On March 27, a woman from out of state called police about a dog who'd been left behind in a northeast Miami-Dade apartment. Two of the woman's family members were hospitalized because of COVID-19, and she asked that someone check on their German shepherd mix.
"She was our first COVID dog to come to the shelter," says Kathleen Labrada, assistant director of Miami-Dade Animal Services.
Animal welfare officers went to the apartment in full protective gear — coveralls, N95 masks, and shoe and hair coverings. The officers took the dog to Animal Services' old shelter in Medley, which now operates as an isolation and quarantine facility for pets that have been exposed to the virus. Frightened and a little aggressive, the dog was sedated so that the staff could disinfect her coat and bathe her. They named her Linda.
She spent 14 days at the facility under supervision and quarantined from other animals.
"She was very fearful," Labrada says. "If you look at it from a pet's perspective, it's scary to be taken away from your home. Under normal circumstances, we interact with our pets all the time. They're played with and taken for walks. With COVID cases, we're not able to do that. They have to be placed under strict observation with minimal contact. As much as you want to get in there and pet her, reassure her, and love on her, you can't."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says a small number of pets worldwide have reportedly been infected with the coronavirus after close contact with people who have COVID-19.
"Based on the limited information available to date, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low," the CDC website says.
The CDC advises pet owners to treat their companions like other human family members: If someone in the home is sick, isolate them from everyone else, including pets. And don't let pets interact with people or other pets outside the home.
Shelters can be especially difficult for German shepherds. They're assertive, protective, and need lots of training and socializing. Labrada says Linda was a little cranky during her time at the shelter.
Animal Services planned to keep Linda until her owners recovered or other family members claimed her. But her owners died, Labrada says, and there was no one else to take her in.
"Her entire world was turned upside down over a period of two weeks," Labrada says. "It's difficult in a shelter. It doesn't matter how good the care is that you're providing. You can't replicate that calm, loving home environment that pets are used to."
Animal Services issued pleas to partner rescue agencies for help finding the German shepherd mix a home. Volunteer pet-rescue groups on Facebook posted and cross-posted information about Linda in hopes of finding a new place for her.
Kelly Van Nevel with the Tampa-based Heidi's Legacy Dog Rescue was tagged in one of those posts.
"Then I tagged one of my best fosters and asked if he could take this on," Van Nevel says. "And we got the ball rolling from there."
By late Friday afternoon, the German shepherd was on her way to a foster home. She loved the car ride and licked the faces of everyone who helped get her there.
"In the shelter, she was very stressed out," Van Nevel says. "She lost her home. She lost her humans, too. Now, she's almost back to normal."
Linda also has a new name — Charise.
"It's a German name meaning fresh and new," Van Nevel says. "She doesn't know the name Linda. It was a shelter name. We feel she needed a new beginning."
Van Nevel says Charise will spend the next few days decompressing at her new, temporary home. Heidi's Legacy will take her to a vet for blood work and a checkup. She also needs to be spayed. The person fostering her will observe her behaviors and try to get a sense of what kind of family she'd pair well with for adoption.
"The reason we let them decompress is we don't really know what their personalities are," Van Nevel says. "Our fosters give us information about what the dog might be looking for. We don't really know that much about her. He'll evaluate her, tell us what to put in her bio for adoption, what people should look out for."
Van Nevel says she thinks Charise will be ready for adoption in the next few weeks.
"We hope she finds a forever home and that she's there and happy the rest of her life," she says.
So far, Miami-Dade Animal Services has taken in 19 pets related to COVID-19 exposure or risk. Eleven dogs, including the German shepherd, were identified as having been exposed to the virus.
One Miami-Dade man who owned ten dogs exhibited COVID-19 symptoms, and his doctor recommended that he go to a hospital.
"He refused to leave his home until Animal Services could come out and take the dogs, because he was worried he wouldn't come back," Labrada says.
Eight pets were identified as at risk of exposure. Five of those were found in a motel room following the sudden death of their owner. Animal Services didn't have immediate confirmation on the person's cause of death, so they treated the pets as if they'd potentially been exposed to the virus, Labrada says.
Animal Services and rescue organizations have said they're not experiencing increases in pet surrenders related to the pandemic. If anything, they're trying to send a message that pets are safer at home.
Flora Beal, a spokeswoman for Animal Services, says the department receives grants that can help pet owners in times of financial stress or other difficulties. Miami-Dade commissioners on Tuesday will vote on a resolution to apply for $100,000 in grants from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for Animal Services' pet-retention program.
The department has also been hosting drive-thru pet food banks for families who need help feeding their companions.
"We work actively to try to prevent unnecessary surrenders of animals through these programs," Beal says.
Anyone in need of help or resources for their pets can call 311 for information.