November 23, 2020

No doggies in the window as S.F. Christmas tradition goes virtual at Union Square

By haziqbinarif

No puppies will climb over each other in the windows at Macy’s in San Francisco this season, and there will be no kittens rolling around.

Instead, when the SPCA’s annual Holiday Windows exhibit opens Tuesday, people pressed against the glass will see orphan pets doing what they always do — but on video monitors.

“You will still be able to get your warm and your fuzzy,” said Rise Hixson, visual captain for the landmark Macy’s store at Union Square. “We are unable to have live pets due to COVID-related safety concerns of our colleagues and our customers.”

For 19 consecutive seasons, Macy’s has offered its largest showcase windows — wrapping around the corner of Stockton and O’Farrell streets — to the SPCA free of charge. The goal is pet adoption and to encourage the animals to act lively. Macy’s creative teams in San Francisco and New York design and decorate the fashion bank windows as showcase homes.

It is the one time of the year when the windows are not about finding homes for clothes. There are no mannequins. The crew builds each of the three windows as a separate scene, full of nooks and crannies and places that look breakable, which is part of the draw. The model railroad has pleased crowds that eagerly anticipate the moment when the kittens intentionally derail the trains.

“Thousands of passersby visit our window each year and are drawn in by the cuteness,” Hixson said.

In past years, SPCA volunteers stood alongside and if anyone showed interest in a specific animal, it was brought out from behind the glass — and maybe taken straight to its new home. When volunteers weren’t fetching animals, they collected donations, as much as $100,000 in a generous year.

The donations were secondary to the 200 or 300 dogs and cats taken out of Macy’s windows and taken home at Christmas each year. This year, the group will rely more on that generosity translating to online donations and adoptions by appointment. It’s already the best year for adoptions in memory, and maybe ever.

“The number of people applying for animals has gone up exponentially,” said Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, president of the San Francisco SPCA. “Since COVID hit, so many people have decided this is a time when they want an animal in their lives.”

In a normal year, the SF SPCA adopts out about 4,000 animals. Since the March shutdown, it has received up to 3,000 applications per month. Demand has exceeded supply and the local organization is on track to adopt out 4,500 animals in 2020.

“We’ve gotten many applications for each animal,” Scarlett said, “which is great for the animals.”

One applicant was Phillis Yuan, 32, a software engineer for Yelp. After six months alone in a downtown high-rise apartment, Yuan was in want of companionship. But she couldn’t just walk into the SPCA in the Mission District and pick one up to go. Adoption is done online now, with available animals and their pictures posted each day.

“That was the first thing I checked on my phone when I got up in the morning,” Yuan said. She applied as fast as she could, but was too late four times before she got lucky with Sassy, a 9-pound Chihuaua, the one Yuan knew would fit perfectly under an airline seat.

She finally got a call on a Saturday in September. It came from a member of the SF SPCA adoption team.

“I was asked questions about my style of parenting,” Yuan said. “They wanted to know what I was looking for in a dog.”

At the end of the phone interview, she was asked when she would like to meet. Yuan said she would be there in an hour. It was the first time she had left her apartment building since March. She brought home Sassy that same day and a day later changed her name to Lulu after trying several names to see which generated the most positive response from the dog. Lulu is now readying for her first airplane ride, home to Toronto for the holidays.

“I was isolating very hardcore before I adopted Lulu,” Yuan said. “It’s a very healthy relationship. She gets me up early and gives me a reason to leave my apartment and go outside three times a day.”

Animal videos will play in the Macy’s windows through Jan. 3, assuming people won’t stand as closely or stare as long during the pandemic.

“The fewer people we have there, the easier it is for everyone to stay safe,” said Krista Maloney, communications manager for SF SPCA.

Each animal gets between 30 seconds and a few minutes of screen time to seduce a window shopper. But the animal on the screen won’t be the same one that the human receives, assuming the parent-in-waiting survives the telephone screening.

To maintain one live tradition, on surprise pop-up days the SF SPCA will bring pets to Macy’s to be adopted on the spot, an ownership transfer done the way it has been for 19 seasons.

“It’s been a really gray year for everyone,” Hixson said, “and it is nice to be able to lift that veil and put some joyfulness back into the community.”

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter:@samwhitingsf

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