Rebecca Strobel walks into the unknown almost every day when she opens the door on foreclosed homes.
“You just pray that there’s nothing in there,” said Strobel, a real estate agent in Lakewood, Colo.
With the collapse of the housing market, Strobel sees firsthand the worst of what’s going on in communities across the country. The worst, she said, are the forgotten pets, left behind by their owners as they abandon homes they have lost to foreclosure.
“I’ve walked in before where there was a dead cat in the corner with no food or water,” Strobel said.
Recently, she said, a fellow agent came across a dog that languished in an empty home for two weeks with no food or water.
“You feel sick, and you wonder who could do that,” said Strobel, who said she always carries an arsenal of supplies in the trunk of her car, including dog and cat food, leashes, blankets and first-aid kits.
Animal control officers and shelter operators nationwide know the feeling. They say they are being inundated, both with pets stranded by families that abandon them in foreclosed homes and by owners looking to cut costs in any way possible.
“We are seeing people getting into a situation where [it’s] are they going to pay for their medicine or are they going to pay for their pet care?” said James Hallinan, coordinator of the Eastside Animal Shelter in Albuquerque, N.M.
Tereza Marks, executive director of the Humane Society in Portsmouth, Va., said she “had a man come in here yesterday, and that was his situation — feed himself or feed his dog.”
‘It’s something we were expecting’
The numbers are striking at some facilities.
The Humane Society of Pitt County, N.C., said it has recently had a 100 percent increase in the number of animals brought in to the no-kill shelter.
Owners dropped off 389 cats at the Central Valley Society for the Prevention for Cruelty to Animals in Fresno, Calif., in May. That’s a 60 percent rise over May 2007. With strays and abandoned cats added in, the agency said, at least 100 new cats a day are coming in, but only about 20 are adopted.
And in Evansville, Ind., the Vanderburgh County Humane Society has literally run out of room.
“Unfortunately, when we run out of cages, a lot of times we don’t have any other option but to euthanize, so it’s just a really hard time for us,” said Miranda Russell, spokeswoman for the agency.
The story is the same at the Metro Animal Control shelter in Nashville, Tenn., which is so overcrowded that it is euthanizing 30 to 50 animals every day, six days a week.
“It’s something we were expecting — above capacity because of foreclosures,” Animal Control Officer Billy Briggs said.
Heartbreaking tales take toll on workers
Fed up with the expense, the heartache and the cruelty, authorities in Newberry, S.C., northwest of Columbia, the state capital, have begun cracking down on owners who abandon their pets.
The Newberry County Animal Care and Control office, which estimates that one in five animals in its main shelter were left behind by owners who moved out of their homes, is pursuing criminal charges against several owners who have left pets behind.
Recent cases at the Newberry shelter tear at animal lovers’ hearts.
Bone and skin were all that were left of a 3-year-old Chihuahua found sunken in the grass near an abandoned home in May. There was no telling how long the dog had been there when animal control agents discovered her.
“She did not make it. Renal failure had already set in from starvation and dehydration,” said Deena Hallman, the agency’s director.
Cherokee was a bit luckier. The dog was just “a rib cage, spine and a pelvis,” but it was alive after being found near another vacant home with no food and no water.
Other dogs have been found chained to trees, deserted by owners forced to leave their homes.
“They’re leaving these dogs behind, and no one’s coming back and taking care of them,” Hallman said.
New owners hard to find
Compounding the glut is a drastic slowdown in adoptions, thanks to the same economic conditions.
When Aaron Weiner of Cincinnati lost his dog, he went to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to adopt a pet and was overwhelmed by the sheer number of unclaimed animals.
“I was shocked by how many animals were there. There were three and four animals to a crate,” Weiner said.
Agency workers said that the number of strays had shot up and that the number of adoptions was way down. They managed to place a kitten with a new family during a special adoption drive Sunday, but there are still close to 300 pets that need adopting.
In Lansing, Mich., “everything is very full and adoptions are slow,” said Michelle Reynaert, vice president of the Capital Area Humane Society.
“People who are in a transitory state can’t care for their pets," Reynaert said. “We are very willing to work with folks on a temporary basis, but again, our temporary housing has been full because so many people are in that transitional state.”
While workers say they understand the bind people can find themselves in, they said it was hard to imagine how someone could walk away from an innocent animal.
“It’s really sad, because these pets know a home. They know that they have an owner,” said Angela Zilar, director of Tri-Cities Animal Control in eastern Washington.
“They are confused, and they don’t know why they are here,” she said. “People just don’t take that responsibility seriously.”