Foreclosure Pets: to adopt your next dog, please go local

April 8, 2008

The current housing crisis has added another unwanted phrase to the national lexicon: foreclosure pets.

Even in good economic times there’s a significant percentage of people who move and leave their pets behind. Most local shelters have a standing policy of not accepting “owner surrendered” pets for fear of being overwhelmed.

This doesn’t prevent these abandoned dogs and cats from ending up in shelters; the most common technique is to remove the dog’s tags and collar and set it loose two towns away. The idea is that before the dog could find its way back to familiar turf, it will be spotted, reported and picked up by animal control. And believe it or not, these people are giving their dogs a better chance than most. Too often families move and leave their pets behind; tied up in the yard, locked in basements and closets.

The most common reason given for surrendering a family pet is “We’re moving.” Now shelters are starting to hear: “I lost my house.”

While going through the stress of losing their home and figuring out the next step for themselves, families often forget the obligation they undertook when the got their pet. Some may believe (wrongly) that local officials or the bank that has taken over their property will shelter and provide for the dog they left behind. Or perhaps a neighbor.

There are also people who consider their pets disposable, like so much else in Today’s Modern World.®

In almost every state pets are considered personal property. They have no rights granted them or inherent protection. While it may be admirable to try and save these animals, shelter them, feed them, treat them for medical conditions and try and re-home them, there is generally no legal requirement to do so.

In most towns as long as there aren’t roving packs of feral dogs loping across Main Street at noon, they consider the canine problem well-managed.

Abandoned dogs face some pretty stiff odds. If they’re locked in the house when the owners depart they may die of dehydration. A dog, like a man, can go longer without food than without fresh water. If they’re left outside they may be leashed or tied where they are open to attack by local predators. They may also injure themselves trying to break free. Once free they are still prone to attack by predators, car strikes, starvation, and disease.

I saw a pit bull once whose neck was shaved completely around, a four-inch wide swath. Running around at the center of this stubbled skin was a bright red gash — it marked the place where a rope had been tied around its neck. The rope became embedded in the dog’s skin. The pit had been found tied to a porch at an abandoned house. On his journey from the vet’s office to the local shelter I was asked to take care of this dog, briefly.

As I sat near him I felt all the things that make people afraid of this breed. This dog was clearly powerful, heavily muscled, and easily 100 pounds. There was that wide jaw, rightly feared for its ability to lock in place and refuse to release once bitten. There was no leash or collar, so I really had no way to control the dog or keep him near me, if he chose to leave. Or to protect myself. I was sitting on a wooden bench, and this unfamiliar pitt bull was sitting in front of me, with his back to me, between my legs, and panting rapidly. A dog, I was starting to think, that had been severely neglected, and probably abused, by people. People just like me. If I was him, would I be suspicious of me? Might I want to show this stranger just how tough I am? If he did attack me, I could easily justify it in several ways from his point of view.

Just as I was starting to get a bit concerned, he turned his head over his shoulder and smiled at me, baring all his teeth and a little drool. At least I chose to interpret it as a smile. I curled in the fingers of my right hand and slowly offered the back of my hand for him to sniff.

Of course, you know the end of this story by now: he licked my hand and in another moment I was happily scratching him around his ears, just as if we was old pals.

What I take from this experience (and others) is that dogs, even though they have been horribly treated by humans, are almost always ready to give us a second chance; to begin a relationship, to offer companionship. A child treated the way this pit bull had been would never completely recover from the experience. It might even turn a child into a small, amoral monster. I’ve seen that happen, too.

I’m humbled by the fact that the canine race seems so willing to forgive the human race our cruel treatment of them.

So if you are looking for a dog right now, please go to your local animal shelter first to see if they might have the dog of a lifetime for you. If you strike out there, go to the next town over and then the town after that. If you’re lucky enough to have a county facility, try there.

At this moment, the sub-prime mortgage crisis means that there are thousands of great dogs flooding into the local shelter system. The odds for most of them being re-homed are narrow. Make a difference. To adopt your next dog, go local.

Give a great dog a second chance.


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