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When COVID-19 closed the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter, Program Coordinator Amber Fearnley adapted to assist both animals and people in need during the pandemic through her work with the shelter and as a volunteer with Branford Counseling and Community Services. She’s shown here with Everest, one of her four rescue pets (she’s also adoptive mom to another dog, Remy, together with a turtle and a guinea pig). (Photo courtesy of Amber Fearnley )
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Like most who work or volunteer at an animal shelter, Amber Fearnley has adopted quite a tribe of rescues (to date, it includes a turtle, a guinea pig, and two dogs). But when COVID-19 closed the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter, Amber also adopted, and adapted, to several new ways to assist both animals and people in need during the pandemic, says Shelter Director Laura Burban.
“Amber is our program coordinator, and under normal circumstances provides educational, therapy, and volunteer programming for people,” says Burban. “But nowadays she has been splitting her time between the shelter and Branford Counseling and Community Services [BCCS] to help with the grocery program, our pet food pantry program and helping people keep animals in homes.”
Coordinating in COVID-19
One of Amber’s regular roles with the Cosgrove shelter is coordinating volunteers. When the pandemic first hit, she worked with those among the group who could foster seven dogs that would have to leave the shelter, which has been closed to the public since mid-March. But the work didn’t stop there. Amber also continued, by appointment, to facilitate meetings between interested adoptive families and fosters so the dogs could be met off-site.
“We’re doing everything we can so that, hopefully, the dogs won’t have to come back to the shelter,” says Amber.
While news reports across the country show that a nation filled with those sheltering at home during the pandemic has created a surge in “impulse adopting” of pets, Amber notes Cosgrove shelter’s policies have always been there to make certain that the decision is right for the animal and the adoptive owner.
“We do have a long adoption process and the reason that we do that is so people, before all of this, would think about it—it wouldn’t just be an overnight adoption,” says Amber, who adopted her first rescue dog, Remy, from a New Haven shelter.
She notes the Cosgrove shelter’s adoption consideration period usually takes at least a week, including “meet and greets” before adoptions may be approved.
“We’re still doing that, so it’s still taking some time,” says Amber. “But it’s great because by now, these fosters have had these dogs for a number of weeks, so they know things that we don’t know, and that’s definitely helping secure people’s decisions.”
As someone who’s fostered animals herself, Amber can’t think of a better outcome for shelter dogs who have left the facility and found themselves in a loving foster home, to then go on to a new life with a new family, instead of having to come back to the kennels at the shelter once the facility is able to reopen.
“That’s really what we want to avoid,” says Amber.
As of last week, six of the seven dogs and puppies have found forever homes, she’s happy to report.
“We all didn’t know what to expect when this whole thing started, but we’re definitely happy with the way it’s turning out,” she says.
Amber has also served as a foster volunteer and says she knows how hard it is to try not to get too attached to the animals in your temporary care.
“I’ve tried and I’ve failed, many times,” she says, laughing. “My dog Everest, we were fostering her for the shelter because she was pregnant and she had her puppies and all of them found homes. And we just couldn’t bring her back. At least I was able to give up the puppies! But it is hard. We’re lucky that we have so many volunteers that are able to do it; a great core group of them that have been with us for years.”
Amber’s also happy with the shelter team’s efforts to keep Cosgrove’s volunteers involved at time when they can’t provide hands-on assistance at the shelter.
“It’s been hard, but we’re trying to keep everybody engaged through social media, including the volunteers. We’ve done videos on how to make face masks and dog toys...so everyone’s engaged,” says Amber.
In addition to a dozen or so long-serving/highly involved volunteers, Amber oversees a big number of those who sign on to help out at the shelter throughout the year.
“Every three months, we hold orientation, and we have at least 50 people sign up,” she says.
She notes the shelter’s actually a bit backlogged right now with volunteer applications that have been in a holding pattern due to the facility closing.
Joining the Shelter Family
Amber, a New Haven resident, joined the Cosgrove staff about two years ago after she responded to a job opening for a kennel employee.
“I started out as a kennel person my first year,” she says. “I kind of started doing a lot more, and I really like working with everybody. When the program coordinator position came up, they encouraged me to go for it, so I did,” she says.
As Amber can attest, those who work or volunteer with Cosgrove Animal Shelter are a very dedicated group.
“We always say we’re like a family, which it really is,” she says. “And it’s also more than just a shelter, in the way that we help the animals. I love being a part of that.”
In addition to inspiring responsible care and understanding of pets and animals through education and programming, the no-kill shelter goes above and beyond to provide rehabilitation and veterinary care for shelter animals in need. Established in 2003, the Cosgrove shelter is today considered one of best animal control and shelter services available in the state.
Now, as the state begins to re-open, the shelter is adding a few more options to start serving animals assisted through the facility at 749 East Main Street (Branford). Just recently, by appointment, on-site adoption visits for cats and dogs have resumed, says Amber.
The facility’s cat room stayed operational at the shelter throughout the pandemic, with staff and key volunteers rotating in to take care of the group. Now, it’s time for some very affectionate cats (and kittens) to meet their share of potential forever families, too, says Amber.
Amber also provides educational outreach for the shelter at public functions, fundraising events and in sessions with students and others. She says she misses the interaction during this time of less contact, especially with the area’s school kids.
“When we were doing school visits, we would always bring puppies or guinea pigs, which was great, and we would go everywhere,” she says, adding the shelter also shares wildlife educational information, too.
“We like to do anything we can to give people more understanding about animals,” she says.
Helping Out as a Volunteer
During this topsy-turvy time, Amber has found a new way to support both people and animals: helping out as a volunteer BCCS for the past five weeks.
She’s helping out BCCS’s COVID-19 grocery home delivery program, one of several BCCS efforts assisting Branford families with food insecurities created as a result of the pandemic.
Amber’s also helping to pump up pet food provisions and supplies through BCCS’s pet food program (providing pet food for families that need assistance). And, should an individual or family who gets in touch with BCCS also be considering the need to surrender their pet, Amber’s experience with Cosgrove shelter’s owner-release program is there to assist.
“Through that, we’re trying to facilitate with people who can’t take care of their animals, or they’re feeling like they’re stuck and they don’t know what to do,” says Amber. “If they do decide to give their animal up, we’re at least there to help them as much as we can.”
She adds the shelter also seeks grants and other financial support to help those who are financially struggling to keep their pets.
In the meantime, pandemic or not, the services provided by the Cosgrove Animal Shelter, which is the municipal shelter for the towns of Branford and North Branford, continue.
“Everyone at the shelter is doing everything they can. Our animal control officers are still out there, and then they’re shopping for [donations] on their own time, and dropping them off wherever they can help out. It’s a group effort, and everyone at the shelter’s been amazing and doing as much as we can to help,” Amber says, adding, “...the whole point of us trying to help, and extending our reach, is so that we can look back and say ‘We did as much as we could.’ It’s affecting more than just animals, and we just want to be there.”
To make a donation or contribution to programs of the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter or BCCS, visit www.branfordanimalshelter.org orwww.branford-ct.gov/departments/counseling-center or find them on Facebook @dancosgroveanimalshelter or @branfordcounseling.
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