Pets and the Pandemic

An online exhibit by Kara Mergl Photography

COVID-19 changed the way the world works. As people transitioned to being at home every day, animals increasingly became more ingrained in our lives. Pets provided people with hope, laughter, and, at times, a routine and a sense of purpose. Pets and the Pandemic explores the special bonds that formed between pets and the people around them during this historically challenging time. The portraits are designed to elevate the pet from the fun-loving companion to an esteemed presence that changed our lives. Each portrait is accompanied with a narrative from the pet-owner that describes the highs and lows of the pandemic and the role their pets played. Through the portraits and narratives, the project reflects on the toughest year of the pandemic and how people found different ways to cope and find resilience and joy in their pets.

A special thank you to Creature Comfort Pet Therapy, whose many volunteers' stories are captured below.

The Animal Human Bond

Scientists are still learning about the bond between humans and animals, but it’s clear that it creates a positive impact. Animals have an anti-anxiety effect, reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, and even increase joy and positive emotions. The mere presence of or simply by looking at animals can offer overwhelming benefits. Folks who share their lives with animals already know that animals helps us live better, more fulfilling lives.

Dr. Priya Motupalli, Animal Welfare Scientist

Kara & Fred

Fred spent the first five years of his life in a cage. By the time he was placed up for adoption, he was scared of new people, open space, loud noises…really just about everything. Over the course of their first nine months together, Kara worked with Fred to help him feel safe. When he was too scared to come out from under the bed, Kara would sit on the floor and patiently coax him out with treats. By February of 2020, he had finally settled into his home.

And then the pandemic hit and Kara transitioned to working from home full-time. Within a few months, her already strained marriage ended. On days when Kara thought it might be easier to pull the covers up and stay in bed, Fred made it necessary to keep going.

By 6 a.m. every morning Fred was up, meowing, and demanding his breakfast. The daily routine gave Kara reason to get up each day. No longer hiding under the bed, Fred also became more and more adventurous as the pandemic wore on. As Kara puts it, he was "learning how to cat". He discovered that when he knocked over the plants he got attention and that warm laundry was a great place to sleep. Watching Fred's antics brought some much needed comic relief to the day. Most importantly though, on the hardest days, Fred would sit in Kara’s lap and, just as she had done for him, he’d sit with her until she felt a little less scared.

Lisa, Ken, & Oreo

When pet-parent Lisa and Ken saw something special in Oreo and decided to pursue a pet therapy certification, they were on to something. As a therapy dog, Oreo just knew how to make people feel special. His therapy vest helped him transform from your average dog into a healer. Being deaf himself never stood in his way. Oreo could always tell who needed him most during his visits to school and hospitals.

When COVID-19 hit, Oreo's therapy role changed. In-person visits became mostly virtual. Oreo joined the read-to-a-dog program, participated in bingo nights, and even did hospital visits all via ZOOM.

Oreo also became Lisa and Ken's very own therapy dog. While not technically on the job, Oreo could sense that it was Lisa and Ken who needed him. Oreo kept Lisa grounded while being at home and was integral in keeping her going. He was also a constant source of unconditional love. Every time Lisa and Ken came through the door, Oreo was there wagging his tail; even if the trip was just to the mailbox and back.

Angela & Leo

When Angela met Leo, a stray in Sicily, during a family vacation she just knew that he belonged with her in Brooklyn. It was just a matter of time before he became a local celebrity once they returned. He soon was recognized by kids, parents, local shop workers, and people at the park.

Leo was at his best as a therapy dog, though. As a teacher, Angela brought him into the classroom where he listened to kids read. It helped the kids grow their confidence and they would often send Leo notes home with Angela - "Thank you for letting me talk to you, Leo".

When the school system transitioned to remote learning in response to the pandemic, Angela incorporated Leo into her lesson planning and made videos of him that helped bring her teaching to life. Leo turned into an incentive that brought the kids back to Angela's class everyday despite what was happening around them.

Around the neighborhood, Leo also remained as popular as ever. Kids from his school would see him and get excited. People on the street and Parks Department staff greeted him by name. As everyone’s favorite local celebrity, Leo was still a source of joy even if it was from a distance.

Georgi & Manny

Working in the news was a challenge on the best of days, but working in the news while working from home during a pandemic was overwhelming and depressing for Georgi. That’s when Georgi decided to apply to foster a dog.

Having never had a pet that didn’t live outside of a tank, Georgi wasn’t sure what to expect as a foster. When she saw a photo of Manny (aka Manhattan), however, she felt like he was the right dog to take in. Having had to leave Manhattan (the island) when the pandemic hit, Manhattan (the dog) now coming to live with her in New Jersey just seemed to make sense. It didn’t take long for Georgi to realize that if she watched Manny get adopted by someone else, she would spend the rest of their lives wondering about the one who got away.

Manny instantly become a beam of light in a dark world for Georgi. Over the course of the pandemic, Georgi lost two loved ones. The travel restrictions meant that she was not able to say a proper goodbye and fully mourn their loss. In the depth of her sadness, Manny provided a cure to her pain. When things became overwhelming, Georgi would take a Manny-break, lying down with him for some deep breaths and belly rubs. Being with Manny always helped her to face whatever was in the next news cycle that day, no matter how tough things got.

Kristeen & Keena

Pet therapy was something that Keena and Kristeen bonded over. At first, Kristeen had to lead Keena to each patient and help her along. It wasn't long before Keena started to work the room herself, however, and instinctively knew what each person needed. After each visit, Keena left feeling more assured and both she and Kristeenfelt more energized. Eventually feeling more confident, Keena also tried acting and stared alongside Al Pacino, Josh Radnor, and Lena Olin in several episodes of Hunters.

When the pandemic hit, Keena transitioned to doing Zoom visits and Kristeen transitioned to working from home. Even outside of her pet therapy visits, Keena was the topic of conversation during many Zoom meetings. As things grew more dire with increasing COVID cases and it became hard to concentrate on work, Keena provided a much needed distraction to Kristeen and her coworkers. She was there to provide a break from reality and give everyone something else to talk about.

Kristeen used to say that bringing Keena home was the best decision she had ever made. The pandemic has only reinforced that for her, and now she simply says that Keena is just perfect.

Jacqueline & Adelaide

For some it’s love at first site, but for Jacqueline she knew she loved Adelaide before she ever saw her. She knew that Adelaide was a tabby cat and had just given birth to four kittens, and that was enough. Meeting her only confirmed that Adelaide was the perfect cat. She was loving, spunky, smart, incredibly loving, and had just a touch of sass.

While adopting Adelaide was an easy decision, several months later Jacqueline and her partner came to the very tough conclusion to go their separate ways. In the middle of the pandemic, as Jacqueline packed up their shared place in Jersey City and returned to Long Island with her family, Adelaide became the driving force to keep her moving and a source for healing.

Everyday Adelaide served as a reminder that life goes on and that there were things that needed to get done. On days when Jacqueline simply didn’t want to get out of bed, Adelaide was her purpose to keep going. She helped Jacqueline see that there was life after a break up and that soon there would also be life after the pandemic.

Nancy & Snuggles

Children had always been delighted when they saw Snuggles, and vice versa. Even during the pandemic, this remained true. As a scheduler for pet therapy visit, Nancy moved quickly to shift in-person visits to virtual. While the format had changed, the work continued to support children, particularly those with special needs or who were sick. Snuggles shifted too and started to help kids feel less isolated and forget their fears for a short period of time during their on-line time with him.

At home, Snuggles also helped his family. When the household grew from two to four after Nancy's children moved back home, Snuggles kept everyone laughing despite the challenges of the pandemic. Snuggles also seemed to know when someone needed to, well, snuggle with him because they were sad or stressed. Once the weather allowed for more time outdoors, this also remained true. During walks in the park, children and families stopped to pet and interact with him. At a time when people were tying to keep their distance from each other, they lined up six feet apart just to pet Snuggles.

Annmarie, Scout, Jon, & Kaia

Brother Jonny and sister Kaia were new additions to Annmarie's family in 2019. Along with Scout, they formed quite a bond and became the ultimate "wolf" pack. No one could have predicted how important the pack would become for Annmarie once the pandemic hit, though.

As one of eight siblings, Annmarie was used to being part of a pack herself. Because of the pandemic though she could no longer see her family, especially her elderly parent who lived nearby. This brought on a loneliness that Annmarie felt both mentally and physically.

When Annmarie transitioned to working from home, the huskies often sat with her throughout the day. This provided her with comfort from the loneliness she was feeling. Her daily commute from Long Island to Manhattan was replaced with 3 mile walks everyday with Scout, Jonny, and Kaia. The walks offered Annmarie a chance to clear her mind from the day and gave her and the dogs a chance to get out for fresh air. While still missing contact with her family, Annmarie realized that while her pack now looked a little different, it was nonetheless as loving and important as ever.

Nikki, Ky, & Cooper

Eleven year-old Kyan was determined to become a certified pet therapy junior handler. He had watched the effect his dog Cooper had on people and how Cooper always knew who needed him most, and Ky wanted to be part of that. Even before he was technically old enough to get certified, Ky learned the ropes.

When COVID-19 shut things down, everything changed including Cooper's pet therapy. While some dogs made the leap to virtual visits, Cooper decided virtual just wasn’t his thing and instead became the unofficial neighborhood therapy dog.

In the early days of the pandemic, Nikki and Cooper were dropping off groceries to a friend who had been struggling with the isolation. Seeing how upset she was, Cooper took action. Cooper had the same response to others as he went on walks with the family around the neighborhood and as the warmer weather allowed for some outdoor visits with friends. Soon enough, everyone was calling to come over for a visit in the yard with Cooper, just to have a break from the day-to-day stress.

Ky also looked to Cooper to help stay energized for online learning by spending his 13-minute lesson breaks with him. And without ever realizing it, Cooper was teaching Ky new lessons about how to keep things balanced and stay positive.

Lynn & Smokey

Having been a teacher and seeing the power of therapy dogs in the classroom, Lynn knew that she wanted to pursue a pet therapy certification for Smokey. Later, when Lynn created a Reading Buddies manual to expand the pet therapy reading program, Smokey became the ambassador. When Smokey showed up to meetings tp itch potential funders, the answer was always yes.

The success of Smokey's 13-year career is evidenced by the number of letters from children thanking him for not judging them, talking about how they wished their own dogs were therapy dogs, and wishing that the school year would never end so they could continue to spend time with him.

When the pandemic hit, Smokey decided it was time to hang up his therapy vest. Rather than attempt the transition to virtual visits, Smokey turned his attention to Lynn. Smokey motivated Lynn to get out and take more walks. On walks they would interact with neighbors which helped make things feel a little less isolated. Smokey's companionship was important to Lynn while they quarantined and Smokey reveled in all the attention he was getting with Lynn home more. From the time she was a little girl with her first dog, Lynn understood the deep bonds that can develop between us and our pets. She doesn't need scientific evidence to know that Smokey helped get her through the pandemic.