An uptick in animal companionship during the Sydney COVID-19 lockdowns has been hailed as a saving grace for Sydneysiders seeking purpose and routine in the absence of conventional work and recreation regimes.
Cat Protection Society of NSW CEO Kristina Vesk has witnessed the joy that pet adoption has brought people forced to stay at home.
“There are physical benefits, and particularly for dog owners in terms of getting out and exercising. But even cat owners, they find that there are physical benefits that come through reduced blood pressure,” Ms Vesk told the Independent.
Welcoming new blood
A shortage of resources prompted a callout to residents to foster animals whilst Sydney was forced to stay inside last year. While it kept many households occupied over an otherwise mundane period, it relieved the animal of the stresses that living in a shelter brings, and also allowed it to live in a safe and happy environment.
Theresa O’Leary was a Sydneysider who found room for one more in her Campsie home.
“We had a cat come to us as a foster because she just had eye surgery … she came to us in March, April last year, and she stayed with us through that lockdown, for six months,” O’Leary told the Independent.
Ms O’Leary’s household quickly fell in love with their new companion. Once the sentiment was reciprocated, it was decided to adopt their newest feline into the family.
“She gets on really well with our other cat, and she’s provided a new lease on life to all of us,” O’Leary said.
“She makes us laugh, she cuddles us, she’s a friend and companion to us and our other cats. There’s something really lovely about looking after another being, knowing we have to look after her and making her life better, that was a great thing for us to really help us stay positive.
“I think a lot of people find that when they’re at home with an animal, they become very close to them and they get to know them very well, and your life would just be incomplete without them.”
While Ms O’Leary has welcomed the distraction that a kitten provides their household, the State and Federal Government is grappling with the deteriorating mental health of the country as it struggles to contain the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19.
Earlier this month, Australian Minister for Health and Aged Care Greg Hunt announced a funding package totalling $10.6 million to establish 10 pop-up mental health clinics across Greater Sydney. Within the rolling lockdowns, Ms Vesk has found relief through the natural world.
“I love the magpies who live in my street,” Vesk said. “They’re not my pets, but any kind of connection to the natural world is quite significantly beneficial to us.
“Animals can bring extra joy. For a lot of people, particularly people who are socially isolated, the importance of the person being a carer brings a sense of self and meaning; it can also mean the difference between getting up in the morning … or not.”
Looking to nature
What followed a surge in companionship was a period of caution for owners and organisations alike, who feared that pets will be discarded once life returns to normal. The absence of training programs, like puppy preschool or specialisation programs, also spiked reports of disobedient animals, forcing many premature returns to shelters.
Georgia Baugh, another adopter during the lockdown, used the extended time to settle her newest inhabitant before returning to work.
“If you were to get a new pet when you’re still working, it’s harder to spend that time with them to keep them comfortable at the start – that’s the most crucial time as well,” Ms Baugh told the Independent.
“When eventually everything goes back to normal, they’re already settled … so it’s easy to get back into the workforce because they are already comfortable living with you because you’ve been there for so long with them.”
While Ms Baugh has optimised her time at home, Ms Vesk warns prospective owners of the responsibility that a new pet creates.
“Keeping a pet is an expense,” Ms Vesk said. “I think people really need to factor in if they can afford this in the long term.
“A lot of people are going to have very busy lives.”
Despite the chaotic nature of a lockdown, Ms Vesk implored owners to find a structure with their pets.
“I think a routine is incredibly important – and we may forget that because we might forget it for ourselves,” Ms Vesk said.
“It means regular mealtimes, regular walk times, regular playtime.
“Do your best to keep your pet healthy and maintain the things that you can like grooming and a good diet, fresh water, exercise [and] parasite treatment.”
With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise in all pockets of the city, a look towards the natural world may be what is needed for all Sydneysiders.
“We’re living in a really dense urban environment, and pets are like our connection to the natural world – they’re like the bridge between us as just humans,” Ms Vesk said.
“Without any experience of non-human animals, we’re missing out on a lot … we’re missing out on a lot of skills around empathy and understanding – and just the notion that we are part of one system, not just us.”