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Packed shelters reflect slow economy

POSTED: May 25, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Debbie Gilbert/The Times

Lisa Marek, manager of the Smithgall Woods Animal Shelter in White County, plays with Tesse, a 6-month-old mixed-breed pup awaiting adoption. Marek said as the economy slows, more people are surrendering their pets and fewer are adopting.

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It’s getting to be a common sight in some Georgia communities: A home gets foreclosed on and the family moves out in a hurry, leaving a stack of their belongings at the curb.

And occasionally they leave their pets behind, too. Authorities in some metro Atlanta counties have reported finding dogs or cats trapped inside abandoned homes, deprived of food and water.

Fortunately, there haven’t yet been any cases like this in Gainesville.

"Animal control has not seen an unusual amount of abandoned animals," said Rick Aiken, president of the Humane Society of Hall County. "And I have not seen an increase in owner-
released animals (at the shelter)."

But Hall may be bucking the trend.

"I think Hall is a more stable community with a healthier real estate situation (than some counties)," said Carolyn Danese, president of the Humane Association of Georgia. "Usually when people have an economic crisis, the first thing out the door is the dog or cat."

Laurie Hutchins, adoption coordinator for the Humane Society of Forsyth County, said the situation seems to have worsened in the past five months.

"We’re seeing a lot more people turning in pets because of foreclosures," she said. "We’ve also gotten a few cats who had been found abandoned inside foreclosed homes."

Humane groups are facing a dilemma, because while the supply of unwanted pets is growing, the demand for them is shrinking.

"It’s getting much harder to find homes for the larger dogs," Hutchins said. "People don’t want to take on another mouth to feed."

At the Smithgall Woods Animal Shelter near Helen in White County, shelter manager Lisa Marek said potential adopters are only interested in "teacup" breeds, while the medium- and large-sized dogs languish at the shelter for months.

"It’s awful here," she said. "With the economy being so bad, hardly anyone is adopting. We’re getting more people wanting to bring in animals. Many of them are losing their homes and going into rental situations where they’re not allowed to have pets."

Unlike the Hall County Animal Shelter, Smithgall does not euthanize animals to make room for more. The facility relies on adoptions to free up space.

"If we can’t move animals out, we can’t bring any in," said Marek. "In the three years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen it like this."

She said even people who’ve been able to keep their homes are feeling squeezed by inflation, as the cost of food, fuel and other necessities keeps rising exponentially.

"In some cases, people are bringing in pets because they just can’t afford to take care of them anymore," Marek said.

Dr. Catherine Bivins, a veterinarian at Browns Bridge Animal Hospital in Gainesville, said people often get into that situation for the same reason they get into foreclosure: They make decisions without thinking of the possible consequences.

"So many people adopt animals when they can barely even afford to pay for the food, much less anything else," she said. "They don’t consider the costs associated with having a pet."

Maybe they still retain the mind-set of folks a century ago, when having a pet was essentially free. Dogs and cats spent most of their lives roaming neighborhoods and farms. Dogs were fed table scraps; cats hunted mice. They didn’t have leashes, crates, toys or veterinary care.

But times have changed. Pets are often considered part of the family now, and the law requires owners to meet animals’ basic needs in much the same way that a parent is obligated to take care of a child.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, many New Orleans residents refused to leave their flooded homes because they couldn’t bear to leave their pets behind. And yet, during the current foreclosure crisis, some people apparently have no trouble discarding an animal as if it were an old TV or a broken chair.

Ursula Miller, president of Pup & Cat Co., a pet rescue organization based in Winder, observes that there seems to be two different types of pet owners. Those who share their living space with their pets tend to view them as family members and wouldn’t dream of giving them up, while those who keep their animals outdoors already have less interaction with their pets and may find it easier to detach from them.

"People moving out and leaving animals tied to a tree, that’s not new," Miller said. "It’s been happening for years."

She said her group screens adopters carefully to make sure the animal will have a nurturing home. "We try to make people understand that this is a forever responsibility," she said.

But Miller said her organization does not counsel applicants about the amount of money they should expect to spend on a pet. Other humane groups in the area also indicated they don’t get into the financial aspect of pet ownership.

Bivins thinks maybe they should. People may not realize that even a healthy animal is going to need annual vaccinations and monthly prevention against fleas, ticks and heartworms.

"You should expect to spend several hundred dollars a year, at minimum, for vet care," she said. "You’ll need a lot more if something catastrophic happens, like a car accident. I encourage people to set aside maybe $50 a month in savings, for their animal’s care. But most people don’t even plan for their own expenses."

In today’s economic climate, when 47 million Americans don’t have health insurance, some may find it hard to justify spending on their pets.

"People are putting things off (for their animals) longer than usual," Bivins said. "They’re waiting to get routine vaccinations, or skipping things like dental cleanings."

Tara Berghoefer, clinic coordinator at Cleveland Veterinary Hospital, said clients still seem to be buying things they feel their pets really need, such as medication to prevent heartworms. But they’re purchasing less of other items, such as premium pet food and treats.

Berghoefer believes people who are devoted to their animals may be spending less on luxuries for themselves in order to continue caring for their pets.

"I think it’s a 50-50 split on the number of people who understand what it costs to take care of a pet and they’re willing to pay it, versus those who get a pet and have no idea what it actually involves," she said.

The latter often wait until an animal is critically ill or injured before they seek care, Berghoefer said.

"Practically on a daily basis, we see sick animals who’ve never been to a vet before," she said. "And we’ve always gotten at least one or two calls a day from people saying, ‘I can’t afford to bring my pet in. What can I do for him at home?’"

What may be different now is that some previously middle-class people may truly be in dire financial straits and can no longer care for their pets. Bivins said if that’s the case, they should do the responsible thing and surrender the animal to a shelter, where at least it has a chance of being adopted.

Bivins said she’s seen too many instances where people just drop off the pet at a veterinary clinic and never pick it up.

"Abandoning a pet at the vet is against the law and can be prosecuted," she said. "We are not a humane society here."



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