By Taylor Haelterman
Employees at Preuss Pets in Lansing wear masks and gloves and stand behind a plexiglass shield in the parking lot to test water and sell fish and pet supplies.
It’s a scene that could be mistaken for a set for the next apocalyptic blockbuster. Now it’s daily life for these essential workers in light of COVID-19.
Animal-related organizations across the Great Lakes region face new challenges in caring for their critters in the midst of a pandemic.
Humane societies and rescue shelters have had to rely on foster owners. Zoos and aquariums have had to adjust to running without guests. Pet store owners have had to adapt to the six-foot spacing guideline with curbside service.
And all have had to become more conscious of the health and safety of their employees.
Yet the animal’s needs still push employees to show up to work during the pandemic, said Carmen Murach, curator of animals for the NEW Zoo in Green Bay.
“You’re never going to get rich being a zookeeper, so it’s a profession that attracts people that are very passionate about their jobs,” Murach said. “They’re in this because they are very concerned about conservation and animal welfare. They are absolutely dedicated to making sure the animals have the best care they can have.
“You can’t stay home when your animal friends need you.”
To balance animal care with employee safety, operations have changed in almost every aspect for Preuss Pets, said Kirbay Preuss, whose family owns and operates the store.
“Taking care of our animals is super important,” Preuss said. “But taking care of our staff is also first priority.”
Preuss sells animals as diverse as corals, pythons, chinchillas and the occasional macaw. Pet stores are considered essential businesses because they sell food and supplies for animals. During the limited operations, Preuss’s only sells fish and animal supplies through curbside pickup.
Customers submit orders through text, Facebook messenger or email. Payment is done outside via PayPal or a square reader which scans cards, or connects with Apple or Google pay.
The Michigan Humane Society has also had to change, taking in animals only in emergencies and delivering supplies to homebound clients to ensure their pets are fed, said Anna Chrisman, media manager of that agency.
The group has suspended adoptions and temporarily closed some of its locations.
“The animals are consolidated at our facility in Westland so we only have staff operating out of two of our locations instead of four, and it’s minimal staffing,” Chrisman said. “It’s the number of folks necessary to ensure that everybody gets the care that they need and nothing beyond that.”
For some animal-related organizations, changes are less drastic.
Michele’s Rescue in Grand Rapids practices social distancing by arranging meetings between potential owners and pets only over the internet, said Michele Schaut, founder of the rescue. Those interested in adoption can now video call to see and get to know the animals in place of an in-person visit before they make the decision to adopt.
Schaut hopes people don’t cause unnecessary worry by taking concern for sheltered animals overboard.
“I’ve heard a lot of ‘Oh the shelters are going to suffer,’ but I haven’t seen it,” she said. “We have contact with several shelters and I haven’t seen animals being neglected or left in cages. They are still being cared for.”
The largest changes in operations at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago are increased social distancing and the lack of guests, Steve Aibel, the aquarium’s director of animal behavior and training, wrote in an email.
Shedd has increased hand washing and social distancing. Employees stay apart by completing their tasks in scheduled cycles around the aquarium to ensure minimal contact with each other, Aibel said.
Similarly, at the NEW Zoo one of the most noticeable changes is the lack of guests, Murach said.
“The main change around here is that we are closed to the public,” Murach said. “Much of our administrative and operations staff are not working, or working very reduced hours, but all of the animal care teams are still working full time.”
Though the animal care teams are using extra precautions, they are a small team and can sometimes go almost a whole day without running into another human, Murach said.
The new health and safety guidelines are mostly a continuation of practices those working in this industry are already using, as they must follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols for working with animals, Preuss said.
“Coronavirus has been around for a long time.” Preuss said. “Different strains of it can be found in different pets, but there’s vaccines for that. So, this is something that we’ve always kind of been aware of, especially if you are a pet store or a zoo. You are familiar with zoonotic diseases and you prepare for those and you practice safe hygiene.”
Future pet owners need not be concerned about taking home a sick animal, however, there are precautions such as placing newly shipped-in fish into quarantine where their health can be monitored. And, if necessary they will be treated by the in-house aquatic vet before being sold, Preuss said.
Similarly, at the zoo concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19 between humans and animals are addressed though the zookeeper’s biology knowledge and existing health and safety policies, Murach said.
For some, there is also concern about another issue regarding animal health — potential impulse buying of pets while their owners are sheltered in place.
Chrisman warns against getting a pet without considering life after the pandemic.
“The fact that you are home for a couple of weeks actually might make it a really good time to take a pet into your life,” she said. “However, there’s obviously other considerations to take into factor.
“So, should you go back to work in two or three weeks, does your lifestyle support having a pet?”
If not, but you still want a companion during this time, fostering an animal may be the solution, Chrisman said. To learn more about the process she recommends reaching out to a local shelter.
The Michigan Humane Society has over 400 animals in foster homes around the metro Detroit area, easing up burden on their staff, said Chrisman.
“Our volunteers stepped up in a huge, huge, huge way for us,” she said. “Had we not had so many people being so willing to step in and help we’d be having a very different conversation right now.”
Community support seems to be an important factor when it comes to the survival of many animal-related organizations.
For the Michigan Humane Society the support is in their foster owners, and recognition.
“We are very fortunate to have an amazing community around us who recognize the fact that we are an essential service,” Chrisman said. “And they have continued to support us.”
For Michele’s Rescue that support is in the form of foster owners deciding to adopt their pets and local partners helping with supplies.
“Our main supporters have been very helpful getting us supplies,” Schaut said. “Our PetSmart, (which) is one of our partners, has given us deep discounts for animal food. Basically anything that we need, they make it happen.”
Those interested in fostering, adopting, purchasing or donating to any of these organizations can go to their websites for more information.