When the Chihuahua arrived at the Burbank Animal Shelter about 10 years ago, he bled, had mange and suffered from skin infections that left him furless and nervous, all a result of neglect from his previous owner.
Marissa O’Brien immediately fell in love with him.
“He’s my buddy,” said O’Brien, a shelter employee who adopted the dog, now named Scooby. “He’s had a lot of medical issues, but he’s worth every penny.”
O’Brien, who has worked at the city-run animal shelter for more than 14 years as a kennel attendant and now as a clerk, wants people to know that the facility is still open. The shelter isn’t offering walk-in service, but adoptions are still available via appointment, as are licensing and euthanasia services. The shelter also picks up animals when someone with a pet is arrested.
“As far as services in general, there’s nothing that we haven’t stopped doing,” said Stacie Wood-Levin, senior animal control officer. “We’ve just found different ways to make it work, to be safer.”
But the pandemic has impacted the shelter in one measure: its number of volunteers. Since the shelter is part of the Burbank Police Department, its funding has remained stable. But its team of more than 100 volunteers, who usually clean cages, process adoptions and help at the front desk, are no longer coming in.
The shelter implemented some safeguards to allow volunteers — many of whom are seniors — to keep working earlier in the pandemic, Wood-Levin explained, but has since asked them to stay home because of the surge in COVID-19 cases.
“It’s not been good [without the volunteers], but we’ve been able to do it,” Wood-Levin added.
The pandemic has also prompted more residents to adopt pets, Wood-Levin said, with more people able — if not required — to stay home. The animal shelter received more than 1,100 animals last year, shelter Superintendent Brenda Castaneda said at a Police Commission meeting this week, with more than 600 of those being adopted. Others were reunited with owners.
But Wood-Levin said shelter staff members are careful to emphasize that owning a pet is a long-term commitment. She worries that, as restrictions are lifted and people return to working outside of the home, many pet owners will surrender their animals — particularly dogs — to their local shelters.
“I’m going to attribute that to dogs barking or having separation anxiety — having behavior issues — because the owner is not there anymore,” Wood-Levin said. “Hopefully, that won’t happen.”
O’Brien also emphasized that the animals at the shelter are being given plenty of attention — even more, she said, than before the pandemic. Kennel attendants let the dogs and cats out to play every day, now that the workers aren’t constantly conducting animal showings with potential owners.
At a Police Commission meeting this week in which commission members discussed establishing the shelter separate from the BPD, residents and members praised the quality of the shelter’s services, with some saying the workers there were highly responsive and empathetic.
“I think one of the really good things that we have in this city is the personal community,” said Amy Vest, a commission member who used to volunteer at the shelter. “The people that are there, they genuinely care about the animals.”
Working at an animal shelter is not a task that can be done at home, even during a pandemic, Wood-Levin said. But she added that the small staff of 13 employees is close, and the workers often check in on one another to make sure they’re mentally well.
“This is a hard job to do, and we become very, very invested in our animals and their lives and the lives they’re going to live,” she said.
The work can also be very rewarding, O’Brien said. She has aided pet owners in reuniting with their dogs and cats, and helped animals come of out their shells and eventually be adopted.
And, of course, working at the animal shelter has had one very significant benefit: introducing her to her buddy Scooby.