By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great local journalism.
Pandemic Pals: How these local animal groups are helping Forsyth County’s furry friends find forever homes
The Forsyth County Animal Shelter had to come up with an adoption plan when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the facility to close. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

This article appears in the August issue of 400 Life magazine.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has meant more time at home, financial insecurity and that work, school and shopping are now being done in online and contactless formats.

In response, even officials with groups aimed at rescuing animals and helping them find homes said they have had to look at how they do business and have had to make changes, such as contactless adoptions.

When the pandemic began, like many government buildings, the Forsyth County Animal Shelter closed to the public and temporarily halted the typical adoption process, instead going to foster and foster-to-adoption methods before opening adoptions through an online screening process, which Shelter Manager Cindy Iacopella said started with a “matchmaking form.” 

“So, they will send that form back to us,” she said, “and then we call the potential adopter and just spend some time just kind of getting to know them as people and what their household’s like, and if they have picked a potential adoption candidate, we will go over kind of the behavior traits in that animal just to make sure their personalities match up.”

Iacopella said the change not only means that there is less of a chance of spreading germs between employees, who are essential workers, and the public but allows adoptions to be tailored to the families they are going to.

“Animals have personalities just like people,” Iacopella said, “so if you’re looking for kind of a couch potato dog that’s super mellow, but you immediately picked a dog that we have identified as being high-energy, we will then spend some time trying to matchmake with another candidate.”

Iacopella said the program was so popular, at one point there were nearly no animals to adopt.

“We had an overwhelming response from people in our community reaching out to help the homeless animals. We placed almost everybody. I think at one point, we only had like five cats in the building and like 10 dogs, and that’s like a historic low for us being that we’re an open-admission shelter for Forsyth County. That means we take in all animals, we don’t turn any animal away based on breed, health, any of those types of situation.”

Samantha Shelton, CEO of Furkids, the largest no-kill shelter in the Southeast, said the organization has also moved to contactless adoptions and found homes for 82 cats and dogs in a recent weekend and another 40 cats were recently transported to Martha’s Vineyard as part of their transport program.

However, at the outset of the pandemic, Shelton said Furkids was having some issues with bringing animals into the program.

“As we work through the number of animals that are in our program, and especially on the dog side in the beginning, we had a hard time finding dogs,” she said. “The majority of our dogs come from animal control, and when the animal controls were closed throughout COVID, we were not able to bring dogs into the program. We worked with what we had, and we got down to like four dogs in the building. And normally we have a capacity for 65.”

Story continues below.

‘It’s just a period of unknown’

Debbie Bertsch, executive director of the Humane Society of Forsyth County, said the organization had seen an impact on the community, including an uptick in the number of owner surrenders.

“We have seen an increase in owner surrenders due to COVID and the loss of income,” she said. “To help offset the impact of animals being surrendered and provide support to the local community we are offering our pet food pantry services to help families provide for their animals until their financial situation improves. 

“As an organization, we strive to support the physical and emotional needs of the animals along with their owners by providing assistance for pets in terms of pet food and low-cost spay/neuter (SNAP) services to keep pets in loving homes.”

At Furkids, the group’s biggest fundraiser of the year had to be canceled along with other bouts of bad luck.

“And then we also had to close our thrift stores for six weeks, and our thrift stores bring in a third of our annual operating budget,” she said. “So, to have lost that for six weeks was a negative impact on us. We’re trying to recover from that.

“While we’re trying to recover from that, we had one of our vehicles stolen, one of our vans we use for the thrift stores was stolen, and then our Lawrenceville store was broken into the weekend before last. So, all a sudden, there’s just been some negative energy, some negative things happening. That’s been a bit of a downer.”

Shelton said members of the organization were “remaining strong and optimistic” and were focused on taking care of the animals and thanked the community for their support and donations.

“It’s just a period of unknown,” she said. “We’ve just tried to be as flexible as we can, figure out workarounds. We’re very solutions oriented. We’re trying to come up with solutions to the new problem of the day, the new challenge; we just try to figure out what we can do to solve any roadblocks to adoption and just try to work around those.”

Story continues below.

‘Taking advantage’

While COVID has overall been a negative, Bertsch said the pandemic has given the Humane Society a chance to review some of their processes and “find some positives during all of this negativity.”

“We are taking advantage of this current COVID situation and evaluating many systems and operations,” she said. “We are expanding our low-cost vaccine clinics. We are also going to be implementing new software that will allow us to send reminders, schedule appointments online, and view records. We are extremely excited for these changes. Watch our website for upcoming dates.”

Iacopella said the community had been generous and donations for items like dog food, blankets, toys and peanut butter, which can be dropped off at a cart outside of the shelter, had increased.

She said the shelter was “in a fluid environment” and probably would be for a while.

In the meantime, the shelter will continue to update policies and hold events to help animals find homes, such as the Summer of Love adopting event, where all adoption fees are waived through Labor Day.

“We’re going to continue to fine-tune our policies and procedures to accommodate adoptions and hold sort of virtual adoption events, those sorts of programming issues that we were able to do out in the public but now are no longer an option,” she said. “So now, we’re looking at increasing our social media presence and trying to see if there are volunteer opportunities people can do virtually.”

Furkids made the switch last year to a new platform that manages their adoption software, medical reporting and closing with the adoptions, which Shelton said has made changes during the pandemic a little smoother.

“... We have not skipped a beat,” Shelton said. “We’ve got a fantastic team of staff and some volunteers that have continued to work with us throughout this time. That has really helped us to achieve some pretty exciting results with adoptions.”

Also last year, Furkids moved to a new headquarters in South Forsyth, which involved downsizing about 50% from their previous facility. A renovation helped save more money on utilities.

Shelton said since many of the group’s volunteers were in high-risk categories, they had not been able to help out at the center, but there were still plenty of opportunities for those who could volunteer. 

“We do have volunteer opportunities for people, especially on our 9-acre property. ... If anybody wants to come out and volunteer outside in the garden, we could use their help,” Shelton said. “If there are any gardeners out there ... it’s a beautiful space to be to come outdoors and work by yourself or your family.

“We rely on volunteers to do a lot of the work that we need to do out there, and unfortunately we have not had any of our corporate partners have been able to volunteer until the first of the year.”

If you’re looking for a new furry  friend, here are a few places to start:

- Humane Society Forsyth County, 4440 Keith Bridge Road, 770-887-6480,

- Forsyth County Animal Shelter, 4065 County Way, 678-965-7185,

- Furkids Animal Rescue, 5235 Union Hill Road, 770-613-0880,