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The Soaring Rate of Abandoned Animals Is the Latest Sign of a Deep Economic Crisis

Abandoned animals and "foreclosure pets" are the innocent victims of our financial downward spiral.
 
 
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Beginning last year and well into 2009, a disturbing media trend emerged, as local news outlets across the country began reporting different versions of the same sad tale: Dogs, cats and other animals were being found abandoned inside and outside of shuttered homes, the "silent victims," apparently, of the foreclosure crisis.

There were the three dogs found dead in Arkansas that had been locked inside pet carriers without food or water; the "emaciated" German shepherd left chained to a tree in the backyard of an abandoned home in Arizona (he was later euthanized); the starving pit bullin Stockton, Calif., discovered in the wreckage of a ruined house, whose owners had "trashed their home before a bank foreclosed on it." (One Animal Protective League officer in Cleveland calls this "part of the revenge process: They leave these animals to defecate in the house to destroy the furniture and to urinate on everything to make it difficult for the mortgage company to clean up.")

As more and more Americans have lost their homes to the wave of foreclosures that has swept the nation, a shocking portion of them, whether due to an inability or an unwillingess to find homes for their animals after being rendered homeless themselves, have simply left their pets behind.

"This has really become an epidemic," Allie Phillips, director of Public Policy at the American Humane Association told theDetroit News earlier this month. According to her estimates, with some 8,000 houses going into foreclosure every day, from 15,000 to 26,000 more animals are in danger of losing their homes daily.

Not all pets have been left to fend for themselves, of course. After all, most states consider it a crime abandon animals (although such anti-cruelty laws are not strictly enforced). But an untold number have been given up because the owners had no other choice.

The Detroit News tells the story of a woman who came in with her son to give up a 9-year-old purebred Yorkshire terrier after losing their home. "They were just bawling, but they had no place to live," said Kayla Allen, director of the Michigan Animal Rescue League in Pontiac.

And the New Haven Register recently told of a Connecticut woman who was forced to move in with her parents after losing her home, and in the process had to give up her two cats (sisters) as well.

"She had gotten them from a shelter when they were really, really tiny," said Mary Mellows, who runs a local cat rescue and picked up the cats in a gas station parking lot. "This woman had bottle fed them, and she had had them for 11 years, and she and her husband were being foreclosed on. She was devastated." The obviously well-cared-for cats "came equipped with everything -- cat trees and litter boxes and photo albums. They were definitely a part of the family."

In the news and on animal-rescue listservs, stories like this one are ubiquitous. They are also not going away. This past February, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimated that the number of cats and dogs at risk of becoming homeless due to the economic crisis stands between 500,000 and 1 million.

'When times are hard for people, they're hard for their pets'

"What we've always known is that when times are hard for people, they're hard for their pets," Stephen Zawistowski, vice president at the ASPCA told the Associated Press last January. But with the unprecedented foreclosure crisis now compounded by a broader economic catastrophe, the landscape is looking particularly bleak. "According to national financial estimates, approximately 1 in 171 homes in the United States is in danger of foreclosure due to the subprime mortgage crisis," Zawistowski said in a statement released by the ASPCA in February. "And considering that approximately 63 percent of U.S. households have at least one pet-plus, hundreds of thousands of pets are in danger of being abandoned or relinquished to animal shelters across the country."

For many such animals, the difference may boil down to a slow death versus a quick one. "Owner surrenders don't have a chance," dog rescue worker Jacki Lugg tells me over the phone, referring to pets who are given up by their owner (and thus not being searched for). "If an owner turns (a pet) in to a shelter, they are often put down immediately."

Lugg is the South Jersey co-founder of a dog rescue agency that specializes in rat terriers. One of countless animal rescue workers with anecdotes that point to a rise in pet surrenders in recent months -- "I just see an influx of e-mails from all different breed groups and the word URGENT comes across a lot more frequently than it used to" -- the sad phenomenon has hit close to home. Literally.

"The house down the street from me was foreclosed, and they left their dogs in there," she said. "I actually went into the house, and there were claw marks on the doors, the floors were stained with feces and urine. It's heartbreaking to think of the dogs in panic. It's awful."

As "one cog in the wheel in a whole national network" of rescue agencies, Lugg says she has heard a lot of workers discuss the rise in animals victimized by the economic crisis. "Normally, what we do is take dogs from shelters," she said. "But what we're seeing lately is owners coming directly to us because they can't keep their dogs." The No. 1 reason for this increase in owner surrenders: "The owners couldn't afford them anymore."

Lugg says that many have cited foreclosures as the reason for giving up their pets, but that it's impossible to know for sure. "People are writing to us saying that they're losing their homes, and they don't even know where they are going to go," she said. But then, "people falsify things. You don't know if they're just invoking the word 'foreclosure.' "

Indeed, some shelter workers believe that "foreclosure pets" are being used as "a politically correct way of surrendering animals without judgment."

According to one spokesman for a San Diego animal shelter that conducted a poll of other shelters in other parts of the country, "When the shelters actually looked at their numbers, they found there weren't any more pets being surrendered than there had been one year ago. The excuses for surrender now being used most often were the economy and home foreclosure," he told the Denver Post.

To be sure, animals have been abandoned long before the current housing crisis. But whatever the reason, there's no imagining the alarming increase being reported since last year.

"We used to be able to (link pet surrenders) to a season," Lugg said. "There's a Christmas dumping season and then there's the almost-summer-vacation season … During those two distinct times, we used to see a spike." But five months after the holidays, it hasn't slowed down. "It's a big mountain now," she said.

More animals, fewer adoptions?

Sean Casey Animal Rescue sits on a short block in the mostly residential Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood of Windsor Terrace. On New York's first hot Saturday of the year, shortly after opening hours, a crowd of volunteers, kids and couples ready to adopt milled around the front entrance.

Home to dogs, cats, birds and a variety of reptiles, Sean Casey occupies two compact storefronts and an adjacent lot, where on this particular day, a pair of pit bulls shared space with three tortoises. According to one employee named Freddy, whose daughter volunteers at the shelter, they have seen a lot more animals come in recent months. He repeats what others have said: people can't afford to take care of them. "Lots of people are moving out of their homes, moving into apartments that don't allow pets," he told me as he washed out cages.

Viviane Arzoumanian, a trainer who volunteers at the shelter concurs. "Certainly in the rescue community there's a lot of discussion and concern about the number of animals (being surrendered)," she says. "Some of it is because people lost their homes." But general economic hardship, combined with costly pet care is also taking its toll. "The kinds of things that we're seeing is people who are giving up their pets because they need expensive veterinary care," she says. Of course, "having a dog is expensive even if there aren't health issues."

According to a survey by the American Pet Products Association, the average annual cost of owning a dog is roughly $1,400, while the average cost of a cat is about $1,000. In an article published in December, the Associated Press told the story of one New York woman who decided to euthanize her 15-year-old cat after discovering, days after losing her her job, that he would need "thousands of dollars in treatment and medications costing $65 a month to live." ("It was horrible," she said. "It killed us.")

In an economic downturn, says Arzoumanian, "people make a decison to stop spending certain kinds of money because they can't." In New York,
no stranger to rising unemployment or the foreclosure crisis, already-crowded city shelters are overburdened.

"The shelter just last week took in a dog through Animal Care and Control who had been locked into an apartment with her puppies,"Arzoumanian says. "She was basically starving -- she came in practically a skeleton -- so skinny it's hard to tell what kind of dog she was." As for the puppies, "they certainly acted as if they had been starving. When we fed them they were like little piranhas."

As is the case with any local rescue agencies with limited space, there are only so many animals Sean Casey can hold at once. Fortunately, adoptions seem to be holding steady for the moment. (That morning, a 3-month-old pit bull mix named Rose was taken home.)

"The odd thing seems to be that while there may be more animals coming through, so far it doesn't seem as if adoptions have dropped off," Arzoumanian said. "I don't know what's happening at the city shelter level, but so far, I don't think that adoptions have dropped off. But with more animals coming through, there are going to be more animals euthanized."

In fact, according to Betsy Saul, co-founder of Petfinder.com, which recently conducted a survey seeking information from its network of shelters and rescue groups, "approximately 37 percent of shelters and rescue groups have seen a decrease in pet adoptions over the past year."

According to Saul, who recently summarized the survey's findings on theHuffington Post, 84 percent of Petfinder.com animal shelters and rescue groups are receiving more pets in need due to the overall economic foreclosures and/or job losses.

"And sadly," she reported, "74 percent said that they have seen an increase in pets being given away or abandoned since this time last year due to these economic trials."

Roughly half of the shelters and rescue groups cited general financial difficulty as the No. 1 reason for people surrendering their pets. Sixteen percent cited foreclosures as the primary reason.

With pet surrenders and abandonment reaching emergency proportions, some organizations are taking action. Last June, the Houston-based organization No Paws Left Behind -- whose home page currently urges visitors facing foreclosure to create a "paw alert" by clicking on shelter and pet foster home icons --  started a grant program to assist local animal shelters.

And the Humane Society of the United States started a grant program last April to provide funds for nonprofit shelters and rescue groups following "reports about increases in animals being abandoned -- and particularly being given up in the face of a growing number of foreclosures." Last year, the Humane Society gave away some $80,000 in grants.

In the meantime, animal rescue workers are urging people not to leave pets behind, regardless of the circumstance.

"If you have to relinquish your pet, and you're not able to rehome them yourselves, never abandon the pet," a spokesperson for the Michigan Humane Society Never told the Associated Press. "Never leave them behind outdoorsor in a closed home. It's never the right choice."