(CNN) – When the news of a novel coronavirus arose in early February, Kelly Donithan arrived in South Korea on the first stage of an allegedly normal dog rescue mission.
As director of Humane Society International, Global Animal Disaster Response, Donithan, Massachusetts, travels the world advising communities on emergency preparedness and evacuation strategies, coordinating abandoned animal care programs, and helping local animal shelters reunite beloved pets with their families.
Rescuing and removing the dog cages and dogs from the dog slaughterhouse in places like Cambodia has been made difficult by travel restrictions.
Kim Chayy / Courtesy Four Paws
The February trip was a “vaccination visit” during which Donithan and her US-based team examine and vaccinate dozens of dogs – in this case from a dog meat farm that the HSI recently helped shut down.
This is usually the first veterinary care or vaccination the dogs have received. Therefore, HSI will wait another 30 days before bringing them to the US. As the staff on site monitored the care of the animals, Donithan returned home for a short period of time.
Then everything changed. When Covid-19 took over the world, animal welfare officers found themselves in a new world.
The closure of restaurants and the end of tourism have restricted the supply of food to many strays. And the essential work of moving dogs and cats out of risky situations to places of higher demand for adoption has been fraught with new obstacles.
The rise of resettlement rescue
The problems of overpopulation and pet welfare are not confined to one location. In the United States alone, approximately 6.5 million pets enter animal shelters each year, according to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The exact world population of free roaming dogs is unknown, but some estimates put it in the range of 200 to 300 million.
Most pet advocates value housing in safe, loving homes nearby.
“We always try to focus on local adoption because we’re concerned with animal welfare, so it wouldn’t make sense for us to just take the animals and send them all overseas,” said Katherine Polak, veterinarian and Director of Four Stray Animal Care for Paws International in Southeast Asia.
This is Daisy, a dog in Cambodia who was saved from slaughter thanks to the help of the Four Paws animal rescue group.
Kim Chayy / Courtesy Four Paws
Whether it’s Asia, Europe, or America, it is not always possible to keep adoptions local. If the number of animals in need is disproportionate to the available adoptive households in the region, more animals will suffer.
Julian Javor – founder of Pet Rescue Pilots, a nonprofit that flies dogs and cats from overcrowded animal shelters to rescue groups – said this inequality between supply and demand could be attributed to a variety of factors. For example, in the United States, according to the ASPCA, animal shelters kill an estimated 670,000 dogs and 860,000 cats each year.
“There are land costs, education problems. There are differences in pet culture in different areas,” Javor said.
If the adoption capacity in one location is overwhelmed, the rescuers try to send the animals to another location. “I can fly 30 or 40 pets [from California] Washington or Canada, and I’d say 80 to 90 percent will be adopted within a week, “Javor said.
The essential work of getting dogs and cats out of risky situations to places of higher demand for adoption is fraught with new barriers.
Kim Chayy / Courtesy Four Paws
In the past, Newton explains, most transportation has been done by a number of vehicles.
In recent years, the availability of air travel has opened up the move as a rescue solution. Airplanes turn a 30-hour van ride into a three-hour flight.
Depending on the number of animals being moved and the distance they will travel, organizations have options from booking transitions on commercial passenger or cargo flights to chartering dedicated aircraft through nonprofits such as Pet Rescue Pilots.
But what happens to the dogs and cats during a pandemic when the necessary transport of these animals – especially across international borders – becomes impossible?
Covid-19 and animal transport
For organizations that rely on transportation to bring dogs and cats into or out of their care, travel restrictions have changed the landscape significantly.
By the end of February, just weeks after Donithan’s return to the United States, South Korea had more known Covid-19 patients than anywhere outside of China. “Our plan was to be back [to pick up the dogs] At the beginning of March. Obviously that didn’t happen, “said Donithan.
More than 100 dogs rescued from the South Korean dog meat trade will arrive at Dulles International Airport this June this summer.
Meredith Lee / Courtesy Humane Society International
Donithan usually coordinates two South Korean dog meat farm closings per year, so there’s a well-known pattern. While the industry is legal in South Korea, she said the demand for dog meat is gradually declining, especially among younger generations. Therefore HSI is working with farmers who want to close their operations and move to an alternative industry.
During the 30-day waiting period, Donithan explained, the rescued animals usually stay in the facility with the farmer, who voluntarily moves to another work area and has signed a contract for further care.
HSI provides support, including food, and in a normal year the on-site staff check in regularly. In the early days of the pandemic; However, South Korea has drastically restricted travel within its own borders in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus so that even local HSI staff cannot make their visits, Donithan said.
Once the wait is up, the dogs will fly between 15 and 25 depending on size on passenger or cargo planes, she said.
Getting the dogs from the farm to the airport for multiple trips over a week or two is a lot of work. Since US-based employees were unable to enter South Korea, this was too much for the much smaller South Korean employees. So Donithan and her colleagues started looking for alternatives.
Dogs leave South Korea preparing for a long flight to the United States, where they hope to be rescued.
Nara Kim / Courtesy of Humane Society International
As the pandemic continued and travel remained difficult, the dogs stayed on the farm much longer than usual. “We were concerned about the condition of the animals on the farm. [so] Our Korean staff and some volunteers were able to pick up all of the dogs from the farm and bring them to our partner pension, “she said.
“That was really only feasible because the farm was a little smaller and the dogs were easier to handle – on the smaller side – but the pension had to build more kennels to keep the dogs.”
For some organizations, the pandemic’s travel and transportation restrictions are putting rescue efforts at risk, be it because of their size or the location of certain programs.
In late 2018, Four Paws International launched the mission to stop the dog meat trade in Cambodia. Despite early success and support from the community and government, they have to move slowly.Direct flights from Cambodia to the US (where their partners’ rescue workers are located) are hard to come by. Strict and expensive quarantine regulations have meant that volunteers who accompany animals on passenger flights are hardly available.
Rescued dogs sit in the country indefinitely, possibly overloading the already limited resources of local animal shelters.
Four Paws has 15 dogs waiting in Cambodia to be transported to the United States. Although the government has backed this and the regional government in Siem Reap even bans the dog meat trade in the province, Polak is concerned about her partner’s ability to take in more animals.
Dog adoptions exist in many places, but the problem of moving animals in need of homes remains.
Courtesy of Humane Society International
“We want to offer support to the government to say, ‘Close these places, close these places, let’s help save the dogs,'” Polak said. “But the problem is, what do we do with the dogs? If we don’t have that mechanism [of transport]We have to be a little more careful with what we do, “said Polak.
On the flip side of these type of scenarios, the rescues that depend on importing animals from state or land borders sometimes struggle to meet adoption needs in their communities.
Many rescue organizations completely shut down transportation in the first few months of the pandemic, making areas of high demand like British Columbia scarce. With services resumed like those of Pet Rescue Pilots, potential pet owners are now committed to the cause.
“We get like 10 applications per dog easily,” said Agar of Kamloops Ruff Start Rescue.
Adaptation to the new landscape
In July, five months after HSI’s initial vaccination award, Donithan helped load 105 dogs onto a cargo plane in South Korea. Since the airline required someone to escort the dogs, it said it had been given permission to bypass the standard quarantine but was forbidden from going through customs to enter the country.
Dogs leave South Korea for the USA, where they are awaiting adoptions.
Kelly Donithan / Courtesy Humane Society International
Instead, she spent two nights at the Seoul airport before being escorted to the cargo hangar to take the dogs to the United States, where they will be rescued.
In early October, Donithan returned to South Korea to retrieve 195 dogs from another farm closure. So far the process has been smoother. South Korean workers were able to conduct the vaccination visit about a month ago, and Donithan will be there to take the dog from the farm to the airport – after a mandatory two-week quarantine.
“It’s all about adapting and figuring out how to get the best we can get on with the standards we want to meet, with the limitations,” said Donithan.