The doors of the Santa Rosa County Animal Shelter were opening and closing with relative frequency on Friday morning before the shelter was even officially open.


Kennel technicians and other shelter staff were busy at the front desk with the phones ringing off the hook. Volunteers wheeled bags of dog food and cushy beds from the donation box to the kennels in the back.


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Tracie Wood, a teacher at Holley-Navarre Intermediate School, walked in around 11 a.m. to pick up Mable, a chihuahua mix. She already has three dogs at home, but heard the shelter's call for help to take in foster animals during the coronavirus pandemic, and decided she wanted to help.


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"I'm a teacher, but I don't have any kids to teach right now," she said. "I have the time to give to an animal right this second. I was going to wait until the summer, but am I going to be teaching from home for the rest of the school year? I don't really know."


Wood is one of dozens of people stepping up in the community to help animal shelters and nonprofit rescues during this time of uncertainty, as the novel coronavirus shutters businesses, closes beaches and threatens to plunge the country into another economic recession.


Local shelters say they've seen an uptick in owner surrenders in the past week, as people are laid off due to the coronavirus' impact.


Additionally, most shelters are preparing to reduce staffing to follow social distancing guidelines to avoid spreading the virus.


“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” said Jessica Gutmann, the manager of operations for the Santa Rosa County Animal Shelter, referring to the coronavirus pandemic. “This is completely new and unprecedented for the shelter world.”


In Santa Rosa County, officials are taking steps to limit the number of animals in its kennels, including:


— Suspending owner surrenders


— Suspending stray intakes


— Reducing adoption fees to $10 for cats and $25 for dogs through end of March


— Calling for 100 "on-call" emergency fosters who can step up to take home a pet as the shelter reaches capacity


The Escambia County Animal Shelter has also suspended all animal intake from the public until further notice.


The Pensacola Humane Society is enacting similar measures, and has reduced all adoption fees to $10 to help clear their kennels. They also are stocking up on their Pet Food Pantry, which is open seven days a week and provides free pet food assistance to anyone who asks for it.



The Pensacola Humane Society’s director of community initiatives, Darra Flanagan, told the News Journal on Friday that its pet food pantry is 50% stocked going into the weekend — and she expects it will be down to 10% or 15% by the end of the weekend.


“People are going to be making some tough choices about whether or not they keep their dog, go get groceries or pay their rent,” Flanagan said. “We’re here to help them keep their pet in their home during this difficult time. There are no restrictions on getting food. If we have it, we’ll give it to you.”


Sasha Corbett, a veterinary technician and a volunteer with nonprofit Amazing Grace Bully Rescue, said rescue groups — which help pull dogs from local animal shelters so the shelters can care for even more pets — are going to be greatly affected as well.


"Adoption events are canceling, and people aren't adopting pets due to the crisis since many aren't sure of the job security and the future," Corbett said. "Everywhere within the animal community is going to be affected. I have already seen a drop in the amount of (applications) that we are getting (at Amazing Grace). And the fewer the dogs that are adopted means the fewer a rescue can take in. Most rescues in this area pull from the shelters, and if we can't move dogs, then we can't help the shelters, which puts dogs at risk. Rescues and shelters both need fosters during this time."


Frances Rentz, who lives in Navarre, was at the shelter Friday picking up Clark, a high-energy pit bull mix that she decided to foster during the crisis.


Rentz, a condo cleaner who said she’s preparing to see a reduction in condos to clean in the coming weeks, said she’s a dog lover and wanted to help out vulnerable pets since the shelters could likely fill up over the next few weeks.


“I wanted to give an animal an opportunity to come home, relax and cuddle,” Rentz said. “You will never find the kind of love that you can get from these animals. I wish human beings could be like dogs.”


For ways to help foster an animal or donate:


— Santa Rosa County Animal Services, 850-983 4680, santarosa.fl.gov/387/Animal-Services


— Escambia County Animal Shelter, 850-595-3075, myescambia.com/our-services/animal-services


— Pensacola Humane Society, 850-432-4250, pensacolahumane.org


Annie Blanks can be reached at ablanks@pnj.com or 850-435-8632.