Life

As the RSPCA reports a boom in pet adoptions during the coronavirus lockdown, the author and his partner have also welcomed a new addition to their household. By Steve Dow.

Pet adoption booms in lockdown

The author’s new rescue dog, Billy.
Credit: Steven Roe

Billy is a tan and white fox terrier cross. We’re not sure what breed he’s crossed with, although he has a corgi face at odds with his long, spindly legs. He leaps balletically between and over couches, makes a running leap for our bed, sprints in ever-widening circles at the park and, despite having been desexed on March 17, the day before we brought him home from the RSPCA, is exhibiting an ear-nibbling and underbelly-sniffing affection for the females among his rapidly expanding canine new-friend cohort.

The RSPCA estimated a birthdate for Billy: May 5, 2019. His rescuers named him Billy during his two-month stay at the Illawarra shelter, after he had been picked up as a stray. It took a week before Billy began responding to being called Billy around our home in Redfern in inner Sydney, about the time cafes were ordered to slim to takeaways, casinos finally shut their doors, and a 30-minute limit was set for human haircuts, a rule soon after overturned.

Oblivious to tightening Covid-19 restrictions, and yet to get his first bath and clip, Billy is relishing his new life. He is the pride of two gay dads learning to bond again on weekdays in the era of social isolation. I freelance as a journalist from home normally, but my sales manager partner, also named Steven, has taken up indefinite office at the kitchen table behind my desk.

Welcoming Billy into our lives – his adoption fee a reasonable $350, plus $29 lifetime registration – was not a response to the pandemic per se. We didn’t choose to add a dog to the household as a distraction, although the advantages dawned upon me and Steven. In the lockdown conditions we could bond quicker with a dog; it could be introduced to its surroundings and neighbours sooner. These expectations have proved marvellously correct. Billy also distracts us from our junkie tendency to flick through the TV news from London, Berlin, Paris, New York and Melbourne. He wags back our attentions from our coronavirus update compulsiveness.

I am conscious small, cute dogs such as Billy are more readily adopted and, indeed, up the back of the shelter on the day we met and adopted Billy, bigger dogs sat forlornly in a row of pens upon which the sun and the gaze of visitors fell less. Since that day in mid-March, more people are now adopting and fostering dogs and other pets as a result of human social isolation during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Each state is responding differently to the crisis: in just one week in late March, RSPCA Victoria placed some 400 animals in permanent or temporary foster homes in expectation of a full lockdown, warning animals would need care longer, straining resources. In early April, RSPCA New South Wales closed all its shelters to public walk-ins, and began processing adoptions by phone or video call, bringing the dog to prospective adopters for a meet and greet.

Animal adoptions at the RSPCA NSW shelters rose by 28 per cent and at Petbarn outlets by 48 per cent compared with the same time last year. “We have seen so many animals go into their forever homes,” says RSPCA NSW chief executive Steve Coleman.

But are people thinking beyond this strange epoch ruled by Covid-19? The RSPCA advises potential adopters to consider where the dog will sleep, whether they have a backyard, and how the dog will get along with children and other pets. What provision can be made for the animal when going on holiday, when the restrictions end? How often will it get walked then?

 

I had been quietly monitoring the RSPCA website for six months before this viral epoch began, as well as petrescue.com.au, clicking a love heart from clear to red over the dogs I liked. My partner had been doing something similar and broached the subject: were we ready for a new dog? In our one-bedroom apartment, we decided to look for a small pooch.

Echoes of our previous rescue dog, a Jack Russell-Maltese cross named Oscar, were inevitable. Oscar was a scruffy white dog with tan patches that could beg for ages, meerkat-like, on his hind legs. He liked playing tug of war with his plastic toys, in the same way Billy does. Oscar still crosses my mind daily; the memory makes me smile.

Oscar was three when we got him and he enjoyed years of good health. Then, he lost sight in one eye to glaucoma. There were dozens of trips to treat the eye pressure and to save the other one. Despite the ophthalmologists’ efforts, Oscar went completely blind, then a cascade of deafness, breathing difficulties and heart valves giving way.

On January 5, 2019, we sat in the park opposite the vet, knowing what the X-ray told us, trying to make that rational decision. Two needles, then a short kiss goodbye. Oscar was 14-and-a-half when he breathed his last. His ashes are still stored in a chintzy silver box on a shelf.

One Saturday morning, I followed home a stray cross-breed that looked like Oscar. He had no collar and ran away when I whistled. His “home” turned out to be a nearby ground-floor apartment, with an overgrown, messy garden and milk crates piled above head height on the porch. From behind this fortress, he barked. I went to the supermarket, brought him back some dog food. He emerged and gulped the food down. He was painfully thin, and much of the fur on his back half had fallen out.

I couldn’t tell if humans were home in the dark apartment. I filled out a report of possible animal abandonment with the RSPCA. They replied, saying the case would be investigated, although they never let a complainant know the outcome. Would my action result in the dog being rehomed or euthanised? Was I adding to the load of an owner suffering unemployment or mental illness or both? I’ll never know.

I also wonder now about how many dogs will be abandoned by unemployed and unwell owners with human mouths to feed in a coronavirus-induced recession. More broadly, how many will be abandoned by thoughtless owners when life finally returns to normal?

Billy still has puppy tendencies such as play-biting and overprotective barking that need to be reined in. He is better on the leash already, walking at heel rather than pulling out front. We pass a local school with a giant billboard: “BE KIND / KEEP SMILING / STAY POSITIVE / AND WASH YOUR HANDS!”

Curled up next to me, Billy falls asleep, protected in his forever home. I reach for the remote and switch off the television, pick up his floppy body with its gangly, agile legs, and carry him to the foot of our bed for the night.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2020 as "Puppy love".

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Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.

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