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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Can actual rats save the mall?

A young girl looks at rats caged inside their enclosure at the SPCA of Anne Arundel County’s store Paws at the Mall inside the Westfield Annapolis Mall in Annapolis, Md., on April 22, 2023. Animal centers have been cropping up in shopping centers across the country, taking advantage of retail space offered at discounted rates.

By Claudia Rosenbaum

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

A week earlier, Mahmud saw a post online about a pack of rodents at the SPCA of Anne Arundel County, 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 crate to get a better look at Mahmud and her boyfriend.

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

But it wasn’t until a meet-and-greet days later when Mahmud finally decided to take them home, after Snoofles proceeded to run down her shirt.

“At that point, I was like, Well all right, I guess they’ve chosen,” Mahmud said.

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

With collaborations like the one between the SPCA and Westfield Annapolis gaining popularity, malls and animal havens are hoping to attract more pet owners and customers to these retail spaces that were already struggling before the pandemic forced temporary closures.

Morgan McLoud, the marketing director at Westfield Annapolis, came up with the idea to lease retail spaces to animal shelters at a reduced rate in January 2020, after she saw dozens of people line up to pay $25 to visit a crowded cat cafe in Washington.

Within days, she reached out to Kelly Brown, president of the SPCA of Anne Arundel County, who suggested using one of the mall’s empty storefronts as an extension of 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 some hedgehogs and hermit crabs.

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

Malls had their golden age in the 1990s. Some had architecture that re-created quaint towns with cobblestone streets. Others offered photo shoots with Santa Claus, carousel rides and even life-size dinosaur-themed exhibits. Teenagers would often spend their leisure time lounging in the food court, riding escalators and loitering in Abercrombie & Fitch stores.

But then came the rise of the internet in the early 2000s. The prevalence of online shopping and the subsequent decline in demand for physical retail space had malls struggling to reinvent the shopping experience.

Moving animal shelters into empty storefronts is just the latest effort by shopping centers to try to lure more customers in, Lange said.

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

For animal shelters, the move has been widely successful.

L.A. Love & Leashes, an organization in Los Angeles that picks animals up from the city’s six shelters every morning and displays them at its mall storefront before returning unadopted pets in the evening, has found homes for more than 3,000 pets since relocating into a shopping center in 2021, more than doubling yearly adoption rates. In Illinois, Orphans of the Storm has found homes for more than 200 cats and dogs out of their two mall locations in Vernon Hills and Northbrook since opening in 2021, tripling its annual adoption rate. And Hop on Home, one of two animal shelters in Wilton Mall, in Saratoga Springs, New York, has found homes for 354 bunnies since opening a store at the shopping center in 2022, tripling its annual adoption rate.

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

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

As for the rats Snoofles, Algernon and Ikit, they now spend their days dunking in a minipool of frozen peas, snuggling in a blue plush hammock and running around Mahmud’s one-bedroom apartment. Mahmud, though, already knows she will return to the mall sometime soon.

“Sadly,” she said, “rats only live two to three years.”

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