Saturday, April 25, 2009

Giving up pets: Animals' fortunes fall in tough economy


From the Chicago Tribune:

More owners blame finances for giving up animals to shelters

By Sara Olkon | Tribune reporter
April 21, 2009

Looking for a home

Bruiser, whose owner put the boxer in foster care at PAWS Chicago, waits to be placed with a temporary family. (Tribune photo by Charles Cherney / April 14, 2009)

When people showed up to give away their dogs and cats at a local shelter last year, the main reasons they cited were "no time" and accidental pet pregnancies. This year, the No. 1 reason is a lot simpler: no money.

As the recession takes hold, Chicago animal control workers are taking in about 11 percent more pets than they did a year ago. And shelters are caring for more high-priced pets, including purebred and "designer" dogs, as people who are unaccustomed to economic distress start feeling the pinch.

Animal care workers are seeing more neglected pets, as well as animals who have had ID chips implanted, indicating that someone loved and cared for them before the financial downturn made ownership untenable.
"People are making very hard choices," said Rochelle Michalek, executive director of PAWS Chicago, a no-kill shelter. "Do I put food on the table? Do I feed my kids? It's heartbreaking."


Jeff Lapp, 47, is among those making difficult choices.

The Braidwood man was laid off from his job as a personnel investigator last June. By March, Lapp and his wife had lost their home. With four dogs to care for, they decided their two youngest and healthiest dogs would have the easiest time getting adopted. Lapp called Midwest Dachshund Rescue, which found a new home for 2-year-old Sammie. They brought Thor, a 6-year-old Norwegian elkhound, to PAWS, where he was snapped up within two days.

"You feel like you let them down," Lapp said of letting the two go.
For now, the motel where they are staying is letting them keep Rex, a purebred golden retriever who is 11 and has epilepsy, and Art, an elkhound-coyote mix who the couple found orphaned and rolling in mud a decade ago in Aurora.

At Chicago Animal Care and Control, staff took in 11.5 percent more animals that were lost, abandoned or surrendered in the quarter ending March 31 as compared with a year ago. Charles Craft, director of programs and services, said 5,201 animals were taken in during that period, versus 4,666 from the same period in 2008.

Some pet owners bring in animals in need of expensive veterinary care. In one case, a pet owner turned in a 7-year-old toy poodle that had multiple mammary tumors, staff later learned. The dog received surgery and was adopted, Craft said.

In March, Nadine Walmsley, vice president of development for the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago, watched as 33 pets were relinquished by owners citing poor finances. In March 2008, only four pet owners cited money as the reason, she said.

About twice as many dogs who end up homeless these days appear to have come from good homes: Their coats look good, they are plump and they are well-socialized, Walmsley said.

"They were in a very stable environment—and suddenly they are in a cage," Michalek said.

The difficulties can reduce the most stoic of pet owners to tears. In February, Rebecca Weeks' divorce was finalized, shortly before her family's Bartlett home went into foreclosure. Forced to crash with friends, she was heartbroken to learn that she couldn't take along Hamper, her 4-year-old collie-Rottweiler-shepherd mix.

Desperate, Weeks searched online and learned that PAWS Chicago had a foster program for pet owners in crisis. A week after she left Hamper at PAWS, a family scooped him up for safekeeping. Weeks plans to take Hamper back by the end of the month, after she moves into her own home.

"They say he is getting along with everybody," said Weeks, 29, who gets updates from PAWS staffers but isn't allowed to visit Hamper during his foster stay.

Similarly, dogs named Sasha and Kaiser had to adjust to life at PAWS Chicago's Little Village shelter after their owner lost her home in unincorporated Hinsdale.

"All my reserves were gone," said Maria D., 48, a real estate agent who didn't want her full name published because she was ashamed of temporarily giving up her dogs. She is now living with her adult daughter in Burr Ridge, a home where the dogs are not welcome.
Since March 31, Maria's dogs have shared quarters at PAWS while staff members search for a foster home. The program is designed to accommodate 30-day foster stays, although pet owners in crisis sometimes request more time, Michalek said. Exceptions are made on a case-by-case basis. In some instances, people end up relinquishing ownership.

Of course, animal welfare workers would rather owners bring their pets to a shelter than leave the animals to their own devices.
Sandra Alfred, acting executive director at Chicago Animal Care and Control, said her staff members have been picking up more and more ostensibly "lost" dogs who are outfitted with microchip IDs—tiny chips injected under the animal's skin that contain the owner's contact information.

"We call, and they say, 'Um, we can't take him back,' " Alfred said.
True street animals seem to have an easier time in the shelters, observers said. Perhaps the animals appreciate the steady food supply. Once-pampered animals, on the other hand, often experience terrible stress, bark and pant like mad and obsessively pace in circles inside their cages, Michalek said.

At PAWS Chicago, 35 percent to 40 percent of the dogs are purebreds, up from 20 percent to 25 percent in previous years. On a recent day, a sampling of such dogs at the Little Village shelter included a 6-month-old golden retriever; a young, fluffy white Samoyed; and an 8-year-old Pomeranian who likes to eat wet food only.

Their fate hints at a new desperation that many pet lovers never expected to face.

Allison Rhode, a house painter from Rogers Park, placed her dog, Dollar, in PAWS foster care after she was evicted from her apartment.
She took him back a little more than a month later, after she settled into a new place.

Pets "make you forget about hard times," she said. "They are the one thing that helps you get through."

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