As the recession deepens, it claims many more four-footed casualties

The Baltimore Sun

The dog scampered back and forth in the small room, true to its name. "I call her Frisky," said the man at the other end of the leash.

Typing into a computer, the intake employee at the Baltimore Animal Rescue & Care Shelter went through the litany of questions, from age (2 1/2 ) to breed (Doberman) to spayed (no), before getting to the question of why he was giving up the dog.

"I lost my job," he said.

As the economy goes to the dogs, the dogs - and the cats and the guinea pigs and the ferrets and seemingly every kind of other pet - are going to the pound. Shelters across the country are being deluged by the latest victims of the ever-expanding recession; BARCS estimates it has taken in a couple hundred more animals this year than last.

See Spot surrendered, when his out-of-work human can no longer afford to feed him, or his family has to move from their home to an apartment that doesn't allow pets.

"It's heartbreaking," said Jennifer Mead-Brause, BARCS executive director.

"They say they've tried everything, friends, famly, but no one else can take them. This is it."

Frisky's owner, who asked that his full name not be used, said he'd been out of work since January, when he was let go by Verizon.

"Forty pounds of food, every 20 days," Patrick said by way of explanation. "It's expensive."

Unable to find another job, he's thinking of getting training in another field, and possibly selling his house.

"The cable's going to go for sure, in January," he said. "I'm looking at the telephone, too."

They came in spurts on this particular Monday afternoon, bearing dogs and cats and sometimes sorrowful tales. One woman slipped in while her kids were still in school so that they wouldn't try to stop her from surrendering the dog that she brought home 10 months ago - after its owner, a co-worker, committed suicide. With four pets of their own, it just got to be too much, she said.

The pace picked up in late afternoon as people got out of work. A woman and her son dropped off a kitten they found in the neighborhood; they both have allergies, so they couldn't keep it, yet worried that it might not be able to protect itself from the local fauna - really big rats.

A couple came in with a big dog that the man had seen wandering near a job site he was working at. After an owner never materialized, he took him home, but a bit of an alpha-dog power struggle ensued with one of their existing pets. So the couple, the woman openly weeping, the man doing that throat-clearing, eye-rubbing thing, brought him to the shelter.

BARCS employees assured them that the dog had a great personality and would probably get adopted rather than euthanized. In the past, almost all the shelter animals indeed were euthanized, but now about half get adopted out.

"Except cats and pit bulls, everything else we're usually able to get to a rescue or adopt out," said Frank Branchini, who coordinates volunteers and events for BARCS. "Cats are really prolific."

Indeed, they're seemingly everywhere at the shelter, in the front office, in cages bearing signs like, "My name is Maddie, my owner could no longer afford me." (She was adopted the day I was there.) In the office of Debby Rahl, the animal programs manager, one cage housed seven kittens, adorable, but also a real live case for the absolute need for spaying and neutering.

To ease the crowding, BARCS even reduced its adoption fees for most animals for the last few weeks of 2008.

Shelters across the country are reporting similar upticks in drop-offs. And the shelters are being deluged with suddenly homeless pets at a time when they can least afford to care for them - as with other nonprofits, they are seeing donations dip as a result of the worsening economy.

Molly Corbett has seen the effects of the downturn up close - she works at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, where the occasional pet will turn up, dropped off by owners who perhaps think that the kind of people who work there would be softer marks.

"Sometimes they leave notes, 'Please take care of my snake,' " said Corbett, who works in the zoo's frog program. "We got a Greek tortoise once. I thought, the economy's got to be pretty bad to be dropping off a $200 tortoise."

On this day the week before Christmas, she was heading into work when she saw a box on the side of the driveway leading up to the zoo. Inside was a black cat with the white feet - it looks a little like Socks, Chelsea Clinton's White House pet. (Socks, who lives with President Bill Clinton's former secretary, Betty Currie, in Southern Maryland, was back in the news in December with media reports that the 19-year-old cat was suffering from terminal cancer.)

"It's our second cat in two weeks," Corbett said, shaking her head in amazement that people would give up their pets before the holiday. "I wish I could keep him, but I have six cats at home already."

So she brought him to BARCS. The cat wriggled in delight as she scratched his head and snuggled him in her arms, and they waited their turn at the drop-off counter. It came soon enough.

With one last hug, Corbett gave him up, saying softly, "You be good."

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