CLEARWATER — Lynn Martin had a husband once, briefly. Very briefly.
"I don't get this marriage thing," she said Friday.
What she does get is the bond that develops between a pet and owner. In her case, two little pugs and two Boston terriers.
"One night without my dogs is like torture," said Martin, 56.
Homeless for the second time, she says a Humane Society of Pinellas program that lets her keep her dogs at the shelter for 30 days is a lifeline.
A paralegal for 42 years, she hopes to find a new job and a home before July 16. The dogs must be picked up by then or they may be put up for adoption.
"That's never going to happen," she said. "If we have to live in my truck."
As unemployment, foreclosures, and energy and food prices rise, north Pinellas shelter officials say pets and owners are paying the price.
At Pinellas County Animal Services, workers say more people dropping off pets at the Largo shelter are blaming the bad economy or the loss of their homes. The SPCA Tampa Bay in Largo also reports a 3 percent increase in admissions in 2008 compared to this time last year.
The Humane Society shelter in Clearwater has also seen a steady increase in residents who cite economic reasons and homelessness as the reason for giving up pets, according to Suzanne Sakal, the shelter's development director. "And I don't see it getting any better soon," she added.
To offset this, the Humane Society created a program called "continued care" that allows cash-strapped residents to leave pets at the shelter for up to 30 days until they can get back on their feet.
But the service is expensive to provide. And the shelter is struggling with a budget that gets smaller each year.
Now a consortium of shelters and other animal groups called Pinellas Animal Partners has started looking into how to organize some help for those struggling to keep their pets.
But for many, new programs will come too late.
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Just last week, a minister with a family came to Pinellas County Animal Services with three dogs: an energetic boxer, a sweet Yorkie and a fluffy Maltese, said Greg Andrews, operations manager at the shelter.
Andrews, surprised anyone would give up such pets, asked, "Is it because of the economic situation? Are you losing your home?"
The man answered, "Yes."
"He was almost in tears," Andrews said. "It was hard for him to leave them behind."
Not every shelter is reporting similar results.
Hillsborough County Animal Services said their surrender rate has remained constant.
"Over the last three years, our intake numbers are close to a hundred a day, sometimes more, sometimes less,'' said spokeswoman Marti Ryan.
Pasco County Animal Services reported a drop in the number of surrenders.
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Marissa Segundo, a spokeswoman for the SPCA Tampa Bay said the top reasons for surrendering pets are usually because owners can no longer afford it or they're moving.
"And that includes foreclosures,'' said Segundo.
She sees the anguish on the faces of those turning in a beloved pet because they can't afford to care for it anymore.
"People will come in crying and teary-eyed,'' said Segundo. "They are red-faced when they leave."
Martin, the homeless woman who owns the pugs and the Boston terriers, said she can't imagine living without her dogs.
So what if one is blind and one has a tongue too long for his mouth?
"Who wouldn't adopt these guys?" Martin asked Friday during her weekly visit to the Humane Society. "I'm so happy to see you guys."
Panting, the dogs scratched at Martin's legs, eager for their turn to be held.
"You being good puppies?" she asked. "I've missed you so much."
When Martin left for a moment to wash up, a howling arose and died only when she returned.
"This happens when I take the trash out," she said.
Martin remains optimistic about the future for her and her dogs.
"You can't dwell on the bad," she said. "Most of the time, the bad is only temporary."
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.