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During the COVID lockdown, Germans acquired hundreds of thousands of pets, but now many don't want them anymore.
"I hope for love at first sight. I don't just want a one-night stand, I am intelligent, faithful and loyal. I love car rides, and lived in Greece for a while," reads Paris' profile on Tinder. If that weren't enough to seal the deal, his last line might do the trick: "Let me be your protector!"
There's just one small catch: Paris is a dog. He lives in an animal shelter in Munich.
"A marketing agency from Munich came up with the idea. We then selected and created seven profiles for cats and seven for dogs," says Kristina Berchtold from the Munich Animal Welfare Association. "The algorithm recognized they were animals and blocked them at first. But Tinder unblocked the accounts after we talked to them, and even gave us advertising."
Dogs Harcos and Joshi and the cat Saskia are not looking for a quick adventure on the dating platform, but a long-term, stable relationship. Whoever matches with them can meet them and their four-legged friends in real life at the Munich animal shelter. There are 1,085 animals currently living there, including hedgehogs, waterfowl and even foxes, but most of the animals are cats and rabbits. What many of them have in common is that they have had little luck in a previous relationship that began during the coronavirus lockdown.
Bella is one example. The short-haired cat was born in 2020 and abandoned in a cardboard box with her kitten. The kitten was terminally ill and had to be euthanized immediately. Inside the box was a letter that read: "I can't afford the vet bills anymore."
"We also want to use the campaign to draw attention to abandoned animals. And to the difficult, sick, and older animals that have increasingly ended up in animal shelters since the beginning of the pandemic," says Berchtold.
If Mico could create his own profile on Tinder, it would probably say "Pekinese, 8 years old, a clown with a big ego who likes to make everyone laugh." The small dog at the Bonn animal shelter also has a typical pandemic tale. He was ordered by the click of a mouse on eBay classifieds, but quickly became too much for the owner. A few weeks later, Mico was handed in to a shelter.
In Germany from 2019 to 2020, the number of cats grew by a million and the number of dogs by 600,000. Animal welfare activists urgently warned against impulse pet purchases during the pandemic, but their calls were in vain. In the city of Moers in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a 65-year-old woman threw her dog over an animal shelter's 2-meter (6.6-foot) high fence. The reason she gave? She could not cope with looking after the animal.
The head of the Albert Schweitzer animal shelter in Bonn, Julia Zerwas, has become very familiar with the complaints of overwhelmed pet owners. Before the pandemic, she would get one such call per week. Now, she gets five. "They say things like 'I have a dog, he growled at my child the other day.' Or: 'He bit a neighbor. Now he has to go as quickly as possible," she says. "Owners' willingness to persevere is low. As soon as there are problems, very few give the animal a second chance."
It's a vicious circle: The animals need attention and training, but dog trainers are booked up for months. Zerwas says the problem isn't so much that people are back at work and can no longer reconcile their lives and pet ownership, but that many of the animals bought during the pandemic are now just under a year old and are going through puberty and are more difficult to manage as a result. "Here we get almost exclusively under-stimulated, behaviorally problematic dogs that have already bitten once," she says.
Last week, Zerwas took in four kittens that had been abandoned. She also receives more and more dogs that have run away because they aren't used to city life. The shelter also functions as a reception and quarantine station for animals from abroad that have not been fully vaccinated, many of them just 10 weeks old.
It seems like Germans are in Tinder mode when it comes to choosing their pets: They are looking for the perfect partner, without flaws or weaknesses, who promises an easy relationship. "If the dog can go in the car and stay alone, if he gets along well with children and plays with other dogs, wonderful. But as soon as there is an issue, placement becomes difficult," Zerwas says.
If Tinder is the platform that can save some animals, eBay classifieds is still a path to suffering, illness and even death for hundreds of others. The illegal puppy trade has boomed during the pandemic. In the first half of 2021, 1,307 animals were affected, more than in all of last year, according to the German Animal Welfare Association. Because of the high number of unreported cases, that is only the tip of the iceberg.
"The platform opens the door to illegal trade. This trade must finally be restricted and regulated by law if a ban cannot be enforced. The penalties for the illegal traders and checks and clarification of the cases must be tougher," says Hester Pommerening of the German Animal Welfare Association. "Policy hasn't changed and the situation is becoming more and more dramatic."
The last German government had wanted to present itself as the savior of abused pets, and the topic of puppy trafficking was explicitly mentioned in 2018 in the coalition agreement. "However, our demands have more or less fallen flat and been dragged out, and with [Consumer Protection] Minister Julia Klöckner, we have fallen on deaf ears."
Animal welfare organizations are now pinning their hopes on the new government and a new minister, possibly from the Green Party, who could do more for animal welfare and push to limit the illegal animal trade at the EU level. By requiring mandatory Europe-wide identification and registration of dogs and cats, it would become much more difficult to illegally trade in them.
"What we are currently seeing is the outright consumption of living creatures," says Pommerening. "People are getting animals as commodities or toys, and if they don't work out, they just want to exchange them."
This article has been translated from German.
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