Creature Comfort: Post-Election, New Yorkers Turn to Pet Adoption to Cope
Illustration by Marina Esmeraldo
The day after the election, Andie Markoe-Byrne got a call from the East Village's Social Tees Animal Rescue about a dog named Ethan. The single mom and her six-year-old daughter, Riley, had applied to adopt him months earlier, but after the alarming conclusion to eighteen months of campaign stress, Markoe-Byrne was even happier to bring Ethan home to Park Slope. She took him to work a few days later and discovered it wasn't just her who welcomed some furry relief. "Every sad face smiled when they saw his sweet face," she told the Voice of her subway ride to the office. "[He] cheered everyone up so much. He really was an election therapy dog."
Nationwide, more than 50 percent of adults felt stressed by the election, regardless of party affiliation, according to the American Psychological Association, and numerous animal rescues and shelters in the city tell the Voice they saw an uptick in pet adoptions during the campaign: Social media in the days after the election was replete with posts announcing furry additions to human families; actor and activist Mark Ruffalo even joined in, introducing the tuxedo kitten he adopted from a shelter on the Upper East Side.
"We've had a big increase over last year, specifically, between September and November," says Katy Hansen, communications manager for Animal Care Centers of NYC, a nonprofit organization that runs several New York City shelters. "We've adopted out nearly 150 more dogs and cats than this time last year."
Unsurprisingly, the interest has continued in the election's aftermath. "We've received a lot of applications in the last two weeks — there's definitely been a spike in the number of people wanting to foster pets," says Samantha Brody, co-director of Social Tees. Although her group's application doesn't ask why people plan to adopt, there have been some clues. "People were commenting on pictures saying, 'Now I need a puppy more than ever' in response to the election."
Research has shown that interacting with a pet increases oxytocin and prolactin, the "cuddle chemicals" that are associated with a feel-good sense of security, and the production of serotonin and norepinephrine, connected to boosting mood. That's why many psychiatric professionals include animal adoption in their patients' treatment plans. Dr. Drew Ramsey, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, says adopting a pet "is a great intervention" for enduring psychological strain: "Pets are really good for our mental health. They provide a lot of structure, they're protective, and when people are really depressed, they'll still get out of bed to walk their dog. If someone is really isolated and lonely, or feeling anxious and depressed, I will suggest they adopt a pet."
Ramsey doesn't just prescribe animal companions — he incorporates one into his own practice. During evaluations and sessions, he sometimes brings his shih tzu, Gus, into the office to help patients feel at ease. "I'm so appreciative of Gus," Ramsey says. "He's just a great dog to interact with, and he's a valuable co-therapist. He's very, very effective [and] treats each patient differently."
Dogs like Gus, who are trained specifically to heal humans, are also in high demand post-election. New York Therapy Animals, a nonprofit that serves people with emotional and physical disabilities at homeless shelters, nursing homes, and schools, has been sending out even more teams than usual. "My phone has been ringing constantly," says NYTA's director, Nancy George-Michalson. "Our program is accelerating at rapid speed because people are not only affected by the election, but [also] want to help and give their time and support."
Brody, from Social Tees Rescue, thinks this philanthropic drive is another reason for the increase in adoption applications. "It's twofold: You're doing something that is therapeutic for yourself, but you're also giving back in a way that is very tangible, in a different way than signing a petition or making a donation. You have this life in your hands that you just helped save, so you can feel the power of doing good when you're taking care of an animal."
But New Yorkers should remember that bringing home a new pet is a long-term commitment. George-Michalson cautions against making a decision under emotional duress. "Adopting a pet is really serious," she says. "You have to have the right mentality, the time, the space, the money. To adopt a pet just because the election has given you angst, that's nice — but it has to be conducive to your lifestyle."
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