Can the real rats save the mall?

When Alia Mahmud visited the Westfield Annapolis Mall in February 2022, she didn’t go to buy clothes, or see a movie, or even meet her friends. She was looking for rats.

A week earlier, Ms. Mahmud saw a post online about a herd of rodents at the Anne Arundel County SPCA, whose shelter opened an outpost at the mall in September 2020. When she arrived at the new location and approached the rat enclosure, she saw Snoofles, Algernon and Ikit, 5-month-old sisters who perked up and pressed their pink noses through their box to get a better look at Mrs. Mahmud and her boyfriend.

“They ran up to us and waved at us,” said Ms. Mahmud, 32, a school therapist in Alexandria, Virginia. “They melted our hearts with how little, affectionate and outgoing they were from the very beginning.”

But it wasn’t until an encounter days later that Ms. Mahmud finally decided to take them home, where Snoofles proceeded to pull her shirt down.

“At that point, I thought, well, okay, I guess they have chosen,” Ms Mahmud said.

Snoofles, Algernon and Ikit are just a few of the thousands of pets that have been adopted from animal shelters that have sprung up in malls across the country in the past three years. A growing number of malls offer animal rescue groups empty storefronts for free or at a significant discount, sometimes as much as 90 percent. According to Shelter Animals Count, a national animal welfare database, shelters reported increased intakes 4 percent in 2022, leaving them overburdened with animals that were once hard to get during quarantine.

With collaborations like the one with the SPCA and Westfield Annapolis gaining popularity, malls and animal shelters hope to attract more pet owners and customers to these commercial spaces that were already struggling before the pandemic forced temporary closures.

Morgan McLoud, director of marketing for Westfield Annapolis, came up with the idea of ​​leasing retail space to animal shelters at a discounted rate in January 2020, after seeing dozens of people line up to pay $25 to visit a cafe for cats crowded in washington. DC

Within days, he approached Kelly Brown, president of the Anne Arundel County SPCA, who suggested using one of the mall’s empty storefronts as an extension to the organization’s main shelter. The new outpost, Paws at the Mall, opened eight months later. Since then, Paws has seen the number of adoptions rise to 608 in 2021, from 131 in 2019, finding homes for hundreds of cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters and even a few hedgehogs and hermit crabs.

Developers had been thinking of ways to reinvent the mall long before the pandemic, said Alexandra Lange, author of “Meet Me by the Fountain,” which explores the history and future of American malls.

Malls had their heyday in the 1990s. Some had architecture that recreated quaint towns with cobbled streets. Others offered photo ops with Santa Claus, carousel rides, and even life-size dinosaur exhibits. Teenagers often spent their free time lounging in the food court, riding escalators, and lounging around Abercrombie & Fitch stores.

But then came the rise of the Internet in the early 2000s. The dominance of online shopping and the subsequent decline in demand for physical retail space made it difficult for malls to reinvent the shopping experience.

Moving animal shelters to empty storefronts is just the latest effort by shopping centers to try to attract more customersLange said.

“Malls got so big and commercial and franchised so national that they forgot about that low-hanging fruit,” Lange said, referring to more community-based experiences. “So to go back to that place closer to its original community, neighborhood spirit seems like a totally reasonable idea.”

For animal shelters, the measure has been highly successful.

LA Love & Leashes, an organization in Los Angeles that picks up animals from the city’s six shelters every morning and puts them on display in the mall store before returning unadopted pets in the evening, has found homes for more than 3,000 pets since he moved to a mall. in 2021, more than double the annual adoption rates. In Illinois, Orphans of the Storm has found homes for more than 200 cats and dogs at its two malls in Vernon Hills and Northbrook since opening in 2021, tripling its annual adoption rate. And Hop on Home, one of two animal shelters at Wilton Mall in Saratoga Springs, New York, has found homes for 354 bunnies since opening a store at the mall in 2022, tripling its annual adoption rate.

“When people walk by and see kittens in a window, it automatically draws them into the store,” said Tammy Davis, executive director of the Washington County Town of Johnson Animal Shelter in Tennessee. The shelter opened an outpost in February 2021 after the Mall at Johnson City offered to lease them an annex at a slightly reduced rate, she said. “By having an off-site location, especially in a high-traffic mall area, we were able to reach people we may have never reached before.”

Jonquay Armon, 50, a customer service consultant in Round Lake, Ill., said she found the shelters “too depressing” and would never have gone to one if it hadn’t been for these new malls. Ms. Armon was running to a hair appointment at Hawthorn Mall when she saw Farley, a 10-year-old pit bull/mastiff mix at the Orphans of the Storm showcase. She brought him home a week later.

A socially active setting like a storefront also provides an opportunity for temperamental animals to better acclimate with humans, increasing their chances of being adopted. Shadea black pit bull mix, he sat in the city of Los Angeles’ LA Love & Leashes shelter for seven months before being adopted 10 days after he was put on display at the mall.

“Sometimes the big animals get overlooked because they hide in the back of the kennel, because they’re so nervous,” said Lauren Kay, volunteer coordinator for LA Love & Leashes.

With all the furry encounters, Ms McLoud, marketing director, said Westfield Annapolis Mall had seen a 10 per cent increase in foot traffic in the Paws wing since it opened, translating to more people and spending in other stores.

“The evolution of shopping centers is changing,” said Ms. McLoud. “I think everyone really realizes that. I think what makes us so unique and special is the fact that we are really adapting to this evolution.”

In addition to providing opportunities to see the animals, rescues like Hop on Home also host “Instagrammable” activities like rabbit yoga, in which these furry mammals hop around on exercise mats that they sometimes chew on.

Lange said she believed that despite the ease of online shopping, customers would still come to the mall for experiences that cannot be replicated at home.

As for newly adopted rats Snoofles, Algernon and Ikit, they now spend their days soaking in a frozen pea mini pool, curling up in a plush blue hammock and running around Ms. Mahmud’s one-bedroom apartment. However, Mrs. Mahmud already knows that she will soon return to the mall.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “rats only live for two to three years.”