Can Literal Mall Rats Save the Mall?

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, Ms. 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 Ms. Mahmud and her boyfriend.

“They kind of ran up to us and said hi,” said Ms. Mahmud, 32, a school therapist in Alexandria, Va. “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 Ms. Mahmud finally decided to take them home, where Snoofles proceeded to run down her shirt.

“At that point, I was like, Well all right, I guess they’ve chosen,” Ms. 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 percent. According to Shelter Animals Count, an animal welfare national database, shelters reported that intakes increased 4 percent 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, D.C.

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 reimagine 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 recreated 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, Ms. Lange said.

“Malls got so big and so commercial and so nationally franchised that they kind of forgot about that low-hanging fruit,” Ms. 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, N.Y., has found homes for 354 bunnies since opening a store at the shopping center in 2022, tripling its annual adoption rate

“When people walk by and they see kittens in a window, it automatically draws them into the store,” said Tammy Davis, the executive director of the Washington County Johnson City 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. “Having an off-site location, especially in a high-traffic mall area, we were able to reach people that we may have never reached before.”

Jonquay Armon, 50, a client service adviser in Round Lake, Ill., said she found shelters “too depressing,” and would have never gone to one had it not been for these new mall outposts. Ms. Armon was rushing to a hair appointment at Hawthorn Mall when she saw Farley, a 10-year-old pit bull and mastiff mix in the storefront of Orphans of the Storm. She took him home a week later.

A socially active environment like a window display also provides an opportunity for temperamental animals to become better acclimated with humans, increasing their chances of being adopted. Shadow, a black pit bull mix, sat in the Los Angeles city shelter of L.A. Love & Leashes for seven months before being adopted 10 days after he was showcased at its mall location.

“Sometimes great animals will get overlooked because they are hiding in the back of the kennel, because they’re super nervous,” said Lauren Kay, a volunteer coordinator at L.A. Love & Leashes.

With all the furry encounters, Ms. McLoud, the marketing director, said that Westfield Annapolis Mall had experienced a 10 percent increase in foot traffic in Paws’ wing since they opened, which has translated into more people and spending in other stores.

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

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

Ms. 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 newly adopted 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 Ms. Mahmud’s one-bedroom apartment. Ms. Mahmud, though, already knows she will return to the mall sometime soon.

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