The global pandemic made 2020 an exhausting year, but for many people one thing brought some much-needed relief – animals.
Shelters have reported so many foster and adoption applications that some have run out of animals for the first time ever. One New York nonprofit saw a 1,000% increase in dog foster applications in March, compared to the same time last year.
But it’s not just cats and dogs enjoying more of our attention; people have embraced more unconventional pets, formed bonds with wildlife, and developed communities around their local animals.
With many schools and workplaces moved online, prolonged lockdowns, and heightened isolation, comfort can come in the form of a kangaroo, wombat, ferret, or even a snail.
Here are a few stories of people who found joy this year in the most unexpected of creatures.
Four wombats walk into an apartment
When Melbourne, Australia’s second biggest city, went into its second lockdown in July, Emily Small found herself with four unusual roommates: baby wombats.
Small, 28, and her mother run the Goongerah Wombat Orphanage, a nonprofit that cares for injured or orphaned wombats in a town outside the city. But when the lockdown was announced, Small had no choice but to hunker down in her one-bedroom Melbourne apartment – and bring four wombats, most less than a year old, that were too young to stay at the orphanage facility.
Wombats are nocturnal marsupials native to Australia. Short-legged and stocky, they live in burrows and feed on grass and the roots of shrubs.
There’s Landon, the youngest, who loves playing with socks; Bronson, “a maniac” who loves to jump on the couch; Beatrice, who rolls over for belly rubs; and Comet, who’s so small he weighed less than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) when he arrived.
Every day, she preps their milk and puts them to bed in homemade cloth pouches. “It’s like toddlers, when they’re up and running,” she said.
But it’s welcome chaos that helped her through a year laden with difficulty and tragedy. The unprecedented 2019-2020 bushfire season devastated Victoria’s landscape, wildlife, and arrived at the orphanage facility’s front door, forcing everyone to evacuate.
The building survived – but after they returned, they began receiving a number of wombats injured and orphaned by the fires. Some were too badly burnt to be saved.
It took a heavy toll on Small. And then the pandemic hit.
“A lot of other things happened in my life – definitely the pandemic and the bushfires, but there was also a lot of other personal things,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have them. They’re my entire life – they’re the reason I get up in the morning.”
A snail named Maple
As fall rolled around, Gabrielle Munoz, a scientist in Massachusetts, noticed a new trend on her TikTok feed – snail videos. There were clips of snails munching on greens, inching up their owners’ arms, enjoying a shower in the sink – even one account that showed snails “acting” in elaborately crafted miniature sets.
Munoz, 23, hadn’t heard of keeping snails as pets before. She had considered getting a tarantula, but was vetoed by her roommates – so, they agreed on Maple the milk snail, which Munoz bought on Etsy.
Milk snails, also known as the Spanish snail, are native to Europe and parts of North Africa; they were introduced to the US, and can live up to seven years.
“Maple is very social,” Munoz said. “She really likes just being held, and as long as I spray my hands with water to be moist, she likes just hanging out and eating food off my hand.”
They also share a love of fresh veggies. Munoz is vegetarian and a gardening hobbyist, and Maple proved a good way to reduce the number of scraps going to waste (she especially loves zucchini peels). Every time Munoz changes the soil in Maple’s enclosure, she plants carrot seeds so the snail can eat the baby sprouts.
Covid-19 restrictions also mean Munoz is spending a lot more time at home – which she claims is helping Maple learn to recognize and follow the sound of her voice.
She hasn’t posted any snail videos on TikTok yet – but the app, and its snail-loving community, proved a useful guide with plenty of tips and recommendations that helped her take care of Maple.
Birdwatching in the Indian capital
New Delhi, the capital of India, is known for many things: its density, its exuberant festivals, its pollution problem.
But it’s also a thriving habitat for local and migratory birds, which have long captivated 17-year-old birding enthusiast Aman Sharma.
Before the pandemic, Sharma dreamed of going to places in Africa to birdwatch and photograph the species there – but all thoughts of travel came to an abrupt halt when India went under a nationwide lockdown in March. With residents ordered to stay at home for months, during the height of bird nesting season, Sharma was forced to improvise.
“I started waking up at 6 a.m. every single morning to birdwatch for two-and-a-half hours from my balcony before joining online school at 8:30 a.m.,” Sharma said. “It’s the favorite part of my day, because I always seem to see something new out there.”
He started sharing photos of the birds online, where “a lot of people were shocked you could see these lovely, pretty birds in Delhi, which is, as you know, one of the most polluted cities in the world,” he said.
He’s photographed majestic birds of prey like honey buzzards and shikras; brightly-colored species like parakeets and kingfishers; even various types of owls and pheasants. His current favorite is the Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, which “looks like the baby of a pigeon and a parrot.”
Neighbors who had never birdwatched before started sending him pictures of birds for him to identify. He also got phone calls from interested teachers and residents across India, asking about the basics of birdwatching.
One friend, newly intrigued, noticed a bird nesting outside his home. When he pointed it out to a gardener, he was told it came to visit every year for a few months – he had just never noticed it before.
“Nature can give you a lot of calmness – it’s soothing,” Sharma said. “As teenagers, we’re stressed all the time. You know, we’re finishing application deadlines, college deadlines, school deadlines, exams. So the only escape we get from this extremely busy life is interacting with the nature around us. It’s extremely cathartic.”
The wildlife rehabilitator
At any given time, at least a dozen animals share Pauline Pearce’s home in Mount Barker, Western Australia.
“I’m sitting in my kitchen at the moment, and I’ve just fed eight (kangaroo) joeys inside, two kookaburras, three bush rats and two possums,” she said. “Then I’ve got 17 joeys in the enclosure outside, they’re not ready for release yet. On the property, we have five mini horses, one full size horse, three donkeys, chickens, ducks, turkeys, guinea fowl, a corella, 14 pigeons, about 30 canaries and 12 doves.”
She paused, as if running through a mental checklist. “And a cat!” she added a beat later.
Pearce and her partner run a wildlife rehabilitation service out of their home, so busy is normal – but the number of animals and calls for help have surged during the pandemic, she said. With international travel on hold, more people are traveling domestically, causing more road accidents with wildlife. Others have also surrendered their pets, unable to afford their upkeep during the economic downturn.
The animals go to the Pearce residence, where the larger ones roam freely. When the kangaroo joeys aren’t resting in their cloth “hangers,” which mimic their mothers’ pouches, they like to hop around. The possums come out in the evenings, and wander through the house.
“We call all our critters, all our animals … they’re all our kids,” Pearce said. “We have to be home to feed our kids, we tell everyone. And I get up in the middle of the night to feed the kids as well, just like a mom would.”
“It certainly gave us a distraction, and it also gave members of the public who bought us injured or orphaned wildlife a chance to learn more about what we do and why,” she added. “It took away the day-to-day worry of ‘what’s next’ in the Covid world.”
No rats? Try a ferret
After Rachael Adkins’ family cat ran away in September, she went to her local pet store in the greater Seattle area, looking for a rat. She had grown up with pet rats, and thought one could make a good pet for her two young children.
But with recent fears of bubonic plague on the West Coast, the shop wasn’t carrying rats. “I started looking around, and I thought, why not get a ferret?” By the end of the day, Adkins had found a new family member: Socks.
“When she’s awake she’s 100 miles an hour,” said Adkins, of their mischevious, high-energy two-month-old ferret.
In some ways, Socks is like a cross between a kitten and a puppy, said Adkins – she licks the kids, likes cat toys, plays fetch and chase, and lies down for cuddles. On a typical evening, the family might lounge on the couch in front of the fireplace, with Socks curled up beside them and the dog on the rug.
Socks was particularly good for the kids, whose classes moved online when schools shut down. Adkins’ daughter likes to carry around Socks on top of her head, and Socks sometimes dozes off draped around the kids’ necks or shoulders. “It’s been really nice to have something for them to do except watch TV,” Adkins said.
It’s been a breath of fresh air for Adkins, too, who has had to juggle more at work during the pandemic. “I haven’t had time to relax so it’s nice to get to stop, play with her, get down on the ground to play,” she said.