Pets are being given up as owners struggle to pay bills

The owner of these three dogs passed away and were recently adopted from the Central Brevard Humane Society in Cocoa, Fla. (Tim Shortt/Florida Today via AP)

The owner of these three dogs passed away and were recently adopted from the Central Brevard Humane Society in Cocoa, Fla. (Tim Shortt/Florida Today via AP)

AP

Two German Shepherds were found all alone at Lori Wilson Dog Park in Cocoa Beach last month. They had been abandoned, and, apart from being a little dehydrated, were otherwise fine and good natured, but extremely stressed because their humans had deserted them.

They were discovered in the gated dog run by Cocoa Beach Police Department Officer Ian Olsen and his partner, Officer Roy Bond, who were dispatched to the park when somebody called to report the dogs.

Olsen and Bond found no note or name tags with them, but it seemed that whoever left the dogs must have cared for them. There was a tote bag of toys, dry water bowls and collars with the words “Friendly” and “I HAVE EPI”— a pancreatic disease — written on each one.

Olsen concluded that the dogs’ owners, despite abandoning the two dogs, must have loved them and only left them at the park in the hope they would be taken in by other dog lovers.

“I feel bad for the people because the way the dogs were, you know, nine (or) 10 years old, and their teeth were immaculately white,” Olsen said. “So the dogs were clearly well taken care of.”

All across Brevard and elsewhere in the country, similar scenes are being played out over and over again: Beloved pets are being given up or deserted by their families who, caught in a downward economic spiral by soaring rents, inflation and gas prices, are forced to make a terrible choice.

According to rescue shelters and pet welfare advocates interviewed for this story, the number of pets — especially dogs — being surrendered to animal shelters in recent months has been increasing drastically. After years which saw animal surrenders to shelters dropping, the numbers went up 9,650 last year, and have continued their climb this year as the economic situation worsens.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, half of workers in Brevard County make less than $46,000 a year and many are having to pay half their income on rent. Though financial experts recommend that households spend no more than 30% of income on rent, that is not possible for many in today’s rental market. Add to that rising food and gas prices.

When people lose their home, or can no longer afford it, owning a dog or cat could be the difference between finding a new affordable place to live and being homeless.

Faced with this terrible dilemma, many people choose, often tearfully and reluctantly, to give up their pet. Some, however, would rather go homeless and hungry than part with their four-legged family members.

The stories of owners giving up their pets are always heartbreaking for both people and animals.

“People want to keep their pets, and we don’t believe that just because you are of a low income that you should not have a pet,” said Theresa Clifton, executive director of the Brevard Humane Society. “People will starve – they will give up their food for their pets. And that’s a choice they shouldn’t have to make.”

“There’s a need in the community – we have people that are asking us for a safe place for their pet, whether it be due to domestic violence or due to they’ve been kicked out of their rental and they’re between (places) and so they’re living in their car and they want to keep their pet but they don’t really have the means to do it,” Clifton said.

Numbers tell the story

In the COVID-19 pandemic’s first year, shelter intake decreased on the Space Coast, according to data collected by the University of Florida’s school of veterinary medicine tracking shelter intake from 2018 to 2021.

Between 2019 and 2020, owner surrenders of their pets, as well as transfers of dogs and cats from small shelters, which can reach capacity quickly, to bigger shelters, went from 10,520 in 2019 down to 9,355 in 2020. However the downward trend was temporary. In 2021 shelter intake started going back up and went to 9,650.

While University of Florida does not provide shelter intake data for 2022, according to the SPCA, transfers from the county’s Animal Services division alone has been growing this year, from 12 animals in January to 61 in March, 45 in April and 63 in May — an indication that the numbers of people giving up their pets are continuing to grow.

During the month of May, the SPCA took in a total of 163 animals from other shelters, including the county’s Animal Services run by the sheriff’s office; Just six months ago, in January, total intake from BCSO and other shelters was 34, meaning the numbers have increased almost fivefold since the start of the year.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Florida in 2017 found that, “Pet abandonment can result when pet owners must prioritize human needs over animal needs, leading to increased shelter intake of stray dogs.”

According to Susan Naylor, associate director at the SPCA, most of the intakes are likely coming from owner surrenders, which puts big pressure on shelters.

Rebecca Thompson at the SPCA in Titusville said she’s seen a big increase in request intakes, which happens when smaller rescue groups are at capacity and can’t take in more animals. When these groups hit capacity, they reach out to the SPCA and other larger shelters to see if there are any spaces available.

“Many of those were likely owner surrenders — especially from the other shelters,” said Susan Naylor, associate director at the SPCA.

When shelters are at capacity and there is no room, owners in desperate situations may resort to dumping their pets on street corners, wooded areas, or, in the case of the two shepherds, a dog park.

Despite the SPCA’s capacity and assistance available to pet owners looking to surrender their animals, Thompson has to turn down shelters and people everyday.

“It’s hard,” she said, tears in her eyes. “Requests from other shelters are really, really higher than usual,” Thompson said. Right now they have about 300 animals in the shelter.

Thompson said when a family surrenders a pet it’s never an easy decision. It’s one laced with guilt and fear. And, each case is individualized so there may be a family who is struggling with their pet’s medical fees so the SPCA has to find funds to help with that. Some families may even struggle to feed their pets and the SPCA will help with that too.

Still, not everybody is willing to put their own well-being before their pet’s.

Sacrificing for Buddy

Buddy has been Lisa Barber’s furry companion through thick and thin.

The 10-year-old, 80-pound Labrador-Golden Retriever mix, who Barber adopted at 6-weeks-old in 2012, traveled with her from Maine in 2020 after the 59-year-old’s partner died. Buddy lived on the beach with her when she couldn’t find housing and comforted her through the loss of her other dog.

“He’s a good old man,” she said. “He’s been with me through all this craziness and moving around from hotels to whatever.”

But now, the gentle giant is a barrier between Barber and stable housing. While the two live together in a Satellite Beach hotel where Barber also works, Barber is looking to move to an apartment. However, she’s been turned away from housing because of Buddy’s size.

For those already homeless, finding a way off the street with a pet can be challenging, Barber said. Local homeless shelters do not allow pets. People in need of immediate help, whether they’re already on the street or in an unsafe home, may choose discomfort or danger over having to give up their pet for the safety of a shelter.

“I’ve been trying for months,” Barber said. “And everyone will say things to me like, ‘Well, just get rid of your dog … You’ll be fine.’ No, no, that’s not the answer here.”

Barber knows that giving Buddy up might help her find an apartment, but for her the choice isn’t that simple.

“He keeps me sane,” she said. “He kept me going because I wouldn’t have pushed further to get off the beach if it hadn’t have been for him, but I wanted to make sure he was housed and he was okay. It helped me make it through and get this job. He helped the whole way.”

Pet ownership has long been associated with both positive physical and psychological health outcomes for homeless and housed individuals. Adoption rates soared at the start of the pandemic as people sought emotional support and companionship through lockdowns.

For those who are homeless, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Ottawa found that having a pet can decrease substance abuse, provide a sense of emotional and physical safety while they living on the streets.

Barber said she’s tried arranging for landlords to meet Buddy, but they still don’t want to rent to someone with such a big dog.

“Most places don’t have a yard and don’t want to have the dogs there, (especially) in an apartment. They don’t want to have the dogs there or they’re charging $500 per deposit for one pet,” she said.

So for now, Barber and Buddy live together in a hotel room. But from Barber’s perspective Buddy — not the room they sleep in — is home for her.

Lower income, bigger problem

For those moving to a new place, a pet deposit can be the difference between getting to keep their pet and having to give them up — a quandary Amber Jaime has found herself in. Due to give birth July 14, the 39-year-old Melbourne woman’s lease is up in July.

She had to quit her job as a cashier in March because her pregnancy caused her to experience frequent illnesses. With her boyfriend still working, the couple qualifies for low income housing, though they’re still waiting for an opening.

With so many unknown factors, she’s concerned about her cat and chinchilla possibly making it harder to find housing. If they get into low income housing, they’ll be required to pay a pet deposit a one-time fee of $600, Jaime said.

Jaime is not alone in this struggle, and it’s one that tends to impact lower income people more significantly.

A study published in 2021​​​​​​ in the academic journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that lower income individuals were more likely to be impacted by pet fees and that fees could lead to housing insecurity and animal surrenders.

Jaime has also looked into finding a temporary foster home for the two animals, but so far hasn’t found anyone to take them.

“My pets are my babies and I’m all they know,” she said. “I’m afraid I won’t get them back if I go through with anything.”

Between now and July, Jaime is working to find ways to prevent giving up her animals. They’re a comfort and support, and she’s considering trying to register Toothless, her 7-year-old cat, as an emotional support animal. This would allow her to keep her cat and waive the pet deposit.

“They are sweet and fun to have,” she said. “They help with my stress and depression on really bad days.”

Trying to keep people and pets united

After lessons learned during the Great Recession some 14 years ago, many animal welfare groups shifted their efforts from trying to rehouse pets to working (and spending resources) to keep owners and pets together.

Several Brevard shelters like Touch of Grey, the SPCA and the Humane Society all offer various resources for pet owners to help them keep their pets, and if that fails, they try to rehome the pet in way that causes as little stress to the animal as possible.

Shelters have created various programs to help people keep their pets.

Late last year, the Brevard Humane Society opened a “Bed and Biscuit” – a dog daycare and 24-hour pet hotel. Not only can pet owners check their pets into the hotel 24 hours a day, but anonymous sponsors have provided funds to allow the pets of homeless people to stay for short periods at the hotel, Clifton said.

“There’s a need in the community — we have people that are asking us for a safe place for their pet, whether it be due to domestic violence or due to they’ve been kicked out of their rental and they’re between (places) and so they’re living in their car and they want to keep their pet but they don’t really have the means to do it,” Clifton said.

The situation has reached a point where animal groups are not the only ones trying to help people keep their pets, but groups dedicated to providing assistance to people in need are also in the pet helping business as they discovered that needy pets are a people problem.

Josh Jensen, president of Aging Matters, a nonprofit organization that delivers meals to homebound people over the age of 60, said that the pet food delivery program that his group started around 2015 in collaboration with the Humane Society, who provides the pet food for this program, has also seen an increase in clients of late.

Jensen said the service started after his people noticed that some meal recipients were feeding their animals the meals they received from his group because they either couldn’t get or couldn’t afford pet food. It was a problem, Jensen said for many elderly people Aging Matters’ food is the only nutritional meal they get everyday, so he needed to figure out a way to stop the people from feeding it to their dogs and cats. Providing pet food was the answer.

According to Jensen, the pet food delivery program has increased by about 20 people in the last few months; many of whom are on a waitlist because he can’t hire enough delivery drivers.

The SPCA and the Humane Society also provide help with food, as well as affordable healthcare at their clinics. In cases where that’s not enough, they try to find the best solution for rehoming the animal.

Shelters and rescue groups understand that the economic pressure on people sometimes to give up their animals is tremendous, and they are careful not to judge.

Marie Sheppard, who has four rescue dogs of her own and actively works with Wendy Johnson, president and founder of Touch of Grey Rescue, says she does not fault people for giving up their animals. But she said, “I am critical in the manner of which they do it. If you need to give up your animals there are so many available options and so many ways to do it….There is a right and a wrong way to do it.”

Abandoning them on the street, or in the woods, or even a dog park are not the ways to do it, she said. Dumping pets out into the wild or at parks is illegal and considered a misdemeanor under Florida Statue 828.13.

In a worst-case scenario where a pet must be surrendered, Naylor said the best thing owners can do is reach out as early as possible to the SPCA to figure out the best options for their situation.

“We need time,” Naylor said. “Even if we’re not the best fit or we don’t have space, we have resources that we can give them to help them look for other places if we’re full at the moment.”

Lucky German Shepherds

In the case of the two shepherds found in Cocoa Beach, a local rescue stepped in.

After contacting BCSO animal services, Officer Olsen was keen to see if he could find the dogs’ owner. He reached out to a local vet to see if they might know the dogs.

The local vet he spoke to didn’t know who the dogs belonged to, but recommended that Olsen reach out to Sheppard, who works with Touch of Grey Rescue.

For the two dogs, it turned out to be good advice.

Sheppard said within hours of posting about the two dogs on social media, she got inquiries from people wanting to foster the German Shepherds.

The two now have names, Rocky and Rambo, and are thriving in their foster home as they wait for a new family to adopt them.

“The majority of these people love their dogs and want to keep them, and unfortunately have found themselves in circumstance beyond their control where ultimately it is best for the dog that they actually get them into a safer and a better situation that can afford their care,” said Johnson.

Touch of Grey is supporting the foster family with the German Shepherds medical care, and is asking the community for donations.

For those looking to support animal shelters during this time, Sheppard said that fostering, financial donations and even donating a bag of dog food to a shelter once a month can help shelters and pet owners who may be struggling.