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As lockdown lifts, pandemic pet-lovers prove to be fair-weather friends

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Kursten Hedgis walks her dog Bitsy in front of her home Dec. 9, 2020, in Decatur, Ga.
Kursten Hedgis walks her dog Bitsy in front of her home Dec. 9, 2020, in Decatur, Ga.   -   Copyright  Ron Harris/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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This Jack Russell Terrier, named Patch, is stepping out for some exercise and attention with a handler from the world-famous Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

The four-year-old pup arrived at the London animal rescue centre earlier this month, after being found as a stray. He - and many others like him - are now hot property thanks to a surge in demand for rehoming pets during Britain's successive lockdowns.

In just one week last March, Battersea - which has three centres across London, Berkshire and Kent - rehomed 155 dogs and cats, the best single-week result in more than a decade. The home has received thousands of applications every week since then.

Chief executive Peter Laurie says the charity found a new home for almost every animal in its care that, as the pandemic ripped through the country and people from all walks of life sought company at home.

"When the pandemic started back in March last year, we saw extraordinary rehoming demand, we had queues of people desperate to adopt a dog or a cat," he says. "And we able to be rehome almost every animal in our care in the space of a couple of weeks, which was great."

But now all of that is beginning to change. Laurie says that Battersea is now starting to see so-called "pandemic pets" being given up again, as England lifts its latest COVID-19 lockdown.

"As people gradually return to offices," Laurie says, "they start thinking about taking holidays as well. I think, very sadly, we're going to see people returning their dogs and cats.

"A lot of people bought puppies very early on in the pandemic. Those puppies will have grown into adult dogs now. And some of those behaviours may be becoming a little bit more challenging now. People may be thinking now that it's getting too difficult. So sadly, I think we're going to see an upturn in relinquishment."

Earlier this month, the authorities in England allowed shops, gyms, hairdressers, restaurant patios and beer gardens to reopen after months of lockdown.

Indoor drinking and dining won't be allowed in England until May 17 at the earliest. Theatres, cinemas, nightclubs and most other venues remain closed, while indoor socialising is tightly restricted and foreign holidays remain banned.

A tail as old as time

The number of unwanted dogs and cats coming to Battersea has doubled in the last couple of months. Such an uptick is not unheard of; Battersea saw a significant increase in stray dogs across the UK during the last recession.

Cattery rehoming team leader Kate Collins recalls: "People have had to move home, and couldn't take their animal with them. Quite a few people have come to us and said that they can no longer keep their animals because of financial aspects, [such as] redundancies and job losses. It's been really unfortunate that they've had to give up their pet to us.

"But on the flip side, we do take in any animal that comes to us, dog or cat. And we do our best to make sure we can rehome them to a really lovely home."

Like all organisations, Battersea has had to adapt its working practices amid the pandemic. After the outbreak of coronavirus it closed its doors to visitors for the first time in its 160-year history and began delivering dogs and cats to people's homes instead. Meanwhile, its traditional physical introductions between would-be owner and pet were replaced with video calls.

"This past year we've obviously changed and adapted to a totally different way of rehoming," says Collins. "Before, we'd have customers coming up, meeting cats. Unfortunately, in lockdown we couldn't have that. So, what we've done is have a lot more of a remote rehoming in process."