Pet problems 

More doggies in the window during down economy

Bleu, an endearing two-year-old gray cat, moseys around her cage at the Humane Society of Western Montana (HSWM) south of Missoula.

“My family is moving without me,” reads the note card affixed to Bleu’s cage. “I am a sweet, shy, and loving girl. Take me home!”

A few cages down lies Lotto, a black and white cat, fast asleep. Bleu and Lotto, and four more cats already adopted, were dropped off at the shelter after their family moved into a motel because of a job loss.

Similarly, a Missoula man recently gave up six dogs to Missoula County Animal Control.

“He lost his home and was living out of his car for a few months,” says Animal Control Supervisor Ed Franceschina, “and finally realized it was unfair for him and the animals to live like that.”

Stories like these are increasingly told at animal shelters around western Montana. When the economy flounders many, especially the newly jobless and homeless, are forced to cut any superfluous expense—pets included. Drop-off rates are up and adoption rates down at animal shelters around the region.

“The fact that we don’t have 20 open spaces says something, absolutely,” says Mariah Scheskie, program manager at HSWM. “And they definitely aren’t flying out the door.”

Recessions can impact shelters doubly hard—more animals come in and they tend to stay longer. In Missoula, the overall effects have been modest, say Franceschina and Scheskie, thanks to the city’s relatively stable economy.

“It’s all kind of proportional to the loss of homes and loss of jobs,” says Franceschina. “Right now, although it’s not the greatest economy, we haven’t seen a tremendous amount [of abandoned pets].”

But at shelters in the Bitterroot and Flathead areas, where unemployment rates have climbed to around 10 percent or higher, the effects are felt more acutely.

“We’re seeing more owner turn-ins, but more disturbingly, we’re seeing more abandoned animals and less reclaims,” says Vicky Dawson, operations manager of the Bitter Root Humane Association in Hamilton. “Our reclaim rate probably hit a new low.”

“We don’t have any animal control down here, so citizens bring them in,” she explains. “They’re just strays. But they’re obviously well cared for, in many cases well trained, healthy. Under normal circumstances it just tells us they’re animals that came from somebody’s home. For whatever reason they’re not bringing them to shelters but they’re turning them out.”

To help deal with the influx, the Bitterroot shelter recently traded three adult cats and three adult dogs to Salmon, Idaho’s shelter in exchange for five puppies, a strategy employed more and more by shelters around the country to balance populations and increase the chances of adoption, says Dawn Lauer, outreach coordinator with the Humane Society of the United States.

“An increase in animals coming in always serves as a challenge for organizations trying to re-home these pets,” Lauer says, “because, of course, people are tightening their wallets and it’s hard to then make that kind of a commitment to go out and adopt a pet.”

The Humane Society estimates that between 6 and 8 million animals enter animal shelters in the United States every year, and about 3 to 4 million of those animals are euthanized, largely due to a lack of good homes. How much these numbers have increased since the beginning of the recession remains unclear, Lauer says, but “getting an overall sense from the organizations we speak to around the country, collectively, we would say the economy has had a great impact.”

It’s worst, Lauer says, where jobless rates are highest—in Florida, Michigan and California.

In Montana, jobless rates are highest in the northwest corner of the state.

“We, too, are seeing an increase in owners phoning who say they need to move or can no longer afford to feed their pet,” says Lori Heatherington, administrative director of the Humane Society of Northwest Montana in Kalispell. “And we feel that that number is almost double that of what we were receiving last year in 2008.”

The shelter also sees an increase in demand for services, like providing families with pet food. “We figure if a family is in need their animals are in need,” Heatherington says.

The number of pet surrenders compared to last year is actually down at the Flathead County Animal Shelter, likely because the region was among the first last year to be hit by the recession, says Director Kirsten Holland. But the economy still stands out as the top reason for pet drop-offs.

“I would say probably 75 percent of people surrendering pets at this point are surrendering them based on economic change,” she says. “The majority is always, ‘I lost my home and I can’t keep my pet.’”

Some people are barely able to say that much. A Flathead-area man in his 50s recently lost his job at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant and came to the shelter with his much-loved heeler, Holland recalls. He was forced to move into an apartment with his son and daughter-in-law, and the dog couldn’t come.

“He said he lost everything and he just couldn’t give him the home he deserved,” Holland says. “As he walked out he just broke down in tears in the lobby, literary shaking he was crying so hard…It was pretty heart-wrenching. This is the last place he ever thought he’d find himself.”
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