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2020 was still a year full of meows and barks at Willmar's Hawk Creek Animal Shelter

The Hawk Creek Animal Shelter had a strange year last year as the coronavirus pandemic caused the shelter to close its doors to the public at the same time homebound workers were looking to open their homes to a new furry friend.

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Casey Rajewsky, director of operations, plays with one of the cats up for adoption Tuesday, June 8, 2021, at Hawk Creek Animal Shelter in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — The staff at the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter in Willmar worked quickly in March 2020 to find either foster families or permanent homes for most of the animals in the shelter's care prior to the first statewide lockdown due to the developing coronavirus pandemic . In the end, the shelter was closed only for two weeks. It was important to continue offering shelter for animals in need and help find their 'furever' homes.

"I was genuinely surprised how well the year went," said Casey Rajewsky, director of operations for the shelter run by the Humane Society of Kandiyohi and Meeker Counties .

During those two weeks the shelter was closed, Rajewsky and her team used it to get some long-needed shelter improvement projects done.

"We painted and redid the floors," Rajewsky said.

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After the short lockdown, the shelter reopened with some changes. Walk-ins were no longer allowed, as the front doors remained locked. Families could set up appointments to come visit the animals. There was extra disinfection cleaning through the facility, and of course, masks were required. That ended up being the hardest part throughout the pandemic, and not for the normal human reasons.

"It was the dogs," Rajewsky said. Meeting new people when the dogs could only see half of the visitors' faces could be distressing. When that became the case during a meet and greet, the visitors were allowed to take their masks off, but had to stay six feet apart.

The shelter finally opened completely on June 1. While the masks are gone and people can now come into the shelter without calling first, one pandemic change will remain — appointments for dog adoptions.

"The adoption appointments were really nice," as they allowed staff to give each family one-on-one attention when meeting a dog, Rajewsky said. People can still walk in to see the dogs, but if there is one particular canine the person is interested in adopting, an appointment will be needed.

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Last year there were plenty of families looking for a new furry member, especially those who found themselves spending more time at home. Rajewsky said most understood adopting a pet was for the long term and the shelter also made sure to press the point.
"This isn't a two-month commitment," Rajewsky said.

The message seems to have gotten across. There were 1,410 adoptions last year and the number of animal returns has been less than Rajewsky expected. The returns have mostly been cats. Rajewsky believes that is because families who adopted cats from PetSmart, which partners with the shelter for cat adoptions, were not really able to meet the animal properly before taking it home during the pandemic.

One of the main disappointments for the shelter last year was the reduction in the number of spay-and-neuter clinics it was allowed to do. The shelter usually provides clinics for barn and stray cats, to help decrease the numbers of kittens that come each year. The clinics had to be shut down for a few months, as such surgery was considered elective and prohibited during the early months of the state lockdown.

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While the shelter was eventually able to catch up with the waiting list, many other cats probably slipped through the cracks last year. The consequences of that are becoming known.

"We have seen an increase in litters this year," Rajewsky said.

This year Rajewsky is excited to open spay-and-neuter clinics to members of the public who meet the income eligibility requirements. In addition to fixing the animal, the shelter's vet staff will give vaccinations and microchip the animal.

"We are very excited to be able to do this," Rajewsky said.

To help care for all of the animals it helps, the shelter relies on donations from the public, in addition to the funding it gets from the counties it serves. Thankfully the shelter's main fundraiser, Save Our Tails, was still able to take place in 2020. The shelter raised about $26,000.

"We got very, very lucky," Rajewsky said.

This year's event was held remotely. The shelter was still able to raise $25,000.

Another special fundraising event was Jordan's Way coming for a visit. An animal welfare organization that helps publicize shelters across the nation to find homes for animals, Jordan's Way helped raise nearly $13,000 for Hawk Creek.

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"It was a blast," Rajewsky said. Another event is being planned for next year.

The donations raised will be used to update the fencing for the outdoor space used by the dogs and to purchase a new van that will be used to transport animals.

"We need to do some updates," Rajewsky said.

Through the last 15 months, the staff members have been instrumental in making sure the shelter has still been able to fulfill its mission in challenging times. Many have been with Hawk Creek for several years.

"This place wouldn't survive without them," Rajewsky said.

The shelter also relies on the community. None of the work the shelter does would be possible without the public, from those who open their homes to needy animals to the ones who donate funds, time or other needed items.

"We are very fortunate so many in the community care about the animals," Rajewsky said.

With the pandemic situation improving, Rajewsky said everyone at the shelter is looking forward to a more normal summer, including bringing back volunteers to the shelter and showing off the animals.

"We are looking forward to parades," Rajewsky said. "I'm exited to get the community back involved."

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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