April 18, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Abandoned pets overwhelm Metro Detroit shelters

Animals increasingly abandoned as owners lose jobs, face foreclosure

The recession takes its toll on animals like these two at the Dearborn Animal Shelter. As the jobless rate and foreclosures rise, more animals are being given up or abandoned, and adoptions are down. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Behind boarded doors of foreclosed homes, in Dumpsters and in parking lots are an unprecedented number of abandoned dogs and cats. Their owners, desperate and broke, have left the animals to die without food or water. Real estate agents and landlords are finding the once-beloved family pets in vacated houses all over Metro Detroit.

Meanwhile, more people who take their animals to shelters are telling workers they have lost their jobs and can't afford to take care of their pets, or aren't allowed to take them to the apartment they've leased after losing their house.

The crisis isn't just happening in Michigan, which has the nation's highest unemployment rate. Abandoned pets have become a national issue.

"This has really become an epidemic," said Allie Phillips, director of public policy at the American Humane Association, from her office in Alexandra, Va. She estimates that because about 8,000 houses go into foreclosure each day, 15,000 to 26,000 more animals are in danger of losing their homes daily. Many of them, she said, will ultimately be euthanized.

Abandoned and surrendered animals are nothing new to people who work in animal shelters. It's just that workers at Metro Detroit's shelters say they have never seen so many coming through the doors all at once. On top of that, fewer people are adopting pets, shelters report. As a result, most Metro Detroit animal shelters report being at, near or beyond capacity.

And though some believe people are using "foreclosure pets" as a way of surrendering animals without being judged, new initiatives are springing up everywhere to help, including providing pet food to keep seniors from sharing their own food with pets.

"We're hoping that even when people lose everything, when they've lost their homes and their jobs, that they can find a way to get to a new place with their pets," Phillips said.

More pets surrendered

In a recent national survey among animal shelters about how the economy is impacting them, Petfinder.com, which helps place shelter animals in homes, found that 84 percent of its shelters and rescue groups are caring for more pets because of the economy. Of those animal shelters, 74 percent reported an increase in surrendered and abandoned animals since the same period last year.

Petfinder.com, which serves more than 12,500 adoption groups, also discovered that 37 percent of shelters and rescue groups experienced a decrease in pet adoptions in the past year.

"It's hard," said Deb Kern, marketing director of the Humane Society of Huron Valley in Ann Arbor. "But it's the reality in this economic environment. It's definitely tough out there."

Kayla Allen, director of the Michigan Animal Rescue League in Pontiac, recalls a woman who lost her home and came in with her son to surrender a 9-year-old purebred Yorkshire terrier.

"They were just bawling, but they had no place to live," said Allen, who was particularly touched by a homeless woman who had been living in her car with a Chihuahua and brought the animal to the shelter. The dog was emaciated because the woman couldn't afford to feed it.

"It is excruciating," she said. "Just heartbreaking."

Some question motive

But not everyone is buying it.

John Van Zante, a spokesman for Helen Woodward Animal Shelter in San Diego, said his agency believes people are using "foreclosure pets" as a politically correct way of surrendering animals without judgment. When his shelter hadn't seen much evidence of the trend, he polled other shelters around the country and urged them to double-check their numbers.

"When the shelters actually looked at their numbers, they found there weren't any more pets being surrendered than there had been one year ago," he said. "The excuses for surrender now being used most often were the economy and home foreclosure."

While that may be the case elsewhere, Teresa Wright, office director of the Michigan Anti-Cruelty Society in Detroit, sees a drastically different picture in Metro Detroit.

Even the pedigreed miniature poodles and Yorkshire terriers -- previously so pampered and adored they were carried around in purses -- are making their way into area shelters in record numbers.

"We used to get the silliest and dumbest excuses like, 'I bought this cat, and it doesn't match my sofa,' " she says. "Now, we're hearing 'We're moving to an apartment and can't take it with us.' We get a lot of that. People really can't afford them anymore."

Programs help with food

To address challenges of people with real problems, some shelters such as the Humane Society of Huron Valley in Ann Arbor and the Dearborn Animal Shelter recently have created new pet food assistance programs to help keep pets at home. The Bountiful Bowls and Feed Fido programs are designed to supplement people's pet food costs. More than 100 families from Washtenaw County, Plymouth and Canton are enrolled in the Bountiful Bowls program.

On a national level, the Houston-based organization No Paws Left Behind started a grant program in June 2008, to help animal shelters run similar programs around the country.

Earlier this year, Banfield Pet Hospitals ramped up its efforts to help feed pets in a partnership with Meals on Wheels Association of America. They donated more Seasons of Supper pet food to seniors who were feeding delivered meals to their pets. The Detroit Area Agency on Aging also will donate pet food to its members until they run out of food, probably sometime in May.

"This is significant," says Barbara Saulter, nutrition services manager for the agency. "Instead of our seniors giving a meal to their pets to keep them healthy, they will be able to eat the meals themselves."

American Humane Association's Phillips, who runs the nation's only organization that advocates for children and animals, said she often is asked why people should help feed and house animals when so many humans don't have a roof over their heads. "They are living creatures, too," she said. "They are used to sleeping on your bed at night. They are used to having a food bowl."

She's encouraging people who have lost their homes to take a few more minutes to plan for their pet. Make an extra call or two to find an apartment that will accept pets, she said, and don't leave them behind.

"When you lose everything, having your pet with you is healing, very comforting," she said, "and it is going to help people get on the right track to getting their life back in order."

ktaylor@detnews.com">ktaylor@detnews.com (313) 222-2058

Need help?

Most communities in Metro Detroit have a local animal shelter. And while many of them donate food for needy pets to help keep them at home, they do not have formal programs. Contact them for help with pet surrenders or food assistance.
Other resources:
Michigan Anti-Cruelty Society in Detroit accepts surrendered animals for free at 13569 Jos. Campau St., Detroit. The group also does free pickups. Call (313) 891-7188.
Detroit Area Agency on Aging offers free pet food for seniors in the Meal on Wheels program. Food can be picked up or delivered. Call (313) 446-4444 ext. 5817.
Humane Society of Huron Valley offers free food on Sundays at its Ann Arbor shelter. Call (734) 662-5585.
Feed Fido , a Dearborn Animal Shelter program, will help supplement pet food needs. Call (313) 943-2077.

In a poll of shelters and rescue groups across the nation, Petfinder.com ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Jennifer Robertson of the Michigan Humane Society in Detroit cuddles Elvis, ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Once-emaciated Trooper is a shepherd mix at the Royal Oak Animal Shelter, ... (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)