When Pet Owners Fall Ill With Coronavirus, What Happens Next?

When Pet Owners Fall Ill With Coronavirus, What Happens Next?

MADRID — The coronavirus strikes. The patient — at home, sometimes alone — becomes desperately ill. The ambulance finally arrives to take the person away.

Then, a second team, clad in hazmat gear, follows to rescue a household member abandoned in the chaos and suddenly in need of a new caregiver: the patient’s pet.

The teams, from the Madrid animal shelter El Refugio, end up placing the pets in foster homes with people who will care for them temporarily while Spain’s strict lockdown is in place and so much is in flux.

Thousands of animals in Spain have been left behind amid one of the world’s largest and deadliest coronavirus outbreaks — something that has been mirrored around the world, from Wuhan, China, where the pandemic originated, to Israel and India. At the same time, the demand to adopt dogs and cats has surged during the lockdown.

“The great news is that there are far more people who have now offered to look after a pet than the number we have had to rescue,” said Nacho Paunero, the president of El Refugio.

But the intensity of the country’s outbreak is raising some ethical and practical questions for animal protection workers. They are concerned that the rush to adopt pets may not always be in the animals’ best interests and in some cases have started to put limits in place.

Shelter administrators are wondering how committed the adoptive owners are to keeping their new pets — or whether they will then abandon them after the emergency passes. Because dog walking is one of the few activities exempt from Spain’s stringent lockdown, animal shelter workers worry that this drove up the demand for adoptions.

Since March 14, the country has kept its 47 million residents under strict and closely monitored control, forbidding almost everyone — including all children — from taking even a short stroll outside the house.

“If you’re in a hurry to adopt, I see that as a very bad signal, particularly as it’s clear there are people who want to adopt in order to have an excuse to walk the streets — which in turn means that these animals could be either returned to us or abandoned,” said Javier Rodellar, the president of Anerpa, an animal protection association.

Mr. Rodellar said his group suspended all adoptions and limited even temporary placements to its circle of volunteers and supporters when Spain went into lockdown in mid-March. It has rejected at least 50 adoption requests since.

Anerpa is sheltering all its animals for now, Mr. Rodellar said, a decision that is stretching its finances considerably. He acknowledged that Spain’s animal welfare associations were split over the issue, with some reasoning that any caregiver is better than none at all.

Luz Vaillo, who runs a shelter in the city of Salamanca, said she expected many of the seven dogs adopted the day before Spain’s lockdown took effect to be returned but was confident that they would be well treated in the meantime.

“It’s impossible to know what exactly motivates somebody, so we can only hope that nobody will abandon a dog again as soon as all movement restrictions are lifted,” Ms. Vaillo said.

El Refugio is placing pets only in foster care for now.

“I make a distinction between an adoption, which is forever, and the need to find a temporary emergency solution,” said Mr. Paunero, of El Refugio.

In some cases, pet owners fell ill with shocking swiftness.

“In the more dramatic cases, we have, sadly, had to pick up an animal from an apartment just after the emergency services had removed the corpse of its owner,” Mr. Paunero said.

What happens next for the pets is often improvisation.

While El Refugio deploys rescue missions in Madrid, the fates of other pets in Spain often hang on word of mouth: a neighbor asking around if somebody can help, an emergency worker trying to locate a relative. Typically, if the owner has a chance of recovery, the new arrangement is temporary.

For Antonio Viñas, 46, hospitalized in Madrid, “it just all happened a bit too suddenly” to make contingency plans for his dog, Augustus, a white German Spitz with a cream-colored face. Augustus was placed informally in the home of nearby residents, as many emergency placements have been made in Spain.

The neighbors, Ariel Framis, 15, and his mother, Alicia, had never met Mr. Viñas, but they agreed to take in Augustus after hearing from a friend that a dog in their neighborhood urgently needed care.

Now, Ariel and his mother send daily updates to Mr. Viñas, sharing photos and stories about Augustus that “clearly bring some joy to his hospital bed,” Ms. Framis said.

Ariel has benefited from taking care of Augustus, too.

“We always thought about having a dog, but it didn’t really seem possible because we live in an apartment, my mum works and I’m normally either at school or at basketball training,” Ariel said. “But I’m now stuck at home, and I’m really enjoying playing with Augustus.”

Mr. Viñas is grateful for the foster care, though he longs to be reunited with Augustus.

Hospitalized in early April, Mr. Viñas hopes to be discharged within two or three weeks. When he is fit again and Spain’s lockdown is lifted, he said he would take Augustus for a long walk in the mountains outside Madrid.

“The best way that I can think of celebrating my recovery,” Mr. Viñas said, “is to take Augustus to the Sierra.”

James Gorman contributed reporting.

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