-Karen Chassin, St. Petersburg Foundation
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The global pandemic has been responsible for perhaps the greatest societal disruption in a century. Its impact rippled through the animal kingdom, too, particularly those living with us as pets. Unlike natural disasters, which tend to render both humans and domestic animals homeless, Covid-19 drove people into their homes and kept them there – on and off, for nearly two years.
Many of us found refuge in the company of our pets, and record numbers of us became new pet owners, motivated by a desire for companionship and a distraction from stress and the loss of familiar routines and daily pleasures.
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Tampa Bay provided a unique vantage point from which to observe the impact of the pandemic on the human-animal bond. The nonprofit animal welfare agency runs a For-All animal shelter in Largo that accepts all species in need, regardless of circumstance. That campus cares for around 7,000 animals annually, including animals surrendered by their owners, injured wildlife and stray livestock like goats and pigs. Their pet hospital in St. Petersburg serves the pets of the general public.
As Covid-19 kept people at home, SPCA Tampa Bay saw a decrease in animal intake and an increased interest in pet adoption. Even better, animals adopted during the pandemic were not returned to the shelter, as some predicted. “This is a community that really cares about the quality of life of animals,” said CEO Martha Boden. “People made commitments to their pets, and they are sticking by them.”
Boden says her organization uses the term “humanimality” to express the inextricable link between people and animals they encounter daily. “There is a human involved with every animal we serve,” Boden said. “When an animal is surrendered, when one is adopted, an orphaned wild animal is rescued, or a sick pet is brought to our veterinary clinic, we are also interacting with a person, or a family, connected to that creature.”
The pandemic drove many Tampa Bay residents to acquire a pet as a buffer against loneliness and social isolation, doing their overall health a great favor as well. According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), 85% of people surveyed said that even interacting with an animal reduced stress and loneliness. And studies have demonstrated that human-animal interaction increases oxytocin levels in the brain, not unlike the effects of romantic love.
Dog walkers are almost twice as likely to meet the criteria for moderate to vigorous levels of activity, leading the American Heart Association to connect pet ownership to the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Stroking and petting a cat, rabbit or other small furry animal lowers blood pressure.
Pet owners return the favor by caring for their animals’ health. SPCA Tampa Bay’s St. Petersburg pet hospital experienced a growth surge last year. They were early adopters of the curbside service model, efficiently serving more animals than ever, and generating more than $2 million in revenue – an important source of funds for their work throughout Tampa Bay.
The treatment of animals is an important indicator of a community’s overall well-being, Boden says. “The bond we have with animals is one of our most basic, human traits. Tampa Bay has shown that it has a huge heart for all types of animals despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.” SPCA Tampa Bay’s nearly 100 employees have seen countless acts of selflessness and generosity toward pets and wildlife, whether by rescuing, adopting, volunteering, or donating so that owners in financial straits have the food, supplies and veterinary care their pets need.
On Saturday, April 2, hundreds will turn out for the 31st annual SPCA Tampa Bay Pet Walk, an important fundraiser that’s held along the waterfront in downtown St. Petersburg. It’s a community party to celebrate walkers’ efforts to raise money for animals and people in need. Showcasing humanimality, the love of all kinds of animals, feels particularly fitting after what we’ve learned about the incomparable ability of pets to amuse, console and sustain us through hardship.
There is still time to become a Pet Walk sponsor or to register and raise pledges to support the walk of an individual or team.
For information, visit petwalk.org.