The two Lhasa apsos bound through the door, tugging at a shared leash, tails flopping. But they're not here to play. Christine Lopez and her son Christien, 13, have brought Presley and Priscilla, both 6, to the SPCA shelter in Sacramento to give them up.
In the past few months her husband was furloughed from his state government job, and the couple had to put their home on the market to avoid foreclosure. Now they were losing two members of the family. "We have to cut back, and one thing is pet expenses," says Lopez, 37, a hairstylist. Priscilla had developed a chronic ear infection and her treatment alone cost $180 per month. For a while her mother-in-law cared for the dogs, but no longer could. "The whole thing is a sad situation," Lopez says.
It's a scene repeatedly being played out around the country, as people lose jobs or houses or downsize into rentals that don't take animals. While there are no reliable national statistics tracking the trend, the problem "is fairly widespread and probably under-reported—people may be embarrassed about why they're giving up their pets," says Betsy McFarland, who helps manage the Foreclosure Pets Grant program—begun last year by the Humane Society of the U.S. to assist shelters facing overcrowding, with takers in 31 states so far. The Sacramento SPCA shelter alone saw almost 1,000 more pets given up in 2008 than in the prior year. In a typical week, says its executive director Rick Johnson, they are now taking in as many as 200 animals—from dogs and cats to guinea pigs and iguanas.
One day earlier Steve Anaya, 30—a former communications company sales rep who was jobless for four months after a layoff—dropped off Lucky, 7, his shar-pei/pit mix, and Noki, 5, a Lab/pit mix. Leaving them, he says, "was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do." He and wife Carissa and their two young daughters already had cut back on cable TV and phone services, says Anaya, who saw his pets off with hugs and I-love-yous, hoping they would understand. "It's the American dream to have a house, kids and a dog. It's tough not having them around."
Some good news: Many shelters are seeing a rise in adoptions, thanks to increased marketing and discount programs. At the Sacramento shelter, Johnson says 71 percent of dogs brought in wind up in caring homes or with other rescue groups. (Because it's an "open admission" shelter that accepts all animals, they also take in aggressive or incurably sick pets that must be put down.)
Adoption, of course, would be Christine Lopez's greatest hope. So that a suitable owner might be found for Presley and Priscilla, a clerk asks Lopez a few questions. Until then she had been keeping her composure. But at the question, "Does Priscilla like people?" she reaches for the box of tissues kept on the counter and starts to weep. Lopez finishes her paperwork, then hands over toys, sweaters and, at last, the dogs themselves. Then she rushes out the door, her arm around her son. Neither turns back for a final look. Lopez may call later to find out if her dogs have been adopted. But as she dabs at her eyes, she says, "I'm not sure I want to know."
To learn how to help the pets in this story visit sspca.org. And for more animal news see peoplepets.com.
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