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Animal shelters brim with casualties of divorce, financial stress

Foxxy, an Australian shepherd, was given up for adoption at the Hillsborough Animal Services shelter by a divorced mother moving into an apartment. The Tampa shelter held nearly 600 animals last week.


Foxxy, an Australian shepherd, was given up for adoption at the Hillsborough Animal Services shelter by a divorced mother moving into an apartment. The Tampa shelter held nearly 600 animals last week.


Kate Wilson's 2-year-old black Labrador got loose from her husband's home last month.

A police officer found the dog, but when her husband — the couple is separated — said he didn't want the dog, Max was sent to a shelter.

Wilson moved into an apartment with her three children after the couple separated in January. She couldn't keep the dog in the apartment or find anyone else to take him.

On his eighth day at the Pinellas County shelter, Max was examined. Operations manager Greg Andrews said the dog failed his physical for behavior reasons — workers couldn't trust that Max wouldn't hurt someone.

Max was put down.

Wilson was devastated.

Max was taken to the shelter on June 14, a Monday. Wilson had intended to pick him up on Saturday, but something came up, she said. When she called the next Monday to arrange another pickup time, she said couldn't get through. She said she was devastated when she heard the news the next day.

"I spent an hour and a half crying in my car on my lunch break," Wilson said. "That was a family dog."

Shelter workers said they were surprised that no one came to pick up the dog after they initially talked with Wilson. Because of budget cuts, animals brought in with some kind of identification are only kept seven days before they are either placed for adoption, taken to a private shelter or euthanized. Those without ID are kept for four days.

Wilson said she thinks Max was just jittery during the exam, which is why he failed the behavior test. Shelter rules mandate that animals with behavior problems be euthanized.

Like giving up a child

It's hard to track the reasons why pets land in animal shelters, but workers say they see many like Max whose owners blame a divorce or separation.

It's sometimes devastating to the families stuck in a situation where they have to give up a pet, Hillsborough Animal Services spokeswoman Marti Ryan said. One mother and her teenage son came to the Tampa shelter recently in tears, about to give up their basset hound.

"I'm sure it was like giving up another child," Ryan said. "And this son on the verge of adulthood, he was left to be the man of the house and stand in stoic comfort for his mom, and yet he's just as upset about losing essentially his brother.

"It was a horrific situation."

Shelters across the Tampa Bay area are coping with less funding because of county budget cuts. At the same time, more owners are giving up their pets because of financial reasons, and fewer are choosing to adopt for the same reason.

At the Tampa shelter and at the one run by Pinellas Animal Services, workers try to help families keep their pets. Pinellas keeps a pet food bank for emergencies, and both shelters recommend animal-friendly apartment complexes.

"We try to help," Andrews said. "Most people feel so badly about what they have to do."

The clock ticks quickly

Animals turned over to the county shelters in Pinellas and Hillsborough have grim chances.

Even if unlimited shelter space were available, it's not safe for the pets to be confined to cages around so many other animals. They can get sick even within a few days of being impounded.

And so many more animals are brought in than adopted, meaning more are put down. Last week the Tampa shelter housed about 600 animals — 200 more than usual.

Some of the animals get lucky and are adopted. Ryan said she worked especially hard to find the basset hound a home. An Australian shepherd mix brought in last week after a couple's divorce has decent chances because she is a small dog and is good with children and cats.

Beth Smith, the shepherd's owner, said she rescued Foxxy from the street about seven years ago. Then came the divorce and financial troubles. The Valrico woman had to sell her home and look for an apartment. She couldn't afford the extra deposits that apartments required for dogs.

Last week, Smith, her two children and Foxxy ended up in a long line outside the Tampa shelter.

"We finished the last bag of dog food, and I knew what I had to do," Smith said.

"I'd been trying to put it off. I waited for the very last second."

Sara Gregory can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or

Animal shelters brim with casualties of divorce, financial stress 07/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 16, 2010 4:07pm]
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