The Star-Ledger

Once They Had A Place To Call Home

As housing crisis hits families, shelters fill up with their former pets

The Star-Ledger — Thursday, July 24, 2008


The latest casualties of the real estate foreclosure crisis have four legs. And Denton Infield knows them well, from the American bulldogs to the Shih Tzus, and cats of every kind.

With the economy heading south and foreclosures on the rise, Infield, the manager of the Associated Humane Societies' Newark animal shelter, said that in the last six months he has taken dozens of dogs and cats given up by owners no longer able to feed an extra mouth or two.

"They come in crying," Infield said of pet owners. "They're very, very upset. They make us promise to find them good homes."

Across the state, workers at shelters are reporting a 10 to 25 percent increase in the number of animals they are receiving.

With people struggling to make ends meet, feeding and caring for the four-legged member of the family often becomes a burden greater than many can bear. Allie Phillips, director of public policy at the American Humane Association, said as many as 1 million pets nationally could be affected, based on estimates that the foreclosure crisis could hit as many as 4 million families.

"Everything suffers when the economy is bad," said Nina Austenberg, regional director of the Humane Society of the United States. "(A pet) is another mouth to feed. Older animals have medical expense owners didn't count on. Before, 100 bucks didn't mean that much, but if (your spouse) is out of a job and you have to cut back -- I'm sure it's breaking a lot of people's hearts."

One of the problems for pet owners when they lose their homes is the no-animal policy at many apartment complexes or other rental units. And experts say in the frenzy and stress of losing a home, some families aren't making Fluffy a priority. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates the annual cost of care and food for a dog at between $580 and $875, depending on the size of the animal. Cats cost about $670 annually.

"They're thinking about where are they going to go and where are their children going to go," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, director of Citizen Action in Newark. Her group provides counseling to homeowners facing foreclosure. "People don't realize (they have to give up their pets) until they're with a counselor."

When that happens, it leaves little time for the owner to find a temporary shelter or relative to take in the pet. Facing that constraint, combined with the embarrassment over losing a home, the pet owner may leave the dog or cat to fend for itself, abandoning the animal in a home.

Infield said he's getting a surge of calls from police departments in cities such as Newark, Irvington and South Orange with reports of pets being abandoned inside foreclosed homes.

Phillips said the trend is alarming animal groups across the nation. The American Humane Association started a grant for shelters facing overcrowding because of an increase in "foreclosure pets," she said.

The downward swing in the economy also means people think twice about getting a pet, causing a backlog of pets in the shelters.

At the Plainfield Area Humane Society in Union County, director Susan MacWhinney-Ciufo said donations are down along with adoptions, making it more of a challenge to care for the pets in the facility. She's also noticed an increase in the number of animals brought in.

"An awful lot of people are moving – and moving at the last minute," MacWhinney-Ciufo said of owners who surrender their pets.

Accurate figures on the number of pets abandoned or turned in to shelters because of foreclosure are hard to come by. Abandoned pets often are categorized as strays, and if owners are turning in pets, they may be embarrassed to admit they're losing their homes.

Phillips' group asks mortgage lenders and banks to help pet owners find placements for their pets before they're evicted. They also remind pet owners they could face legal charges for animal cruelty if they lock a pet in an abandoned home. A tip sheet is available on their website, with to-do lists for both owners and lenders to avoid hurting animals in the foreclosure process.

"For people who have truly lost everything and want to do the right thing, it's heartbreaking," she said.

Even when an animal can be brought in safely, shelters have a difficult time finding a home if its history is not available.

According to the director of Associated Humane Societies of Newark, some animals are left in the shelters for months because owners say they are coming back but never show up or decide they don't have the resources to take care of the animal. Others are left for weeks.

Recently, the shelter featured foreclosed pets in its bimonthly newsletter, sparking interest, and many of those animals were adopted. The manager of the shelter said the process can drag on for weeks, depending on how long it takes to get the animal's history, especially if the owner did not turn the pet in.

Infield, of the Newark shelter, said workers need to know if a dog or cat is child-friendly, if it has been house-trained, what its medical history is and if it becomes aggressive over food. He said if the owner is not the one turning over a pet, it takes longer for the shelter to collect that information, leading to a longer adoption process.

He reminds owners all their information will be kept confidential and asks them to write down the reason they are turning the pet over.

The word "foreclosure" usually doesn't make it onto the form, Infield said. But he said he those kinds of owners are easily spotted.

"They're standing outside, hesitant to come in," Infield said. 'You ask them, 'Can I help you?' and eventually they tell you their story."

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