Chicago, IL. Due to foreclosures and evictions people have been losing their homes in record numbers, and when people are displaced, so are their pets. However, pets have increasingly been paying an ultimate price. Feeling they have no choice, some homeowners are literally leaving their pets behind abandoned in empty homes, and some starve before they’re discovered. Other animals are let loose to roam the streets. If they’re not hit by a car first, they’re snatched up by animal control. In a municipal shelter, their chances of adoption may not in their favor.
“I’m afraid the problem will get worse before it gets better,” said Patricia Rushing of the University of Illinois Institute for Community Policing in Champaign, IL. “But it’s not only the families foreclosed on who are suffering, it’s families who can’t afford their own medicine or families now going to a food bank; how can they afford a pet’s medication or pet food?”
These concerns were addressed at a Summit organized by Rushing, “Animals, Evictions and Foreclosures,” sponsored by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and hosted by the Anti Cruelty Society of Chicago on September 17. Attendees included expert panelists from around the state and around the country.
At the onset of the Summit, Rushing explained, “The goal is to recommend public policy changes state-wide and then determine if it makes sense to make similar recommendations nation-wide.”
Brian Bernardoni, Chicago Association of Realtors Senior Director of Government and Public Policy, explained that many foreclosures are currently hung up in court because of changes in the law, and for various other reasons. “Unfortunately, the problem will get worse, you’ll see even more foreclosures in 2010,” he said.
“The ASPCA, has previously worked on disaster preparedness for pets (in hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, etc),” said Stephen Zawistowski, executive vice president and science advisor at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), New York City. “The only difference between this disaster and a hurricane is that we know when this disaster is going to happen.”
And when foreclosures and evictions do happen, they can happen to anyone, explained Cook County Commissioner Joan Patricia Murphy. “This isn’t just the lowest strata of society, though they’re definitely affected. It’s also all the middle and high management people who are being discharged, or maybe their company has gone under.”
In any case, depending on where you live in America, the number of pets being delivered to shelters is up as much as a third. That’s not to mention the increased number of dogs and cats roaming the countryside, forest preserves or city streets.
Jane McBride of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and President of Illinois Humane confirmed that since the economic downturn began, far more pets are being left behind in foreclosed properties. “What the public doesn’t generally know is that abandoning pets isn’t anything new,” she said. “Believe me, you don’t want to know how often this has always occurred. But now it’s a crisis. And it’s prosecutable because in most states abandonment of pets in empty buildings is a crime.”
Most panelists agree that public education to warn people what the law is a good idea – that leaving pets behind to starve in abandoned housing is unlawful. Still, even being aware of the law, most people don’t plan to be foreclosed upon or evicted " they haven’t thought about making a contingency for the animals. Besides, the treat of the law coming down on them may frighten them further " so instead of leaving pets in an abandoned property, they now let them outside to make out on their own. This scenario is no better for the pet, and may be a public health issue. Besides, having the resources to find offenders and prosecute is a real practical issue. And you’re greatly going after people with so few resources. Fining families already strapped to feed their children didn’t seem a helpful solution for most panelists.
So what are the answers?
“One is to make people aware of all potential resources, where there may be help available, ranging from pure bred breed rescue to a shelter in the text town over if you can’t find a shelter where you’re located” said Dr. Robyn Barbiers, president of the Anti Cruelty Society. In Chicago, a newly formed not-for-profit, realtorstotherescue.com has been set up for just that purpose, to offer a resource guide for both realtors and the general public.
Another idea is to increase the number of pet friendly condominiums and apartments. “It’s the right thing to do to keep families in tact,” said Stephanie LaFarge, psychologist and director of counseling at the ASPCA. “When the family is undergoing this terrible upheaval, keeping the family together is very important for consistency and stability.”
Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative analyst at Best Friends Animal Society, Konab UT said, “One study showed people with pets live there longer, so it’s economically beneficial to rent to pet owners, or for condominiums to allow pets.”
Bernardoni pointed out that many landlords and condo buildings are having difficulty filling vacancies, so even aside from the foreclosure issue, marketing to pet owners might be a good idea for some.
Other suggestions at the Summit included dedicating local phone lines for the public to report abandoned pets. Also, to begin a foster family program similar to the Military Pets Foster program (which helps to find foster families for deployed military personnel).
Rushing said, “We owe it to families and to the pets to do something.”