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COVID-19 Puts Global Animal Shelters in Crisis

Insights + Opinion
COVID-19 Puts Global Animal Shelters in Crisis
A puppy in Ukraine is cared for by SPCA International partner Clean Futures Fund. CFF received a COVID-19 relief grant from SPCA International. © CleanFutures Fund

By Meredith Ayan

While pet foster and adoption rates have soared in New York and many parts of the United States, globally, the situation is much direr.

In the face of COVID-19, these shelters are continually facing critical challenges, including food shortages, spikes in pet abandonment with a plummeting and near-zero rate of adoptions, overcrowding, and fears of culling. Thanks to our work with partners all over the world, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) International has a direct line of communication with these international shelters and a unique insight into their experiences during the pandemic. What we've been hearing is harrowing.

Under lockdown in China, animal organizations reached out to our team early this year reporting animals abandoned in apartments, on the streets, and in shelters as their owners passed away or were unable or unwilling to continue caring for their pets. To contend with lockdown policies and lack of access to food, one shelter began to make their own pet kibble with our shelter grant.

In the Dominican Republic, with restaurants and local stores shuttered, shelters have implemented a feeding program for community stray animals that normally rely on businesses or individuals for food.

In Montreal, donations of pet food from New Zealand-based pet food manufacturer Wishbone Pet Food provided a crucial resource as local shelters continued to provide care for animals.

And in Italy, SPCA Italia implemented a program to subsidize the cost of food and vet care for the pets of people who have experienced recent economic hardship so that they don't have to abandon or surrender them to already overburdened shelters.

Normally, shelter needs vary by region and size. Some simply need food or rescue support, others require veterinary materials and vaccines that are difficult to source internationally, and others seek to improve their community education outreach to help house more animals. However, during COVID-19, there has been a striking similarity in the needs and challenges of shelters across the world:

  1. They need food: Limited resources, lockdowns, and hoarding mean that sourcing kibble is becoming nearly impossible.
  2. Animals are being abandoned: Unfounded fears of animal to human transmission of the virus has led to spikes in abandonments and overflowing shelters without the staff or resources to care for them.
  3. When people struggle, so do animals: As communities face loss of income, due to the economic fallout of COVID-19, providing for pets or community animals is increasingly becoming difficult and sometimes, impossible.

The U.S. has a robust shelter and adoption system, but internationally, this is far from the case, particularly in countries with high stray populations and where keeping companion animals is less customary. Even under normal circumstances, international shelters contend with cultural stigma about strays and disease, volunteer-only staff, and limited resources. Many shelters typically export adoptable animals to countries where adoptions are more popular—mostly the U.S.

As COVID-19 continues to strain communities and redefine normal life, these typical challenges are amplified beyond recognition. With the situation changing almost daily across the world, borders in many countries still remain closed for non-essential travel, and exporting animals to the U.S. for adoption has become almost impossible. And whereas U.S. pet stores are considered essential, in other countries, these businesses are shuttered, and resources are at a premium.

The recent explosion at the port of Beirut intensified the effects of a city that was already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and a struggling economy. So many people lost their homes and loved ones in the blink of an eye. Our partners at BETA Lebanon have stepped up in a big way to help the animals and people affected by this disaster. SPCA International committed $20,000 from our disaster relief fund to aid their efforts during this difficult time.

Uncertainty, store closures, delayed shipments, and misinformation has had tragic implications for animals, making the work of these shelters on the ground even more urgent. Now more than ever, they need our support through monetary donations and veterinary supplies, which are readily available here. And, if you can, it's a great time to adopt or foster an animal while you're working from home to lighten the load on domestic shelters.

With the West Coast of the U.S. facing devastating wildfires, people are losing their homes, preparing to evacuate or having to shelter indoors due to the air quality and thick smoke. Similarly, areas in the South have experienced terrible fallout from hurricanes, and face a long season ahead. Displaced families rely on shelters and foster organizations to take care of their animals until they can be reunited. If you can open your home to an animal that needs a temporary place to stay, this can make all the difference for a family in need.

Meredith Ayan is the executive director of SPCA International.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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