NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Residents of the city and surrounding towns have been adopting pets at a surprisingly high rate, the president of Scarlet Paws Animal Welfare Network said.

What concerns Mary Ann Cancio is what will happen to those hundreds of pets adopted here and across Middlesex County when COVID-19 social distancing restrictions are removed and people can resume going to the movies, cruising the mall and dining inside their favorite restaurants.

“Hopefully, because shelters and rescues alike always say, if for some reason you can no longer keep this pet, contact us and we'll take it back,” she said. “So hopefully they will do that. But unfortunately, sometimes they don't. We would rather be contacted. We would rather the person say, ‘It didn't work out. I can't hold on to it,’ than just abandon it.”

Sign Up for Franklin Township Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Cancio has been the heart and soul of Scarlet Paws for the better part of 20 years. The name is a nod to Rutgers’ school nickname, the Scarlet Knights. Cancio works there in the academic support field, but the organization has no formal ties with the university other than the fact that many of the volunteers are professors, students or alumni.

The nonprofit organization does not have a physical home, but nonetheless works to promote the humane treatment of domestic animals and wildlife found living on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick as a result of abandonment, having become lost or by birth and - in the case of wildlife - having become sick, injured or displaced from their natural habitat.

Scarlet Paws works with an intricate network of partners, everything from the New Brunswick Animal Control Department to area PetSmart locations to local veterinarians to animal shelters.

A lot of adoptions happen via websites and Facebook pages that match animal lovers with cats and dogs. Plus, after 20 years, Cancio happens to know a lot of people who know a lot of people. She can often find someone by making a few calls.

“So, I get calls and emails every day,” she said. “I had one cats I recently posted (on an adoption website) and he really is a very handsome cat, a young cat and he was a mix of Siamese and I guess tabby that people just keep contacting me about him.”

Although COVID-19 prompted more resident here and nationwide to adopt pets – USA Today reported that a survey of 1,200 animal welfare organizations showed that the number of animals in foster care in May was 43% higher than the same time in 2019 – it has had devastating effects on Scarlet Paws.

For one, many Rutgers students had to stop volunteering when the university ordered its doors shut and commenced online instruction. The volunteers at Scarlet Paw fulfill any number of roles, from updating the website and Facebook page to trapping to fostering the cats and dogs until a permanent home can be found. Other volunteers transport them to veterinarians offices.

Even worse, the pandemic affected Scarlet Paws’ ability to fundraise.

Cancio said the 501C3 organization counts on being able to fundraise at a handful of events, such as the Garden State Cat Expo & Show held each July over two days at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center in Edison. Because of the pandemic, those events have been canceled.

Although Scarlet Paws does get donations of food from shelters and receives a discount on veterinarian services, the pandemic has forced the volunteers themselves – Cancio included – to reach into their own pockets to help the animals.

She said that even if people make a small donation each month, it adds up.

“But even if they donate five bucks a month,” Cancio said, “that’s $60 a year. That helps pay veterinarian bills.”