The year 2020 will be remembered for a lot of things. At the EASEL Animal Rescue League, it will be remembered as the year more people rescued dogs and cats than any year before.

EASEL is the nonprofit, no-kill shelter for dogs and cats based at the municipal complex in Ewing Township. Mark Phillips, EASEL’s director of operations, says that while dog adoption numbers have been on the rise for several years, 2020 saw the biggest jump yet.

The standard at EASEL used to be 75 to 95 dogs adopted per year. That number was up to around 250 in 2018 and 2019, and rose to more than 300 this year.

For cats, 600 adoptions were typical in a given year before jumping to about 800 in 2019. In 2020, EASEL had already surpassed 1,000 adoptions by November.

Phillips says the increase in applicants is not due to people making impulsive decisions to adopt a pet during a pandemic.

Rather, it has been a result of the pandemic rearranging people’s lives in a way that made pet adoption more practical now.

“It was families that had thought about [adopting] for a while, and now was a really good time to do it, with everybody being home,” he says. “Particularly with dogs, we saw that families that previously were too busy to train dogs suddenly had lots of availability.”

The shelter has seen similar trends with cats. “You had people who were stuck at home, they had one cat, they had been thinking about getting a second cat, and now was a good time to do it,” he says.

The coronavirus pandemic made a huge impact on most businesses, and EASEL was no exception. EASEL has a staff of just 10, and many of those work part time. So it depends on its very active base of volunteers to help out with important tasks like dog walking and cat socialization.

But when the pandemic started, EASEL limited staff to employees and senior volunteers, Phillips says. They did not utilize the usual number of walkers and socializers, but used play groups and a small number of senior walkers to maintain activity and socialization for their dogs.

They canceled all on-site adoption events, but continued to do adoptions by appointment.

“We slowed down a little while we adjusted,” Phillips says. “But there were no interruptions in taking or adopting animals.”

Because of the pandemic, weekly training sessions for shelter dogs did cease for a few months, and no new volunteers were accepted for a time. But both activities have since resumed.

The pandemic has actually given a bit of a boost to EASEL’s cat-fostering program, with more volunteers home and available to take cats in temporarily. More fosters also helps EASEL minimize the need for volunteers to spend time at the shelter helping with things like cat socialization.

Darla (left) and Butch are among the dogs that are available for adoption at the EASEL Animal Rescue League in Ewing right now.

EASEL’s board of directors has also helped the staff and volunteers work through the pandemic. The board provided personal protective equipment and helped with logistics and to fill in when volunteer opportunities were limited, Phillips says. Karen Azarchi is president of EASEL’s board of directors.

Phillips says that when the adoption rate began to rise during the pandemic, he and the staff were not sure whether it was truly a positive thing for the animals.

They worried that people who had taken in animals because they had more down time might decide that they had made a mistake once they were able to return to the office.

“That hasn’t happened, but that’s basically because things haven’t really opened back up yet,” Phillips says. “So we still don’t really know if it will happen once people do go back to work in bigger numbers.”

One Covid-related thing the shelter does know is that the pandemic has been hard on some pet owners. A share of the animals that EASEL has taken in have come from owners who, due to lost income and changing personal circumstances, have made the often difficult decision to surrender their pets.

That misfortune might have overburdened a shelter like EASEL in years past. But because of the increase in applications that EASEL has seen, they have been able to handle the volume.

The Increased adoption volume has also enabled EASEL to take more of these animals from other shelters, locally as well as out of state. (As a no-kill shelter, EASEL sometimes takes in animals from other shelters that do not have a no-kill designation. Those shelters euthanize pets that have gone unrescued for a certain amount of time.)

“I’ve been doing this for 14 years,” Phillips says. “What I’ve seen is that animal rescue in general has become so much more popular. You hear people say ‘don’t go to a breeder, don’t go to a pet store, do rescue.’ Everybody wants to help jump in and be a part of that. That is something unrelated to Covid. (Animal rescue) has just taken off.”

From the start of the pandemic, EASEL stopped accepting walk-ins. The shelter encouraged people to apply online and get preapproved to adopt before scheduling the appointments. All operations require social distancing and masks.

Phillips cautions that the rescue process might not be the right fit for some prospective adopters, like those who are looking only for a certain breed of dog.

But he says EASEL staff counsel people to consider other factors when looking to adopt.

“We’re more interested in the personality of the animal,” Phillips says. “To us, ‘friendly and adoptable’ is the best kind of breed. A lot of people show up and they’ll meet the dogs and wind up picking one based on that interaction.”

Phillips was not anticipating any kind of holiday-related bump in adoptions. For one thing, Covid has in a way been like one long holiday when it comes to animal rescue.

“The amount of applications we have gotten has been pretty steady since Covid started,” he says. “We do sometimes do Thanksgiving events or Halloween events, and around Christmas we usually do pictures with Santa for dogs and things like that to kind of get more attention for the animals.”

Dave (right) was surrendered by his owner when he was unable to adjust when a new pet was introduced to his home. There are descriptive biographies of each of the animals on the EASEL website.

EASEL has long had success coordinating weekend adoption days at area pet supply stores. That, too, was put on hold at the start of the pandemic, before starting up again once EASEL and the stores felt that it was safe.

In December, EASEL had scheduled cat adoptions at Petsmart in Nassau Park every Saturday, as well as dog adoptions on most Saturdays at either Bag of Bones Barkery in Hamilton or Concord Pet Food and Supplies in Princeton Shopping Center.

More adoption days are scheduled for January. To see a complete schedule of events, go to easeljnj.org/events.

“As stores have come back, we’ve started going to them again, taking just a handful of animals,” Phillips says. “Three or four dogs, a couple of cages of cats. At Petsmart we have our cats there all the time. We do pretty brisk adoptions out of that location.

The majority of adoptions, however, still happen at the shelter, and most of the time, the first contact between shelter and adopter is online.

For those interested in potentially adopting a dog or a cat, the process at EASEL is simple: go to the EASEL website (easelnj.org) and fill out the online application. On the application, prospective owners can provide details on their adoption preferences, including type, size and age. The approval process typically takes around 48 hours.

EASEL keeps an up-to-date list of available pets on its website, and Phillips suggests that people take a look at what they have before applying.

“It helps to put on your application what you’re looking for — puppy or kitten, large dog or something 40 pounds or less,” he says. “What I recommend is just give us a good overview in terms of what you’re looking for, then someone will reach out and set up an appointment.”

On the cover and on page 6 are a few examples of animals that, as of press time, were available for adoption at the shelter.