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|November 27-December 3, 2008
Losing the doghouse
With foreclosures on the rise, pets are finding themselves without a home
Story and photos by Dana Logan
When she bought her house in June 2003, Michelle had steady work in her field. As a tech editor and tech writer, she didn’t have permanent work, but she had a consistent stream of long-term contract jobs that paid the bills and allowed her to buy a decent-sized house in Lafayette. And with a new house and well-paying jobs, she had the room and money to pursue a passion: rescuing animals.
“I was able to offer homes to pets that nobody else wanted,” says Michelle (a pseudonym used to protect her real identity). “I look for the cat that’s been there the longest and that’s the oldest. When I go to meet the cat, I don’t adopt the cat that jumps in my lap and purrs, I adopt the cat that’s cowering in the corner and has ‘an attitude problem.’”
In short, Michelle adopts the animals that are least likely to be adopted by someone else. She says that she has the knowledge and passion for taking care of more “difficult” animals and, once she moved into her new house, she had the space, too. So, she offered a good home to not one or two, but eight cats.
“Adopting old cats is something most people don’t do because they’re afraid of the medical bills, but at the same time, those cats deserve to have their senior years in sunlight and in peace and in happiness. So that’s why I took in the old cats that I did. Because I had a big house and a job that paid well and I could offer them a wonderful place to live out the rest of their lives.”
Or so she thought.
But like many people across the country, Michelle began to feel the effects of a worsening economy earlier this year. The steady stream of contracting jobs began to slow and finally, in February, they all but stopped. In the nine months since, she says she’s had only two weeks’ worth of work. She’s looked in her field and outside of it, but has been unable to find a job.
“All the entry-level jobs I’ve called about, they’ve told me I’m overqualified and they’re afraid I’ll get bored and leave,” she says. But at the same time, she says that she’s not qualified enough for engineer or senior-level writer positions.
“So I’m kind of caught in the middle. I’m trying to reinvent myself, but it’s difficult to sell oneself in this economy with transferable skills. In a good economy, when there are lots of jobs, one can take one’s resume and build it around skills as opposed to actual titles. But now, if I apply for a program manager job, they have hundreds of people applying that have been doing that for years because lots of people have been laid off,” she says.
And without a job, Michelle has been unable to make her mortgage payments. In fact, the last payment she made was in April of this year. As a result, Michelle is facing an unfortunate and, these days, all-too-common predicament: impending foreclosure.
“The house will officially go to public auction on Feb. 18. I’m trying to figure out from the myriad of foreclosure-prevention information that’s out there which ones would be most appropriate for me,” she says.
“My best-case scenario is finding a good job and a foreclosure-prevention program and staying in the house and keeping my pets,” says Michelle.
But she’s not hopeful. If she’s unable to find work quickly, she worries that preventing foreclosure won’t be possible. And if she loses her house, she sees it as unlikely that she’ll be able to rent a place in which she’d be able to keep all eight of her cats, not to mention her two dogs — a bluetick coonhound and a German shepard mix.
“It’s completely overwhelming. It affects my sleep, my dreams, every aspect of everything. I’m trying to find work and, at the same time, I’m trying to solve my financial situation and figure out if I can prevent foreclosure. And also, I have to find potential possible homes for the pets. But at the same time, if I can prevent foreclosure, I can maybe keep them. It’s just a whirlwind of brain activity,” she explains.
And Michelle is certainly not the only one facing the overwhelming task of trying to stay in her home while simultaneously planning for the consequences of failing to do so. Neither are her pets the only animals whose futures are uncertain. Across the nation and here in Boulder County, animal shelters are seeing a rise in the number of pets being given up. And while it’s difficult to measure just how many of the animals being surrendered are a result of foreclosures, it’s clear that the economy is to blame.
Clay Evans says that Longmont Humane Society is no exception. Evans, the development director at Longmont Humane Society says that one of the reasons it’s so hard to specifically identify which animals are foreclosure-related surrenders is because losing a job or a home isn’t necessarily something that people want to openly admit. Even if a reason is given, it may be described vaguely. For example, someone might say that they are moving, but not specify that the move is a result of foreclosure, or they may simply say that they lost their job and can’t afford to take care of the pet any longer.
“I would say it’s happening, probably, at least once a week,” says Evans.
During times of economic fluctuations, Evans says, people get pressed. They are working on meeting their most basic needs — food and shelter — and the needs of their children.
“Even though people are terribly distressed and it’s the last thing they want to do, sometimes caring for a pet doesn’t rise to the top of the priority list,” he says.
And sometimes, even when pets are high on the priority list, as they are for Michelle, there’s still little that can be done.
“I always figured, no matter how crappy the job, I’d take it and do it and get the paycheck and pay the mortgage so I could provide a home for [my pets]. And since I’ve been unable to do that, it’s like, ‘God, I’m a terrible breadwinner, and I’ve let these animals down.’ I feel tremendous sadness at the potential loss of pets and disappointment at myself because I promised that I would take care of them for life,” says Michelle.
Evans tells a story of a 10-year-old German shepherd cross named Mary Poppins who had to be surrendered by her owner who had lost his job. He was extremely distraught over the decision, but was simply unable to continue to care for her.
“You know, nobody wants to give up a 10-year friendship like that,” says Evans. “But sometimes for people, that’s their only option, and when it becomes their only option, a humane society is an outstanding way to go. Especially one like ours where there’s no time
Ultimately, Mary Poppins was adopted into a great home. But for some animals, the economy may be to blame, not only for landing them in a shelter, but also for an extended stay there. Many people who otherwise might be considering adding a pet to the family may not be in a position to take on the additional responsibilities of a new animal during difficult times.
“Definitely, [shelters all over] are saying, ‘surrenders up, adoptions down, donations down.’ So that’s kind of a triple whammy for shelters. It’s very tough right now,” says Evans.
Lisa Pedersen, chief executive officer for the Boulder Valley Humane Society, says that, unlike in Longmont, so far, the economy hasn’t seemed to have had an effect on the number of pets surrendered or the number of pets adopted at the shelter serving Boulder. But she is seeing people cut back in other ways. Training classes are one of the first things to go, she says. People don’t see them as a priority.
“The other place that we see people cutting back in tough times is that folks will do less preventative care for their animals,” says Pedersen.
Tonja Ahijevych isn’t surprised that people are tightening their belts. Neither is she shocked that some people are forced to surrender their animals due to foreclosure. Ahijevych is a housing counseling coordinator for the Boulder County Housing Authority, and she’s seen her fair share of people who are overwhelmed with lost jobs, piling bills and looming foreclosures.
In fact, she says that, while she counsels people in a variety of areas, from budget and credit counseling to pre-purchase and reverse mortgage counseling, the bulk of what she’s seeing right now is foreclosure prevention.
“Foreclosures in Boulder County rose 41 percent from last year at this time,” she says.
And she adds that Longmont has been especially hard hit. So it’s not surprising that Longmont Humane Society is seeing such steady increases in animals coming in.
“Many folks have shared that they’re facing employment cutbacks. We’re seeing a lot of people with either reduced income or loss of income. That’s probably the number one reason why we’re seeing people go into default,” says Ahijevych.
Combined with the fact that, according to Pedersen, financial difficulties and moving are among the most common reasons for pets being surrendered, and the situation becomes clear.
“We’re hearing from people who say they’re losing their home, though they don’t always use the word ‘foreclosed,’ and they’re having to move somewhere — an apartment or in with family members where they can’t keep their pets,” says Evans. “We’ve definitely heard from people who’ve said, ‘I’ve lost my job’ and those dominoes start to fall.”
For Michelle, those dominoes are already dropping and she’s trying, however she can, to stop them before they reach her pets. “I’m trying to find places where I can live where I can keep as many of my pets as possible. It’s going to be really hard to rent a place where I can bring this many pets. The only reason I have this many pets is because I own my place and it’s a 3-bedroom house and there’s enough room for all of them. And I was working full time. I had enough money to take care of them,” says Michelle.
If it becomes inevitable that she will have to give up some of her pets, she hopes to find good homes for them, but the age and health status of many of her animals is likely to make that a difficult prospect. At some point, taking some of her pets to the humane society may become her only option.
Evans says that for people faced with that excruciating decision, bringing pets to an excellent progressive shelter like Longmont Humane Society or Boulder Valley Humane Society is a very responsible thing to do.
“Our feeling has always been that if somebody has really thought it through and if they’ve come to the decision that it’s the best thing for them to surrender their pet, they’re right. And this is the right place to come. It’s not our place to judge what situation they’re in. What we’ll do is we’ll make a commitment to them to give the best possible care to their animal,” he says.
“There are people who, for whatever reason, feel like they really can’t face that decision to bring them to the shelter, but trust me, that is easily the most compassionate thing you can do if you can’t find somebody else to care for them,” says Evans.
Pedersen advises people to call the humane society before you ever get to that point.
“We’ve got folks who’ll contact us and just check in with the information, just so they have it, so they feel better. And then they’ve got that contingency plan,” she says.
Often, at those earlier stages, humane societies can offer services and resources. And she’s not the only one who cautions people to be proactive if they are beginning to feel things getting tight.
“Early intervention is key,” says Ahijevych. “Certainly, we see clients who are a couple weeks out from their date of sale, but a lot of these options take several weeks or even a couple months to actually come to fruition, which would be well past their date of sale.”
Michelle agrees. Her advice to someone who may be facing foreclosure: “Don’t wait as long as I did to look into foreclosure prevention programs. As soon as someone senses that they’re in danger of not being able to make their mortgage payments, start seeking alternatives and just deal with it straight on.”
While she regrets waiting so long before seeking assistance, what she doesn’t regret is adopting the number of animals that she has.
“If I was in a similar situation, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I’m very happy to have all of them and to have given them the love and the care that I have. It’s just that it’s so overwhelming to think of the loss of all of these pets and what they might face. I want to find them the best situation. I mean, part of loving them means letting them go and finding the best situation for them and that, ultimately, their well being comes first, before what I want.”
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If you are in foreclosure, have missed a mortgage payment, or are just worried that you might not be able to make one in the future, resources are available. Boulder County Housing Authority, a HUD-approved agency, can help you prevent foreclosure. Early intervention is key, but counselors will work with individuals and families in any stage of foreclosure.
To make a free appointment with a housing counselor, call 1-877-601-HOPE (4673). If you are a resident of Boulder, you can call 720-564-2279. Or visit www.bouldercounty.org/cs/ho/counseling/appointment2.
If you are worried about your pet’s future, call your local humane society for information and advice. They can offer resources, tips and options. If you are faced with the difficult decision of surrendering your pet, first check with friends and family to see if they can help. If you are unable to find a loving home for your pet, the best thing you can do is call or take your pet to the humane society near you. Never leave your pet behind or drop them off to fend for themselves!
If you’d like to help by donating, volunteering or adopting a new family member, check your local humane society for opportunities.
Boulder Valley Humane Society
2323 55th St.
Boulder, CO 80301
Longmont Humane Society
9595 Nelson Rd. #G
Longmont, CO 80501
If you have to move due to foreclosure, financial difficulties or any other reason, the best-case scenario is to take your pet with you. But it can sometimes be difficult to find pet-friendly housing, especially in an already tight rental market. Boulder Valley Humane Society has compiled a convenient list of housing options in Boulder County that allow dogs, cats or both. To check it out, visit boulderhumane.org/hsbv/go.asp?mode=pfh.
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