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Man's best friends left homeless as owners battle with recession

Adopting from the animal shelter is an economic value, manager Rochelle Hamp points out, as opposed to a "free to a good home" pet. Animals are matched with families based on temperament and needs. (Photos by Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)1 / 2
Darby has found a new home with shelter manager Rochelle Hamp, above. The beagle-Bichon Frisé mix was dropped off at the shelter with litter mates, the owner unable to care for the dogs.2 / 2

The recessionary economy is impacting pets. As people face home foreclosure and loss of jobs, man's best friend is considered an expendable luxury.

In a rising number of incidences, dogs and cats are abandoned - homeless, helpless and confused.

The calls to the Headwaters Animal Shelter from pet owners wishing to surrender animals are up an estimated 30 percent, assistant manager Diane Nash said.

But a waiting period for dog surrender can range from a week to a month, Nash said. "It varies." And a cat owner may be on a three-month waiting list.

The sign on the animal shelter door sums it up: "If you are here to surrender an animal and have not pre-arranged it with us, you will likely be turned away."

"People wait until the last minute," Nash said, "assuming we'll take" their pet.

But the shelter appraises situations on a case-by-case basis, shelter manager Rochelle Hamp said. "We triage as to urgency."

She held an example on her lap, Darby.

Five, 5-month-old Beagle-Bichon mix pups and their "parents" arrived recently. "The owner had lost her job and couldn't afford to feed herself, let alone dogs," Hamp said.

The dogs, "filthy, matted and skinny" underwent a "makeover" next door at Angie's Groom and Board to ready the friendly fellows for adoption.

"With the economy nowadays, people are actually leaving their pets in homes that are foreclosed or rented and walking away," shelter volunteer and board member Lyn Meyers said. "People move and leave an animal with a neighbor or friend, promising to return. But they don't come back."

Chilly, a Basenji, is an example. Meyers recently transported him to Minneapolis where he boarded an Alaskan Airlines flight, bound for a British Columbia home.

The animal shelter is licensed to hold 53 dogs and 100 cats. "But 50 percent of that number is ideal," Hamp said, basing the figure on finances, staffing and rates of adoption.

"People think they're being a Good Samaritan, a hero when they pick up an abandoned dog," Nash said.

But those heroes will likely find themselves with a house-mate. "All the shelters are full," Nash said. "We won't put our dogs at risk" by overcrowding. And the shelter does not euthanize for space.

The person may be offered food for the animal, if needed, but the dog or cat will be placed on a waiting list.

The Headwaters Animal Shelter prides itself on a low disease rate, due to comprehensive intake tests for Lyme's disease and heartworm, vaccinations and de-worming, all under a veterinarian's supervision.

Dogs often arrive from Wadena and Cass counties. A mom and pup having made an unfortunate acquaintance with a porcupine in the county to the east is an example.

'Happy tails'

Adoption numbers have been healthy of late, which Hamp attributes to the shelter's user-friendly Web site and the purebred dogs looking for new homes, three standard poodles and a pug, for example.

"We don't discriminate," she said of "an old dog or a pit bull."

A "success story," slept at her feet. A standard poodle, Atlas, arrived last fall after he was found running. Shelter staff spent six hours removing ticks from the matted, anemic, underweight fellow.

Hamp said the "socially retarded, introverted" dog had likely been raised in a breeding facility without "hands on" attention.

Now, after considerable one-on-one time with his mistress, Hamp, he's a sociable colleague, the poster dog for "happy tails" rescue stories.

The animal shelter recently began collaboration with the Headwaters Intervention Center.

Victims of domestic abuse may be reluctant to flee if a dog is in the home, fearing for its safety, Hamp explained. The Headwaters Animal Shelter will provide emergency sanctuary for up to a week for pet owners enrolled at the intervention center.

A community effort

The shelter is fiscally solvent, thanks in large part to founding benefactors Al and the late Theda Slagle, who donated funds for the building construction.

"We're lean with staff," Hamp said of three fulltime employees. "We squeeze pennies and hug puppies."

Last year, the organization had to borrow funds, "but so far, we're holding our own" - thanks in large part to ongoing fundraisers, four held before Valentine's Day this year.

Adoption fees are $115 for a medium to large dog, $130 for a small canine and $85 for cats, which cover medical expenses.

Adopting from the animal shelter is an economic value, as opposed to the "free to a good home" animal, Hamp pointed out.

Animals departing have been spayed or neutered, tested, vaccinated, hold a month's "pet insurance," have an imbedded microchip and present their new owner with a what-to-expect training DVD.

And, similar to a dating Web site, shelter staff members observe the animal's temperament and disposition to determine the best "eHarmony" home setting.

"We do great things at our shelter, but we can't save all the dogs and cats that are being abandoned in our area," Meyers said. "This is a community effort. We need help financially to care for the animals that come through our doors, not only for their basic needs but to spay and neuter each one.

"We need more people to open their hearts and homes and adopt one of our cats and dogs - so we have more room at the shelter for the next unwanted pet."

Meyers urges pet owners to spay and neuter their animals, to abate "the endless cycle of abandoned dogs and cats out there."

For more information on adoption or volunteer opportunities - especially for fundraising - contact the shelter at 237-7100. The shelter is located at 901 Western Ave. South.