Economy Hard On Pets Too

The Record ( — Monday, November 14, 2011

The Record

Three years of high unemployment and a busted housing market have not only taken a toll on many North Jersey residents.

They've also been hell for hundreds of their pets.

Area animal shelters and rescue groups are jammed to capacity and beyond, as people who've lost their jobs and homes are also forced to abandon their cats and dogs.

"We've had more animals brought in this year than at any time in the 30 years I've been doing rescue," said Marge Kayne, founder of START II (Save the Animals Rescue Team). The organization operates a small no-kill animal shelter in Englewood and its members also care at home for animals that are waiting to be adopted. "We never turned anyone down before, but this year we have. They've just been flowing in like crazy."

"People come in and they've lost their jobs," said Ellen Ribitzki, president of the Bloomingdale Regional Animal Shelter Society, which operates the town's shelter. "They've held out for a year or two but they can no longer afford to care for their pets. Sometimes they bring in the animal and they're in tears. The whole family is there in tears. But they've lost their house and they're moving in with family or into an apartment where they can't take their pets."

Lynn Morchel, president and founder of Caring About the Strays (CATS) in Westwood, said she gets calls every day from people desperate to find a home for their cats.

"I really noticed a change in the number of calls starting about three years ago, but this year there has been just an explosion," she said.

The head of the state's largest housing-counseling group isn't surprised that the rescue groups have seen such a huge increase this year.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, explained that on average it takes about two years in this state for a foreclosure to be completed. Since the economy went into recession at the end of 2007, many people didn't begin facing foreclosure for a year or two after that, she said. Many of those people lost their homes this year.

And things will get worse for a while, she predicted.

"Foreclosures will not peak until the end of 2012," Salowe-Kaye said. "And nobody has a plan on what we're going to do with the people, let alone their dogs and cats."

Fewer adoptions

The rescue groups, meanwhile, are trapped in their own Catch-22: Not only are they being inundated with abandoned animals, but fewer people are willing to take on the expense and effort of "fostering" animals — or temporarily caring for them at home, as the members of START II do. And they're also having a harder time finding new permanent homes for them.

"People are definitely a little more hesitant to foster animals," said Nancy Warner, president and founder of The Last Resort Animal Rescue in West Milford. Founded in 2008, The Last Resort has rescued more than 1,000 animals from being euthanized in shelters around the country.

"Our adoptions have really slowed down," Ribitzki said. "Dogs that used to be pre-adopted even before they were ready to go out are now sitting in the shelter for two or three months. The kittens are growing up in the shelter."

'Two sides'

Not every shelter is seeing a drop in its adoption rate, however. Steven Mark, executive director of the Ramapo Bergen Animal Refuge Inc. in Oakland, said RBARI's adoptions are actually up this year after having declined for the past several.

But he believes that, too, is a result of the economic downturn.

"There are two sides to the adoption situation," Mark said. "On one hand, you have somebody who was going to adopt but now decides he can't afford to. But on the other end you have people who were going to go to a breeder and spend thousands of dollars for a dog but can't afford that now. They come to us instead."

The rescue groups all said they try to steer people to resources that might allow them to keep their pets whenever possible. A few organizations collect donations of pet food and distribute it through local food pantries.

"Since we formed our group in early April of 2008, we've given away 93,445 pounds of pet food," said Patricia Bungert, president of Companion Animal Advocates in Hillsdale. The organization collects donations of pet food and cash, using the money to purchase food at local supermarkets. It distributes the bags through the Center for Food Action sites in Mahwah and Saddle Brook, as well as the Social Service Association of Ridgewood and Vicinity.

"We're feeding 300 pets a month," Bungert said. CAA also provides subsidies to pay for free and low-cost spay and neutering services for pet owners. And it operates a Home2Home program that attempts to connect pet owners who can't afford to keep their pets with people looking for animals to adopt.

The Oakland Animal Hospital also operates a food bank, distributing pet food through St. Peter's Haven for Families in Clifton.

"We typically collect once a month," said veterinarian Robert Gordon. "We get enough food for 30 to 40 animals."

His organization also hands out pet food through the Meals on Wheels programs for seniors in Bergen and Passaic counties, Gordon added.

Bungert said CAA's trustees formed the group specifically to address the needs of pet owners in financial distress because they recognized how traumatic it can be to have to give up a pet.

"It's like somebody is ripping their hearts out," she said. "It's particularly horrible because when times are tough pets are more important to you than ever."

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