By Connie Schultz
Starting around 2008, too many calls to Parma Animal Shelter in the Cleveland area began with something like this:
"I've lost my home, and I can't take my cat."
"The apartment I'm moving into won't let me keep my dog."
"I can't afford the food ... the vet ... the monthly pet fee my landlord charges."
"It's heartbreaking," volunteer Carol Wessel says. "They don't want to use the word eviction, but we know that is often what they mean."
Interviews with a half-dozen other shelters and rescue operations in the Cleveland area revealed the same sad scenario: As the unemployment -- and underemployment -- crisis continues, more family pets, many of them beloved, are ending up homeless.
Jen D'Aurelio, executive director of Paws and Prayers rescue in Akron, Ohio, says her organization has seen an uptick in big dogs.
"There've been a ton of foreclosures, and a lot of apartment buildings won't allow dogs over 40 pounds," she says. "Maltese or Yorkies, they're little enough. Pit bulls, boxers, Labs, any dog over 40 pounds -- those are the dogs we're seeing a lot more often."
Seven years ago, Paws and Prayers found homes for 200 animals. Now it's averaging 2,000 adoptions a year. (Our family adopted a puppy from Paws and Prayers in 2011.)
Almost always, D'Aurelio says, the families who give up pets are distraught at the time of surrender.
"They think they can handle it up to the minute they have to leave. You can tell that some of the families were hoping that something miraculous would happen in their lives and everything would be all right, that they could still afford to keep their pets. Then it doesn't."
She tries, whenever possible, to help them keep their pets. "I'll ask, 'Is this because you got laid off? Is this just about the food? Because I can give you a food coupon for two months.'"
Sometimes that help makes the difference. Too often, though, it's not enough, and families make the hard decision to give up their cats and dogs.
D'Aurelio says she doesn't judge them. "You have to respect that they're willing to give their pets away to a better home."
Sometimes families who are forced out of their homes leave their pets behind.
Amy Beichler -- director of the Public Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, of Ohio -- says she saw a dramatic increase in abandoned pets starting in 2008.
"It was devastating, the amount of dogs boarded up in foreclosed homes. Some families leave buckets of water and threw dog food around the floor, but many of these dogs are skeletal by the time someone calls us."
When I ask for a typical example, she tells the story of a female pit bull trapped in a boarded-up home in a Cleveland neighborhood bludgeoned by the foreclosure crisis.
"I got the call on Sunday. A neighbor had seen the dog on the second-floor porch." Beichler broke through a window, climbed the stairs and found the dog cowering in a corner.
"She was beautiful, and she was scared. I could tell she'd recently had puppies, because she had breasts to the floor. I can only guess that someone bred her and left her."
The dog "went to a lovely family," she says, but she was lucky.
"Here's the biggest thing," Beichler says. "The hardest thing: These people who absolutely love their pets, they wait too long. If they wait until the last minute, it's almost impossible to find room anywhere. The rescues fill up. The shelters fill up. It rips my heart out to see families so desperate."
And the children lose yet another piece of their increasingly fragile lives.
"The family dog or the family cat, the pet they love, is about to be displaced, and they're never going to know what happened to them," Beichler says. "They're not going to meet the family that will take good care of that pet. They're never going to have the chance to be in touch to know they're OK."
The message to those children: Pets are disposable.
On and on it goes, this despair with no bottom in sight.