2020 was a year like no other – unsettling, tragic and difficult. At HRA we experienced a range of emotions. After all, we’re an organization of people, and many of us faced extraordinary challenges: recovering from COVID-19, caring for family members, homeschooling children, grieving deaths, missing friends and family, disrupting routines, experiencing financial stress when partners and family members lost jobs, and losing access to the coping mechanisms that allow us to do very hard jobs.
One of my top priorities was to preserve the jobs and healthcare of my colleagues so they could have an island of dependability in the face of chaos. I’m proud we were able to do so – because the need for our services was greater than ever.
The virus arrived rapidly and forcefully in our New Jersey and Washington, DC, homes. We had to change almost everything we do in a matter of days. And, we had to balance two critical priorities – keeping our staff, animals and the public safe; and ensuring we could keep doing our work because our services were deemed essential, as we knew they would be.
It has been tough. We have been challenged in ways we could never have imagined. I am so proud of the many people – staff, volunteers, board members, foster families and donors – who make up our organization. They were among the helpers, and through this difficult year we built new muscles and devised new approaches and efficiencies that will long outlive this pandemic.
In doing so, we increased our capacity to serve, not only in our home regions, but also for animals, sister shelters and communities near and far. Here are a few of our accomplishments. Read full 2020 Highlights Report
Expanding Our Foster Program and Pivoting to Virtual Adoptions
As the virus advanced, we knew we had to empty our shelters. When we put out a call for foster homes to help us prepare for an influx of animals from COVID-19-impacted homes, 2,500 people signed up! Even though we had to temporarily close our doors during the first phase of the pandemic, we were very much open for adoption, thanks to our robust foster network.
To move animals from foster to adoptive homes more quickly, we launched a virtual adoptions process to highlight the personalities of the animals. Since we transitioned to virtual adoptions in March, over 3,200 dogs, cats, rabbits and others have found homes in the DC region.
In New Jersey, over 2,200 animals found loving homes through a combination of appointment-based and virtual adoptions. This hybrid approach was possible because our large Madison, New Jersey, facility allowed us to welcome visitors while keeping everyone safe.
Our innovative approach gained national attention, and we helped other shelters build and implement their own virtual programs. Most importantly, the success of this model helped us reimagine the adoption process moving forward.
WayStation: Expanding Our Reach
Our WayStation is a lifesaving program, moving animals from under-resourced communities to regions where they more easily find homes. And we invest back in those communities through our “give back” approach. Our sister shelters, their communities and the animals they serve depended on this pressure release, particularly as their resources were stretched to the limit. In a year when most shelters halted animal relocation, we continued this work uninterrupted.
In 2020, we celebrated a milestone by welcoming Andrea, our 15,000th WayStation dog! We also welcomed Stryper, who spent six years at an overcrowded and underfunded shelter in rural Arkansas. Within just a month of arriving at St. Hubert’s, he found a loving family.
Pets and Housing
While the more privileged among us wait for the pandemic to end, the more vulnerable know that for their family, the heartache is just beginning. We expect to see people moving or being evicted because they can’t afford to stay. Animals are most vulnerable to relinquishment when families lose their homes. To prevent needless relinquishment, we are advocating for greater protections for those facing eviction. We simply can’t accept a reality where people experiencing job loss, food insecurity, debt and homelessness also have to lose one of their biggest (and often only) sources of emotional support; it is times like this that people need their pets the most.
In addition to the expanded pet support services outlined in this blog, we’ve partnered with regional and national organizations that provide eviction prevention, tenant protection and homelessness intervention services. By working more closely with human social services organizations we knit a stronger fabric for our communities.
Behavior Advice and Training Classes Go Virtual
Although we could no longer have groups of people in our buildings, we knew we had to find a way to provide support to people who rely on our training classes. And with so many new foster families caring for our animals in their homes we had to step up our support.
So, we joined the Zoom revolution and moved our public and private in-person training classes to virtual formats. Our team created over 50 training videos to correspond with online class curricula and started hosting webinars on common behavior issues that would need specific attention during and after the pandemic, like treating and preventing separation anxiety.
Our Essential Programs Never Stopped
Our field services team never paused its critical work in assisting the people and animals of our region. From rescuing abused animals like Luna, Owen and Ladybell, to caring for more than 40 Chihuahuas rescued from unsanitary conditions, our field services officers worked 24/7, at great personal risk during the height of the pandemic, to keep our communities safe.
Notable cases include our rescue of 42 animals, including 33 Great Danes, from unsafe and unsanitary conditions; our rescue of 11 dogs, some of whom were puppies, who varied in breed from French and English bulldog to pit bull-type dogs, who were cramped in small cages living in their own waste; and our rescue of 50 cats from a Trenton, New Jersey, home when their owner died of COVID-19.
Investing in Disaster Response
We have a long history of taking in animals from the path of natural disasters and deploying our expert team to help communities who are affected. With storms growing more frequent and severe – and impacting areas not previously vulnerable to these storms – we had plans in place this year to expand our capacity to help in emergency response and pet rescues.
With COVID-19 advancing, there was deep concern about the ability of vulnerable communities to care for animals as they faced dual threats of the pandemic and hurricanes. So we proceeded with our plans, and 21 team members received certification as emergency responders this spring. Now, we can help at a moment’s notice in extreme conditions, particularly in dangerous floodwater-related situations. We put this training to work in September by deploying to Florida after Hurricane Sally unleashed torrential rainfall causing devastating flooding in many communities.
This year, we fielded more calls than ever before from people under stay-at-home orders who were paying more attention to wildlife in their neighborhoods (a good thing!).
With fewer people in our streets wild animals moved into new spaces. We got a call from the Library of Congress reporting that a mother duck and her ducklings were trapped on the roof terrace of the James Madison Building. Our animal control officer gathered the ducklings in a carrier and walked with their mother to the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, where they were released.
In New Jersey, we were called about a coyote who looked unwell. We humanely captured him within minutes and brought him to Woodlands Wildlife Refuge. His mange was so severe he had been misidentified; it turned out he was a juvenile red fox! After several months of rehab at Woodlands, our officers were on hand for the moment the fox was released back into the wild.
Our medical team also worked continuously on the front lines to care for thousands of animals. You might remember Pepper and Goldie, two of our most critical medical cases.
Pepper was abandoned outside of a pet supply store, starving and cold. A store employee brought Pepper to HRA, where our medical team sprang into action. Slowly but surely, she became more active, and her overall condition improved. Now, she is loved in a home with her new family.
Goldie came through our doors in very rough shape; she was missing patches of fur, one of her eyes was swollen shut and she had clearly had multiple litters of puppies. She had so many underlying health issues that her prognosis was poor – but we never gave up on her. After months of surgeries and aftercare, Goldie went home with her new family during the pandemic.
HRA hasn't just been helping animals. Amid the economic crisis, families with pets need us more than ever. We continued to host weekly Pet Pantries in DC, giving out free pet food and supplies. And we opened a new Pet Pantry in Ward 7, which quickly became our busiest location. Our neighbors in Prince George’s County, Maryland, have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, so we established a partnership with a local church, the Prince George’s Office of the County Executive and the Capital Area Food Bank to give out human and pet food.
In New Jersey we launched a drive-thru pet food bank and distributed pet food and supplies to local food pantries. Our friends from Greater Good Charities donated 135,000 pounds of food and supplies to our efforts, so we have been able to support the most heavily impacted communities in the mid-Atlantic region to make sure no animal has an empty food bowl.
Despite the numerous challenges HRA and St. Hubert’s have faced in 2020, we have risen to the occasion to continue to serve our communities. With a lot of creativity, teamwork and support from our generous donors, we have been able to not only serve DC and New Jersey but expand our reach to build a safety net for the most vulnerable animals around the country.
2020 was difficult in so many ways, but there were two bright spots that give me tremendous hope and optimism. First, the challenges and disruptions caused our staff to question, innovate, create and try new things. This was replicated across the country. And so collectively, our profession has the muscle memory, the sense of empowerment, and the innovation bank to be even more impactful now in advocating for animals and the people who love them.
And I believe we will look back and say that 2020 is the year when animals were firmly established as members of the family. We quarantined with our pets; for many people, pets were the only beings with whom they had physical touch and contact. Animals brought us love, joy and laughter. As all our routines were upended, we still had to feed our pets and walk our dogs, creating a sense of ritual and normalcy that sustained us.
And the pets we expected to shelter from COVID-19-impacted households? They never came. People who were sick wanted to recover with their pets by their side; those who were hospitalized ensured there was a friend or family member who could care for their pet. It is an affirmation of our advocacy for animals and the enduring strength of the human-animal bond – the future has never been brighter for our work.