When COVID-19 forced people across the United States to shelter in place earlier this year, many decided to share their sudden isolation with a new pet.

Applications for adoptions and foster placements spiked 10-fold or more at animal shelters from New York to Missouri. Calls for support from struggling facilities got thousands of replies. A few shelters were completely emptied of animals.

The unprecedented situation sparked what is now a three-country effort to reimagine the future of animal shelters. Known as Human Animal Support Services, the initiative is backed by some of the biggest names in animal philanthropy. It has brought together groups that have rarely worked together, in some cases due to longstanding philosophical differences, around a common goal of reshaping the relationship between animal shelters and their communities.

“I think it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in animal welfare in the last 100 years,” said Gina Knepp, national shelter engagement director for Michelson Found Animals Foundation, who serves on the effort’s six-member executive committee.

This budding movement is not fueled only by the pandemic, but this year’s widespread protests against police violence and racism—and the new focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (known as DEI) they prompted, including within the animal welfare movement, as covered by IP earlier this year.

Human Animal Support Services (or HASS) “came out of COVID, for sure. Some of the fundamental thinking behind it was starting prior, but COVID gave it a huge push,” said Shelly Thompson, director of grants at Maddie’s Fund, the leading funder of the effort. “All of the racial tension, the new DEI focus, has given yet another push.”

Supporters say the campaign has also bridged divides within the sector. The debate over the no-kill shelter movement, which was pioneered by Maddie’s, has long been a key fault line within animal welfare philanthropy and the broader movement. Now, organizations on either side of that issue are working together.

“We’re seeing collaboration between large animal welfare funders that we’ve never seen before,” Knepp said. “We’re not even talking about no-kill.”

The collective aim is to reinvent shelters as places that, as Knepp likes to put it, serve “both ends of the leash.” The effort encompasses a wide range of changes to standard operating procedure, including placing most animals with foster homes, offering more services for struggling families, and ensuring equity in how shelters support communities of color. Under the new model, a shelter might help mend a broken fence or even provide need-based medical care.

The initiative has also stretched beyond familiar borders. For example, human social services providers have been involved in discussions and planning. “We’ve never connected the two industries, even though there’s a huge nexus between what we do for animals in need and what we do for humans in need,” Knepp said.

How philanthropy came to support the effort

Like the other supporters of the new initiative, Maddie’s had supported American Pets Alive, the nonprofit that is spearheading HASS, since before the pandemic. The foundation funded—and was the namesake for—Maddie’s Lifesaving Academy, an in-person, hands-on training program held at the nonprofit that taught the tenets of a no-kill model, which aims to stop the euthanizing of healthy animals in shelters.

When the pandemic forced those programs to shift online, many of the training staff switched to work on the new project. The foundation gave a $4 million grant for the academy in 2017, and Maddie’s Fund now supports eight of the 12 staff and advisors of HASS.

Maddie’s Fund, which is the country’s largest non-corporate funder of animal welfare, had already been supporting open adoptions, which lowers barriers to bringing home a pet, and it backed foster care for several years. Underlying that support is a belief that only a few animals, usually for health or behavioral issues, need to be in a shelter. Shelters, after all, can spread illnesses like “shelter cough” and make other tenants anxious or worse.

“We’ve been thinking for a long time now the shelter isn’t the right place for most animals to be,” Thompson said. “When this came along, it just made perfect sense to us. Of course, this is how things should be.”

Beyond Michelson and Maddie’s, which are two of the most prominent family foundations focused on animal welfare, the effort is joined by several corporate pet supplies and services groups, such as PetSmart Charities, Petfinder, Pedigree Foundation and the Rachel Ray Foundation, which is funded by the sales of a pet food line started by namesake TV personality Rachel Ray.

Funders have also been influenced by intellectual currents in the animal movement that predate the pandemic. Such forces include two books published in the last two years by professors, “The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals,” by Katja M. Guenther and “Beyond Cages: Animal Law and Criminal Punishment,” by Justin Marceau, each of which challenges aspects of the current animal protection system. Both have been popular reading in the field, according to Chetana Mirle, program director at Life of Riley at Spring Point, who is on the HASS executive committee.

What’s been done so far

Despite the pandemic, the effort has proceeded at a sprint. The group has held more than 600 hours of national calls to date, and has divided responsibilities across 32 working groups. More than 215 organizations and 600 individuals from the United States, Canada and Australia are working on the project, according to Knepp of Michelson Found Animals Foundation.

“It’s mind-blowing the amount of work that we’ve been able to do since April,” Knepp told me.

For Michelson, it’s been all hands on deck. Knepp is leading the “Lost and Found” working group. The institution’s lawyer is serving on the policy working group. Several Michelson staff are on a technology working group focused on revamping software and other systems to implement the initiative. “We want this project to be data-driven, not emotionally driven,” she said.

There are now 38 pilot shelters in the United States and Canada. (The effort also includes Australia, but there are no pilots there to date.) HASS has raised a little over $1 million of a $3.1 million budget, according to Knepp. “We’re definitely seeking out more funding,” she said.

“This is a generational shift”

While the effort has moved rapidly so far, James Evans believes HASS should take a long view. Evans is president of CARE, a nonprofit focused on equity in the animal welfare movement, and he serves on the initiative’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee and counts HASS as one of CARE’s clients.

As everyone I spoke to pointed out, the current model of animal welfare has trained people to take lost animals to a shelter. If your housing, health, or financial situation means you can no longer care for your pet, you take it to a shelter. Name the situation and the expectation is that the shelter will take care of it. Shifting that mindset will take time.

There’s also a long history to overcome. Evans notes that the animal welfare movement dates back more than a century. For instance, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one of the field’s largest players and funders, was founded in 1866, the year after the Emancipation Proclamation.

“To ask folks within an eight-month period to completely undo all that is completely impossible,” Evans said. “This is a generational shift.”

He argues that what worked during COVID may be instructive, but it might not work as well moving forward. Scaling may require a different approach than those effective during an emergency. Particularly with regard to advancing equity, awareness should not be equated with expertise. He likens it to moving from a dark room into a bright one—and being temporarily blinded.

“You realize that there’s more light in that other room. It doesn’t mean you can actually see,” he said. “I’ve been on the other side of that door my entire life. I’ve watched people open that door, get shell shocked, and close it back up again.”

“A generational error or deficiency takes a generation to correct,” he added. “We have to be careful about what we do because they can’t just be undone.”

Evans has a parallel vision for the future of animal welfare. The organization is launching a model called CARE centers, support networks of neighbors and animal welfare service providers rooted in the communities they serve. His organization has laid the groundwork for an initial site in Atlanta—making connections with local providers, finding funding for a mobile clinic. While some might view it as a competing effort, Evans sees HASS as operating at the “15,000-foot level,” with CARE centers potentially serving as one of their connections to individual communities on the ground.

Still less than a year old, the effort has both accomplished a great deal and has a long way to go. Whatever comes next, it seems clear that on all sides, there’s a great deal of passion to continue the journey.

“It hasn’t lost momentum,” Knepp said. “You know how you see a project start and there’s a lot of momentum and then it slows? We haven’t slowed down at all.”