Above: Harold McClure found a compatible friend in Mo, an older dog he recently adopted. SPECIAL

It took a long time for Harold McClure to get over the loss of his Shih Tzu Sadie after she died from a fall. For years, he couldn’t face the thought of getting a new dog.

Lately, that tide began turning.The Stockbridge transportation retiree shares a trailer with his son, a trucker who’s often gone on the road. McClure wanted some companionship and was looking for something to do away from home.

His thoughts propelled him to become a volunteer several months ago at the DeKalb County Animal Shelter in Chamblee.

He’d only been there a few weeks when the coronavirus pandemic gripped the U.S. Suddenly, McClure was on the front lines of a mad scramble for animal adopters.

The county-owned animal shelters in DeKalb and Fulton counties are managed by LifeLine Animal Project, a nonprofit that’s working to turn them into no-kill shelters.

There were about 1,000 to 1,200 animals in LifeLine’s three facilities in mid-March, according to Karen Hirsch, LifeLine’s public relations director. Some were court cases who can’t be adopted until their cases come to trial, which can take as long as a year.

“We acted swiftly to try to get out all the animals that we could because we had no idea whether our shelters were going to be forced to close,” Hirsch said. “There were so many unknowns.”

The community answered LifeLine’s SOS call — big-time. In the first week after the shelter’s plea for help, more than 750 animals were adopted or fostered.

Lifeline empty cages
LifeLine’s DeKalb County Animal Services shelter employees proudly showoff empty kennels after over 750 animals were adopted or fostered during March. Employees pictured, front to back, are Zoie Cushing, Sarah Currier, Denise Davis, Alaska Matthews and Eli Mayfield. Courtesy of LifeLine Animal Project

So many cages were emptied that LifeLine was able to rescue animals from about six rural shelters that were closing, saving about 100 animals that were going to be euthanized, Hirsch said.

“We’ve been thrilled beyond expectation with how the Atlanta community has come forward and helped,” she said.

Some of the recent adopters and fosters had wanted a pet before the quarantine but didn’t think they had time to care for an animal, she said, and some had never before thought about getting a pet but wanted to help.In all of March, 813 animals were adopted and 792 went into foster homes, a surge from March a year ago, when 573 animals were adopted and 233 fostered.

In April, another 566 animals were adopted and 459 went into foster homes.

“The feedback we’ve heard is amazing,” Hirsch said. “I’ve heard some people who live by themselves saying they would be so lonely without this animal in their life.”

Others have said they’re grateful for the levity and structure pets have brought to their homes, and a few families have said their new pets are making online schooling more bearable for kids.

“They can have a dog in their lap while they’re doing their schoolwork and that’s fun for them,” Hirsch said. “Having a pet in the home seems to lighten the mood for everybody.”

 Meeting Mo

One of the recent adoptees is Mo, a Tibetan spaniel/Pekingese mix that is believed to be about 6 years old. McClure asked for Mo the moment he saw his picture on the shelter’s website. He had been hoping for a small dog, and they go quickly. And he was glad he was an older dog, for age compatibility.

On April 4, McClure met with the woman who’d found Mo wandering in the Buford Highway area. LifeLine is asking people who bring in strays to consider becoming “friendly finders” and, after intake work is done, foster them until shelter operations resume.

“I walked up to Mo’s cage and he was just as gentle as he could be,” McClure said. “He’s a smaller dog, absolutely beautiful.”

He took him home, for good.

Brushing time is bonding time, and creating routines around Mo’s needs has helped bring “a little bit more structure” to his own life, McClure said.

It wasn’t long before the two of them began to figure each other out. One night, McClure stayed up watching TV past their regular bedtime, about 10:30 p.m. He’d noticed that Mo had already jumped into bed, but when McClure didn’t follow him within a few minutes he jumped down.

“He comes back in here and sits at my feet, sits there and looks up at me as if to say, ‘Uh, it’s bedtime,’” McClure said.

Mo is a lap dog and a very picky eater who’s “a little bit stubborn about certain things,” he said. “Like, if I call him and he decides he don’t want to come, he ain’t coming. It don’t matter what kind of treat you’re holding or what. He’s a very independent little boy.”

“Overall, I’m really happy with him,” McClure said. “I was really lucky to get him.”

‘He sticks by me like glue’

LifeLine is encouraging people to avoid surrendering unwanted pets until shelter operations resume but is still accepting them in emergency situations.

By mid-May, LifeLine had a waiting list for foster homes but always has a need for adopters.

“We have 660 animals in foster care that are now available,” Hirsch said.

Druid Hills resident Andrea Jantel-Grubiak was reluctant at first to bring her new dog Ryan into her life.

She attends a support group to help deal with the loss of her border collie Skylar, who died of cancer last September.

brown and white dog

In January, a friend asked Jantel-Grubiak if she would take in Ryan, a foster dog from a foster home that wasn’t working out. The very active two-year-old dog, thought to be a border collie mix, wasn’t a good fit for a home that did not have a fenced yard and did have a 12-year- old dog already.

Jantel-Grubiak didn’t feel ready to become attached to another dog, but agreed to let Ryan visit for play dates. Later, she and her husband, Jim Grubiak, began accepting him for longer stays. When coronavirus hit, they offered to become his new foster family, and enrolled him in a dog training school.

Now they’re his forever family. They adopted Ryan on April 21.

Friends have told Jantel-Grubiak that quarantine life has made them feel bored, lonely or anxious. “I don’t feel like that,” she said. One reason is Ryan, who she said is “very affectionate, very playful.”

“He’s just a really sweet, nice dog. He’s learning things and looks so happy when he does something like sit or stay or come. … He sticks by me like glue,” she said.

“Skylar’s space was not easy to fill. He has filled a certain loneliness that we had,” she said. “While the loneliness still stays a little in the background, the fact that he’s here and he’s so proud of himself when he does little things … it just feels very rewarding.”

She and her husband have no children, but haven’t thought of their dogs as their children, she said.

“I sort of consider my animals like another part of me. The animal is like what completes you. … It’s a certain emotional completion, especially during coronavirus, while we’re sort of stranded at home,” Jantel-Grubiak said. “With people you have conversations, but with animals, it’s what they show you.”

County Animal Shelter Contact Info

DeKalb and Fulton counties — lifelineanimal.org or 404-292-8800

Cobb County — cobbcounty.org/public-safety/animal- services or 770-499-4136

Gwinnett County — gwinnettcounty.com/web/gwinnett/ departments/communityservices/animalwelfareenforcement or 770-339-3200

Adopting with Lifeline

  • Following national recommendations related to the pandemic, Lifeline has instituted some new safety procedures to protect staff and the public, including currently operating by appointment only.
  • A mandatory online adoption questionnaire asks for information about home settings and the kind of animals sought so that potential matches can be found. There’s a separate questionnaire for potential fosters.
  • Shelter viewing is limited to no more than 10 visitors at a time. All visitors must wear masks. Curbside viewing is available and there is an off-leash, fenced play yard outside.
  • Check for fee specials. The current senior rate for dog or cat adoption is $40 for seniors (ages 55+). The fee includes a free first vet visit at the Lifeline clinic, microchipping, spaying or neutering and vaccinations.
  • LifeLine operates shelters in DeKalb County at 3280 Chamblee Dunwoody Road in Chamblee and in Fulton County at 3180 Presidential Drive, Atlanta, and 860 Marietta Boulevard, Atlanta.

How You Can Help

  • Donate services. Volunteers help in many ways at the shelter and from home. Remote activities include creating simple flyers about available animals, acting as “social media ambassadors” by sharing pet profiles online,and making enrichment toys for dogs.
  • Donate goods. Among the shelter’s needs are nursery supplies for kittens, blankets and towels, newspapers for lining cages and food for animals with special needs. See the website for more needs.
  • Give money. Donations help pay for surgeries for injured animals and help support the Pets for Life program. Pets for Life aims to keep people and their pets together by offering those in need free pet care services including spaying or neutering, vaccinations and supplies.

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.