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Hard times take toll on pets, owners

The slumping economy is claiming yet another victim: pets.

Cash-strapped people are increasingly surrendering their animals to shelters across the Tampa Bay area, citing foreclosures, unemployment and a lag in wages as reasons.

The Tampa Bay Humane Society, which houses about 350 animals, has been forced to turn people away because of a lack of space, said Sherry Silk, the group's executive director.

Last month, the "no-kill" shelter in Tampa received 25 percent more requests than last year from people wanting to give up their pets because of money problems, she said.

The shelter currently has a waiting list of 145 people who want to give away their pets.

As a way to help more people keep their pets, the society started a feeding program. Last month it served 260 animals. This month, the need jumped to 743. The food comes from shelter supplies and donations.

"In the last month or two is when we've had to turn people away," Silk said. "I don't know what to do because people are relying on us."

Carol Moore, a Lutz resident with four cats, is among those in need. She lost her job as a gas station attendant three months ago.

"I was short on bills, short on rent, short on electricity," said Moore, 25, a mother of one. "I had my cell phone turned off."

For now, the feeding program helped her keep her cats, but she isn't sure about the future.

At the SPCA Tampa Bay in Largo, animal admissions are up 13 percent over last year, said Marissa Segundo, spokeswoman for the SPCA.

The shelter, which now houses more than 100 cats and 50 dogs, hasn't had to turn anyone away, but it is seeing more people listing "foreclosure" or "lost home" on relinquishment forms.

"People come in in tears," Segundo said. "They don't want to give up their pet, but they know if they do the pet will have a second chance."

The owners aren't the only ones affected by the split, she said.

Many pets come from families with kids or from quiet homes where they were showered with attention. The transition to shelter life can be traumatic.

On a recent day at the SPCA, a Siamese mix kitten hid behind a desk in the socialization room. "Kitty" was dropped off only hours earlier because her owner was being evicted.

Volunteer Terry Arsenault tried to coax the gray-eyed cat from her hiding place, but she balled up in a corner instead.

Arsenault thinks she'll find a home quickly but isn't sure.

Adoptions, while steady at Tampa's Humane Society, have dropped by 9 percent at the SPCA this year.

"Having a pet in your home is not cheap," Segundo said.

Private shelters aren't the only ones feeling the sting.

Greg Andrews, operations manager for Pinellas Animal Services, said pet intakes are up. He suspects many are due to financial problems, but noted that people who drop off pets are not required to give a reason.

"It's terribly embarrassing for them to say that's why," Andrews said. "They love their animals, but they can't take care of them anymore."

Last year, the shelter accepted 26,000 animals. He expects the number to be much higher in 2008.

The shelters try to find adoptive homes for animals that express a good temperament by transferring many to private shelters and pet stores.

The process has helped keep county euthanizations from spiking.

Still, Hillsborough Animal Services spokeswoman Marti Ryan warns owners that finding their pet a new home is not certain.

"We let you know in huge signs how many animals come in and what your chances are of this pet actually getting adopted," Ryan said. "We ask you to consider other options, because the dog may be put down."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (727)893-8828.

Hard times take toll on pets, owners 10/30/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 6:47pm]

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