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Abandoned pets on rise in hard times

Shelters loaded with strays left by roads, in woods

Milton Animal League president Nancy Bersani with Anna, a German shepherd abandoned in Brockton. Anna was about to be taken to Milton Academy to visit students. Milton Animal League president Nancy Bersani with Anna, a German shepherd abandoned in Brockton. Anna was about to be taken to Milton Academy to visit students. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Elaine Cushman Carroll
Globe Correspondent / June 11, 2009
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The beagle mix puppy wiggled around Dawn Savery's legs in the large gravel and grass cage at the Lakeville Animal Shelter recently, blissfully unaware that he is part of a growing trend.

"You are a cute little one," Savery, who lives in Middleborough, said to the animal gnawing at her shoes. "I feel bad for you. Yes, I do."

The pup, which Savery later took home and named Toby, was one of two from the same litter that were found wandering by the side of the road in Freetown this spring. No one came forward to claim them, and local animal control officers believe the dogs are part of a growing number of pets being abandoned on roadsides, outside animal shelters, in the woods, and even in dwellings that the animals' owners have vacated.

Increasingly, the popular dumping grounds for no-longer-wanted dogs are relatively remote areas within short distances of large populations. Two of those places are the Freetown-Fall River State Forest and the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton and Canton, according to officials there.

"It's only a guess why they do it - I don't know why people think it's a pet store at the top of Blue Hills," Linda Kippenberger, Milton's animal control officer, said recently. "Some people have lost their homes and they don't have a place to be for themselves, never mind for their animals."

Officials say that while they understand some people have to give up their pets, abandoning domestic animals anywhere is irresponsible. Aside from putting the animals out to fend for themselves, it also leaves officials without medical records and other information about the pet that help hasten adoptions.

Kippenberger said some animals dropped off in the Blue Hills area make their way to nearby homes and are taken in by sympathetic residents. Other animals are far more difficult to capture once they've been out on their own for some time.

It took animal control officers two two-hour sessions of sitting in the woods recently to coax a scared female German shepherd to let them get close enough to catch her, said Kippenberger.

"When we finally got her, she was still so scared," she said, adding that the dog, which the shelter workers named Wendy, was later adopted.

Kippenberger said another abandoned dog, a young standard poodle, had been spotted numerous times by officers at the nearby State Police barracks before it was finally captured, its hair completely matted.

Those were the lucky ones, considering that domestic animals generally don't fare well in the wild.

Park rangers and hikers will often let local animal control officers know of dogs that are clearly strays. Most agencies and organizations that take in these animals will contact surrounding communities, post the animals' information on their websites, and often list them on national websites such as petfinder.org. (Milton also works with the Pets In Limbo Out There, or PILOT, program that helps adoption of selected animals from other area shelters.)

The situation is similar elsewhere. In Freetown during a five-week period just after Christmas, David Frates, the animal control officer for both Freetown and Lakeville, said he saw two dozen dogs, mostly German shepherds, running loose, apparently abandoned, near the state forest.

Although he was able to capture and eventually find homes for all of the dogs, Frates said he found it disturbing to see so many animals abandoned in the area. He said he thought the forest was used as a dumping ground because it is relatively isolated yet close to the cities of New Bedford and Fall River.

Freetown Selectman Lawrence N. Ashley said the town tried last year to cut back on funding for animal control because of budget constraints, but had to restore $8,000 as the number of animals turned in or abandoned continued to climb.

"In this economy, people are looking at everything - because something has to go. They are cutting the cable TV and getting rid of Johnny's pet," Ashley said.

MSPCA spokesman Brian Adams said there has been a definite shift toward people citing financial difficulties for turning in their pets. "It's a statewide, and I believe a nationwide, issue at this point," he said.

Adams said that at the MSPCA's Boston center, about 900 animals were surrendered for financial reasons last year, an increase of about 300 since 2007. He said he is seeing a continued increase so far this year in the number of people who cite financial difficulties as the reason for giving up their pets.

Adams said shelters often help people who want to surrender their pets find ways to keep them, such as helping them to overcome a pet's behavior issue. But if the owner cannot afford basic care for the animal for the long term, there often is nothing shelters can do to help.

"If the reason is financial, they might not be able to see a way out of that. It's hard to overcome," Adams said.

But abandoning a pet, even at the doors of a shelter, is far worse than coming in to turn it in, he said.

"It helps us out a great deal in finding a new home," Adams said, adding that the health history and specific information on the animal's likes and dislikes can be key to a quick adoption. He said people who leave animals behind when they move out of a house could be charged with animal cruelty.

The depressed economy has also placed a strain on some of the organizations that take in unwanted animals. A recent blow to the area was the announcement by the MSPCA that its Brockton center - Metro South Animal Care and Adoption Center - will close on Sept. 30 for financial reasons.

A grass-roots organization is now working with the MSPCA to take over operation of the center, said its spokesman, Chuck Givonetti, of Brockton.

"We're sort of putting the wings on the plane as we move down the runway. The timing is of the essence," said Givonetti, adding that the group will need to raise about $200,000 a year to operate the shelter, which it wants to rename the Animal Protection Center of Southeastern Massachusetts.

Kim Heise, manager of the Brockton shelter and a member of the new group hoping to take it over, said the facility handles about 3,800 animals a year and draws from about 55 area communities. It takes in all pets that are dropped off and also accepts animals turned in by area animal control officers.

Local officials say that if the Brockton center closes, it is likely there will be more abandonments. Canton's interim animal control officer, Paul Bastable, for one, said losing the shelter would be drastic. He said he has seen a large jump in cats being abandoned at his town's shelter and an increase in requests for dog food and for low-cost spaying and neutering.

"I'm getting used to coming around the corner in the morning and seeing cats left there in a carrier," he said.

He said people who abandon pets "may think they are going to get into trouble" if they turn them in to a shelter. "Sometimes they don't want to admit that they weren't taking proper care of this animal," he said. "A lot of people think there is a fee."

But while some shelters charge a small fee, many of them, including the MSPCA, will only ask for a donation and not require it, officials said. Shelters also have varying policies on whether and when they euthanize animals.

Information on local animal shelters can be found at town websites or at animalshelters.org. The group seeking to take over the Brockton MSPCA shelter can be reached at info@apcsm.org.

Elaine Cushman Carroll can be reached at elaine_carroll@msn.com.