Abandonment: Pets Paying the Price for Sagging Economy

Call it trickle down economics " the nation’s economic woes have trickled down to impact family members with fur or feathers. In some places, there’s a real crisis.

It all began with the home foreclosure wave. Economically strapped families, suddenly needing to move, began seeking out shelters that may take their animals. In some cases, they move out but leave the pets behind to be home alone. This phenomenon now occurs so frequently in neighborhoods where foreclosures are common, that some real estate agents actually carry cat and dog food, preparing to potentially be greeted by hungry or even starving pets.

The problem is accelerating. In Chicago, home foreclosures aren’t as alarming an issue as in other cities, yet there’s been an increasing wave of people giving up their pets at the city pound, and worse, just letting them out the door to fend for themselves.

The problem is urban and rural too. Christine Robinson, president of the Board of Directors of the Presque Isle, Maine, Aroostook Humane Society and owner of Center Hill Rescue, says it’s easy to let the pets out into the woods.

The explanation in Chicago, and in rural Maine, seems to be the same: It’s the economy, stupid. Robinson says even a $10 fee to give up a pet to her rescue is too much money for some, so they sneak in to drop off their pet(s) after hours under the cover of darkness. In Chicago, people report the economy and unemployment as the most prominent reasons for giving up their pets.

Michael Mountain, president of Best Friends Animal Society, an animal welfare organization based in Kanab, Utah, says pets are overwhelmingly considered by most pet owners as members of the family. But, then the human-animal bond only goes so far. “Hopefully, people aren’t giving up their children or putting grandma out on the street, but when times are tough " pets are, in truth, expendable,” Mountain says.

Mountain says Best Friends conducted a survey of shelters in 1992 and determined that 15 million pets were euthanized nationwide that year. The good news is that due to spay/neuter, breed rescue and the no kill movement that number is now down to 5 million annually. “I’m seriously concerned we’re now moving in the other direction again,” Mountain says.

Hopefully people will take a breath and think their choices through. For starters, consider the impact on your children. For example, Mountain says, when there’s a job layoff, “Kids are already scared " they know mom and or dad are no longer working, or they have to move to a small apartment, and understand something is wrong. Now, their best friend is given away, and experts tell me they actually do think, “Am I the next to go?”

“Pets also offer stability and unconditional love for children and also adults,” adds Jim Borgelt, president of the Chicago Animal Shelter Alliance and president of the Board of Directors at Lakeshore Animal Shelter in Chicago. “Maybe there’s a benefit of keeping a pet that off-sets the cost " if people can possibly afford it.”

There’s no way around it, there is cost associated with having a pet. Food is a fixed expense, but generic food can lower that cost. A few communities even boast pet food pantries. Veterinary care isn’t free, still paying over time and with minimal interest is a real possibility according to Dr. Sheldon Rubin, a private practitioner in Chicago. “Veterinarians are amazingly understanding, particularly when it’s a long-term client who experiences a hardship.”

Many community shelters offer low-cost veterinary care and vaccines to those who qualify. Pet stores promotions also periodically offer low-cost vaccines.

Dr. Kimberly May, assistant director of professional and public affairs at the American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, Ill., says, “Life circumstances are forcing people to make decisions they never thought they’d have to make. The best outcome for your pet and also for your family is to really think about a friend, relative or neighbor who can temporary take over care until you get back on your feet.”

She continues, “As for dogs " some may be friendly, some may not be " causing a potential problem if they’re roaming outside on their own. Your coddled family pet isn’t a wolf or a tiger and it’s not going to do well at all living outdoors. One reason people may let their pets go is because they don’t want them to be euthanized by animal control. The truth is that they’ll be picked up as strays if you just let them out, (if they survive long enough). And they’ll likely be less adoptable than if you had just delivered the pet to a shelter yourself.”

One problem is that in so many shelters " there’s simply no available space, and at many facilities potential euthanasia is a reality. Mountain implores, “Please don’t rely on institutions [shelters]. It’s not in your pet’s best interest and, as this problem continues to intensify, the reality is that fewer [shelters]will have any space. Shelters can’t be dumping grounds for unwanted animals more than they already are.”

Mountain says Best Friends offers guidance and resources to individuals who are convinced they need to relinquish their pet(s). There’s even a template on their Web site for ‘seeking a good home’ fliers which can be placed around the neighborhood.

E-mail [email protected] or call 435-644-2001.

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