the beginning.

“Another difficulty we’ve had is not being able to host off-site adoption events where many of our dogs get adopted, and just get the chance to get out of the shelter for a bit,” Schake said. “We also have not been able to house adoptable cats at Petsmart, which is where about 50% of our yearly cat adoptions occur.”

JARM has seen an increase in adoptions, although the average number of animals is lower than a year ago.

Schake said while JARM previously would reach out to other local rescues for help, those rescues are now asking her for assistance. “So many people have decided that it is a good time to adopt or even foster, and our shelter and so many others have felt a positive impact from that,” she said.

Not only did organizations have to take new and stringent measures in order to operate, some new procedures may remain in place long past the current crisis.

Hilton Head Humane Association, a local branch of a national organization, saw a 58% increase in adoptions compared to a year ago.

“I’m sure some of it has to do with our applications. As an organization we have never done a pre-approved application and because of COVID – to cut down the amount of time for people to be here – we emailed people applications,” said Executive Director Franny Gerthoffer. “We’re able to get the applications back, make phone calls, and then all they have to do is come in and see if they fit with the animal. That’s pretty much all they have to do, and they usually go home with their new pet. I’m thinking there’s something to this pre-approval thing that may go on forever.”

The social distancing and appointment-only policy has had its down side.

“The worst part is that there are restrictions that people aren’t allowed to walk in, roam around, play with the animals and spend time. It’s just the lack of interaction with the community has been the worst part of this,” Gerthoffer said. “Not only is the interaction with the community good for the animals, but for my employees.”

Whether it has been social restrictions, shortages of supplies, transporting animals to other rescues or canceled fundraisers, the pandemic had an impact animal rescues, but they have found ways to keep going, with a lot of help from their friends.

As Lovable Paws’ Allen said, “Support your local rescue because fundraising has been difficult this year.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.