Animal Shelters Fall on Hard Times
Adoptions and donations drop as economy forces owners to give up their pets.
Heartland Animal Shelter in Northbrook is looking for a home for Sparky, who was rescued from a shelter that euthanizes animals. He was sent there by his owner who lost her home and had no funds to board him.
A Refuge for Saving the Wildlife, also in Northbrook, has been looking for a new home for Eddie the Cockatoo for a year and a half. The bird was given up by his owner whose business was crashing.
At the Community Animal Rescue Effort (CARE) in Evanston, an older dog was handed over by a woman who had lost her home and was moving in with friends. The dog didn’t live long afterward.
“She just died of a broken heart,” said volunteer Erin Marcus. “Those are bad days when we take in animals like that.”
The details are always different, but the same sad stories are playing out at animal shelters across the country and locally as the recession and home foreclosure crisis have forced families to give up their beloved pets.
At the same time, Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk program for The Humane Society of the United States, said that many shelters have faced lower adoption rates as well as decreases in donations and municipal funding.
“Those three things come together and can create some major issues for shelters,” Goldfarb said. “When you have more animals coming in, fewer going out and less money to help them, that’s a real problem.”
While no national statistics are available, Goldfarb said most shelters are suffering from at least one of the afflictions, if not all three.
Rich Weiner, executive director of A Refuge for Saving the Wildlife, said his shelter has been hit hard by all of them.
“The economy has affected everything,” he said. “Donations are down, animal relinquishments are up and adoption requests are down.”
Stephanie Hoffman, executive director of Heartland, said her organization has experienced a 40 percent decrease in adoptions since last year, and donations of pet food and other items for the shelters are down 50 percent. Monetary donations have also dropped since December.
Working to clear cages
Heartland has been trying to find creative solutions to clear cages and get resources. The facility has been working with other no-kill rescue groups to find homes for animals, getting dogs special training that might make them easier to place in homes and reaching out to animal hospitals to donate medicine.
The hardest part is getting animals adopted so they can fill the cages with more rescued dogs.
“People are losing their family pet of old age or sickness and thinking ‘Lets hold off on getting a new pet because things are too tight.’ Whereas before, we might see more emotional adoptions,” she explained.
Weiner said he had only four bird adoptions so far this year, down from 18 last year. As a result, he hasn’t been able to take in any more animals.
“We’re full,” he said. “We have about 80 birds right now. We’re working off a waiting list and we’re trying to get people to hold off if it’s not an emergency. As soon as we get birds out we get birds in.”
Helping pet owners get by
Both CARE and Heartland have been trying to work with pet owners to help them keep their animals. CARE is giving pet food to local food pantries, while Heartland has been working to educate the public about where people can go for free pet food and low-cost veterinary treatment.
“We had a guy drive up and ask us if we had any food,” Hoffman said. “We sent him home with close to 150 pounds of food. He was hopeful he would get a job in the next few weeks. He just needed something to help him get by.”
'They have no clue what’s going on'
The goal is to keep animals out of the shelters, since pets that are used to living in homes often have a very hard time adjusting.
“I think the most heartbreaking thing for me is the pain they must be feeling here,” Hoffman said. “They have no clue what’s going on, why they’re in our facility sharing the roof with other dogs.”
Hoffman said the transition is especially hard on felines. She said one woman who was going to be evicted called to ask if the shelter could take in her two cats. Hoffman told her there was no room, but later that day two cats showed up in a box on the shelter’s doorstep. One died from the stress.
Shelter representatives emphasized that these animals were given up through no fault of their own and just need new families.
“The good news is a lot of them can be 'rehomed' because they’re good animals,” Marcus said. “It’s hard to see what they’re going through.”
While many local shelters are falling on hard times, there are a few exceptions that say the recession actually helped their adoption rates. Stay tuned for more on one of them this Friday.