Raining Cats & Dogs

Because of an ailing economy, pet surrenders and fewer adoptions are crowding shelters

Red HuskyEven the most optimistic among us find it hard to ignore the telltale signs of economic malaise. Skyrocketing foreclosure rates. Plunging real-estate values. Thousands of empty seats at Red Wings games. For pet lovers, one of the most heart-tugging indicators of hard times can be found at the local animal shelter.

“One guy dropped off his two dogs,” says Larry Obrecht, manager of the Oakland Pet Adoption Center in Auburn Hills. “They were two very nice dogs. But he said, ‘I’ve lost my house, I’ve lost my job, and I just can’t afford to keep them.’”

It’s a scenario that has grown distressingly familiar to animal-welfare agencies. “We’ve always had a high percentage of owner-surrendered dogs compared to strays,” says Denise Eichburg, president of the Northville-based Waggin’ Tails Dog Rescue. “But now we’re seeing a significant increase in owner turn-ins because of financial hardship.”

At any given time, Waggin’ Tails has between 20 and 30 dogs it is trying to place. Many are rescued from the county shelter in Gladwin. “The last six or seven we got from Gladwin were turned in by owners who were losing their houses,” Eichburg says.

When it comes to cats, the situation is even more dire. The feline population at many shelters has reached crisis proportions. “Unfortunately, cats have always been considered to be a dime a dozen,” says Sarah Mews, operations manager of the Humane Society of Livingston County in Howell. “It used to be there was a ‘kitten season’ — that period of warm weather when cats breed — and then we would have a bit of a respite when we could kind of regroup. But now we’re at full capacity year-round.”

Even shelters that are not experiencing a spike in surrendered pets are being pinched by the sour economy. In Dearborn, the city-owned facility has been run since 1996 by the Friends for the Dearborn Animal Shelter. The nonprofit organization of about 100 active volunteers cares for some 2,500 animals each year, including raccoons and the occasional alligator or boa constrictor. While a city subsidy covers a portion of operating expenses, the shelter principally depends on donations and fundraisers to keep it in kibble.

“Owner surrenders aren’t up, per se,” reports executive director Elaine Green. “On the other hand, people aren’t adopting as readily, which means we’re holding on to animals longer.” Because of a slowdown in donations, the capital campaign for a new $4-million animal shelter also has stalled, its projected groundbreaking pushed back to at least 2010.
On a recent visit, the Dearborn shelter was caring for 45 dogs, though the cramped and dreary facility has only 27 cages. About half of them were occupied by pit bull terriers, a breed difficult to place even in good times. Some of the canine overflow is being kept in foster homes. Cats are even more problematic. There were 220 of them, including 50 fostered. The shelter has fitted out two trailers to accommodate a small group of socialized cats, but it’s anybody’s guess as to how long some of them are going to have to wait before they’re adopted.

The Dearborn shelter, unlike most others in metro Detroit, has a “no-kill” policy, but the term doesn’t mean precisely that. Only stray and surrendered animals deemed adoptable are housed indefinitely. Those with serious behavioral or health problems are euthanized, which in Dearborn amounts to about one in three animals.

In fact, for most animals, a shelter represents the end of the line. According to the Humane Society of the United States, 57 percent of dogs and 71 percent of cats in all shelters nationally are euthanized, either by injection or by gas. It’s not uncommon for a shelter to schedule its “kill day” to coincide with local garbage pickup.

However, thanks to innovative marketing, savvy use of the Internet, and the rise of nonprofit rescue groups, the outlook for unwanted animals is far from hopeless. The Dearborn shelter puts on several events each year, tapping into the goodwill of high-profile organizations like the Detroit Lions to help move animals. The Oakland Pet Adoption Center has reduced adoption fees to ease congestion. Eichburg’s group sponsors monthly fundraisers at bars and bowling alleys to help defray expenses. “We just got a $4,400 vet bill for two puppies we rescued with parvo,” she says. Another sickly young dog cost $1,200 for one night of emergency care before dying.

Most rescue groups have their own Web site. These are linked to petfinder.com, which Eichburg claims is “the best invention ever for animal rescue.” The site, updated daily, offers information on more than 250,000 adoptable animals provided by 10,000 organizations nationwide.

The Internet has assisted the increase in breed-specific rescue groups. One such organization is Shar-Pei Savers, which concentrates its efforts in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Mary Hanovich, a 50-year-old accounting clerk from Fraser, is a typical volunteer. Over the years, she has owned 11 Shar-Pei and fostered 30 more of the unique wrinkle-faced dogs until they found their “forever home.”

In Hanovich’s opinion, an adopted Shar-Pei is a bargain. For an adoption fee of $250, far less than what one usually would pay for a puppy from a breeder, “You get a dog that has been thoroughly vetted, has been spayed or neutered, and microchipped. The fee almost never covers our costs of rescuing and caring for it. And you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve saved a life.”

Until the economy rebounds, the forecast for overstressed shelters and rescue societies will remain the same: raining cats and dogs. Still, it’s in the nature of animal advocates like Hanovich to stay optimistic. “There are people out there for every animal,” she says. “You just have to be patient.”