Losing a Best Friend Along With the House

Foreclosures have swollen the ranks of pets awaiting adoption at the Montgomery Humane Society shelter.
Foreclosures have swollen the ranks of pets awaiting adoption at the Montgomery Humane Society shelter. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The families started coming in during the winter, parents and kids gathered in the cramped lobby of the Montgomery County Humane Society shelter to hand over their pets. It's a largely hidden consequence of the housing meltdown: a spike in the number of animals being turned in or abandoned as families are forced from their homes.

"We get give-ups all the time, but typically it's someone with allergies or a young animal with behavior issues," said Kathy Dillon, the facility's operations coordinator. "Now every week we're seeing whole families come in to say good-bye to a longtime pet because they have to move. We've had a lot of children in tears."

In the Montgomery shelter, about 15 percent of animals received in the past two months are a result of foreclosures or related economic dislocations, according to J.C. Crist, the county Humane Society president and chief executive. That's up from about 3 percent last year for similar reasons. The facility takes in about 700 animals a month, he said, including many from surrounding counties.

"I just had a beautiful 12-year-old golden retriever given up by a wonderful family because they had to find temporary housing," Crist said. "This is incredible. And I know we haven't hit the peak."

In two of the shelter's cat rooms, a majority of the stacked cages are marked with star-shaped stickers reading "Golden Oldies," meaning the felines inside are 7 years or older. Based on her interviews with the families that drop them off, Dillon said the influx of mature cats also stems from the economic downturn, as families are forced to move or simply can't afford an elderly animal's vet bills

Likewise for the serene black mixed-breed dog she stopped to pet in the adjacent room, the former pet of a man who said he was losing his house.

"These animals are obviously well-cared-for and socialized," Dillon said. "We haven't seen this before."

For owners who think better times may be ahead, the society has expanded its "Safe Harbor" project. The program, designed to aid domestic abuse victims, military families and others who may have to leave their homes on short notice, provides boarding and care for pets on a short-term basis.

The pets brought in by their distraught owners are actually the lucky ones, Crist said. More worrisome is the increasing number of animals simply set loose or left behind in empty houses by homeowners who suddenly have to move into no-pet apartments or a friend's spare room.

"We usually get the call from the bank or whoever finds it, and we go out to retrieve the animal, if it's still alive," Crist said.

Police recently rescued an emaciated Dalmatian that had been left without adequate food in an empty Germantown home, Crist said. The animal has since recovered and been placed in a foster home.

Crist's agency, which serves as Montgomery's official animal control shelter, has at least three cases charging cruelty pending against owners who abandoned their animals in foreclosed homes.

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